Stories Travel

We’re going to Berlin!

Written by Sven Eberlein
On this 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall I thought I’d re-post an essay I wrote about the extraordinary cultural transformation that took place in Germany during World Cup 2006. It’s a look at the social, political, and spiritual dimensions of soccer, the almost mythical role this sport plays across the globe, and how it ultimately led me, a native German turned U.S. citizen, back to Berlin. It’s a diary about healing the ghosts of the past and the realization that any wall can crumble, no matter how tall or wide, once it has lost its power over our hearts

I’m what people would call a product of twenty-two years of San Francisco schooling: a gay-friendly musician who shops at farmers markets and prays at the altar of composting. I read Vonnegut, Chomsky, Pollan and Berry, play in a rock band, practice astrology and work for organizations with names like Ecocity Builders. In short, I am the last person my friends call when they have extra tickets to a baseball game.

worldcup_frankfurt1.jpgHowever, behind the granola curtain lurks an undeniable reality: I am German. Yes, born and raised, 100 percent beer and pretzels. What this means, of course, is that I love soccer. Soccer, or — let’s call it by its name — football, is in my bones. Always has been. From childhood memories of retrieving stray balls from the neighbor’s flower bed to my one-way ticket to the U.S. on a soccer scholarship, the chase after this little patchwork of leather has been so much more than a past-time; it has guided me through life like an invisible friend who not only offers a looking glass into a common past but whose evolution continues to provide inspiration as well as self-reflection. To quote myself as a nine-year-old who had just completed his first full season with a soccer club, “Mom, without football I just couldn’t live.”

In 2000, as soon as it became clear that World Cup ‘06 would be held in Germany, I booked the trip. That is, in my head I did. In January of 2006, when the time had finally come to hunt for game tickets and cheap airfare, I confessed the clandestine plan to Deb, my partner of one and a half years. Swayed by my visions of a better world through soccer, and, being a trooper, she immediately warmed to the idea of joining me in Europe with the primary objective of catching as many games in as many locations as possible.

Summer arrived quickly and it was time to tune out the depressing news from Iraq and focus on positive human activities. And since both the American and Iranian teams had qualified there was hope that their countries’ leaders would perhaps just tone it down for a month. We had decided to spend the first week of World Cup in San Francisco to take in the Latino football fever in our Mission District neighborhood before joining the action in Alemania.

June 9
Our living room, Mission District, SF
Germany – Costa Rica, opening match

Needless to say, I could not bear to watch this game outside the sanctity of my own home. Too much doubt had been sown in the media about this German team and its capacity to make it to the second round, not to mention winning the Cup. Since I would be the only one in my neighborhood rooting for Germany I wanted to be alone in case the unthinkable happened. But thank heavens for Telemundo TV and Mexican sports commentators. Before the first whistle of the game was blown, their unbridled joy and excitement had already eased the tension. Who cares about winning when the whole world is poised for a party? Of course, this didn’t keep me from jumping off the couch and dancing like a 6-year-old when German defender Phillip Lahm scored the first goal four minutes into the game in what would end up a rousing 4:2 win. Deb looked at me in utter amazement. My cover as intellectual non-jock had been blown.

June 11
El Farolito Sports Bar, Mission District, SF
Mexico – Iran

elfarolitoWhen the proprietor opened the door at 8.30am, a flock of loyal fans filed into the bar. Before the game even started I was chatting with Manuel from Guatemala and his friend José from El Salvador. Neither of their teams had qualified for the tournament, but I could sense a Latino pride that made their hearts beat for the big brother to the north. When Omar Bravo scored the go-ahead goal for heavily favored Mexico we had just changed the subject from Hugo Chavez’ chances of reforming South America to Nestor Kirchner’s accomplishments with the ever so fragile Argentinean economy.

After Yahya Golmohammadi tied it for Iran, Manuel poured forth with his doubts about the land reforms in Guatemala. His parents, sixth-generation corn farmers, could hardly keep themselves afloat. Having to compete with subsidized corn from the U.S., the only reason they could afford to retire on their small plot of land was because of the monthly envelope containing their son’s dollars. Manuel, who held a pretty steady gig as a house painter, felt it his duty to spare his parents the fate of so many of their friends and neighbors who had to abandon their land to look for work in overcrowded Guatemala City or Antigua.

As the game went into the second half with the score still tied, the mood got quieter, though never desperate. Then, seventy-six minutes into the game, it was once again Omar Bravo who brought relief to us all. Another three minutes later Antonio Zinha topped it off with another goal, kicking off a day of honking and flag waving in the streets of San Francisco.

June 17
Downtown Kaiserslautern, Germany
Italy – USA

My parents picked me up from the Frankfurt airport in the afternoon. (Deb wouldn’t arrive in Germany for another two weeks). Without tickets, but giddy and unwilling to heed my jet-lag, we drove to the smallest World Cup city of Kaiserslautern where the U.S. team was to take on Italy that night. There are several large U.S. Army barracks in what they call K-Town, and it showed the minute we drove into town. Hanging from windows and balconies everywhere were the Stars and Stripes, often intertwined with Italian and German flags, giving this medieval town of 100,000 inhabitants the appearance of a United Nations convention.

We parked the car and walked to Stiftsplatz, the main town square, where giant screens had been set up as a public service to thousands of ticketless soccer fans. To foster cross-cultural understanding and invite fans to share their excitement, these viewing areas had sprung up in cities and towns across Germany. That night, however, not even Stiftsplatz could contain the onslaught of people. By the time we got there, it was filled to capacity.

Getting around the narrow alleys to find alternate screens was like swimming in molasses. We longingly peeked through open apartment windows and shuffled past crowded pub entries to catch snippets of the game on obstructed television sets. Italy’s go-ahead goal sent a surge through the wandering mass, erupting into climactic shock waves only moments later when Cristian Zaccardo put the ball in his own goal to tie it for the U.S.

We finally found a standing-room only wine garden (K-Town and surroundings in the Rhineland Palatinate region are known for their wines) to watch the dramatic second half. Three red card ejections and 45 minutes later, the referee finally blew the whistle to end the game. As if all the frustration of constantly having to answer for your government’s policies had suddenly been popped like a balloon, the American fans began to sing, scream and dance. Drunken with national pride and German beer, they celebrated their small victory into the wee hours. That night, after the most captivating game of the tournament until that point, none of the Italians and Germans held it against them — if only their country’s leaders could find such beauty in a draw.

June 20
FIFA World Cup Stadium (aka Fritz Walter Stadium), Kaiserslautern
Paraguay – Trinidad & Tobago

When I was a kid, stadiums were named after rivers, geographic regions, or people who had made social contributions to the respective team’s hometown. It was a time when the meaning of World Cup was simple: The best football teams from around the world were invited by a host nation to kick a ball into the opponent’s net until the last remaining team got to hoist a little cylindrical trophy. In short, football was just football, and FIFA ranked in significance right up there with the National Wood Flooring Association.

When my mom, stepfather, brother and I arrived at Fritz Walter…I mean…FIFA World Cup Stadium to attend the only game we had been able to score tickets for, it quickly became clear that we were being ushered into a brave new FIFA world. Upon entry into the fortified gates of FIFAland we were funneled through licensed merchandise stands and Budweiser-only beer booths. The only thing reminding us that we were actually in the same town that had served us Bischoff Bier and Leberknoedel mit Weinsauerkraut only three days earlier was the stadium announcer’s repeated and obviously choreographed Welcome to FIFA World Cup host city KAISERSLAUTERN!!

worldcup_trinis_bysven.jpgFrom the moment we took our seats we were barraged with mega decibel jingles. Multiple video screens were giving us detailed instructions as to who and what to pay attention to, and when and where. Like a frozen dinner, this experience had been neatly packaged for easy and frequent consumption. And yet, thriving in the compost heaps of McFIFA were the connections and friendships between the Soca Warriors, the singing and dancing fans of Trinidad & Tobago, the smallest nation to ever have qualified for the tournament, and the Germans. To have 30,000 Germans dress up in Caribbean red shirts and chant “Trinidad, Trinidad,” points to a deeper cultural connection. Despite the Soca Warriors’ eventual 2:0 loss that night, the Germans and Trinis made a lasting impact on each other.

June 22
Downtown Stuttgart
Croatia – Australia

The tournament had advanced to the last group games and most match-ups were now do or die. As my hometown Stuttgart was playing host to Australia and Croatia in the evening game, I knew there were going to be a lot of Croats downtown. Having grown up with many children of guest workers who came to Germany after World War II, I had a feeling that there would be a disproportionate number of Croats, but little did I know that thousands of Aussies had left winter behind to cheer on their underdog squad.

worldcup_stuttgart.jpgWhen I got off the tram around 2pm the mayhem was in full swing. Grown men were singing folk songs out of tune and in languages I couldn’t decipher. Pregnant women were flaunting bellies painted with soccer ball checkers. On Schlossplatz, the old castle square, a group of Aussies dressed as kangaroos were bouncing across the cobblestone. The beer was showing its effects; by the time I had worked my way to the gigantic screen right in front of the castle to watch the afternoon game between Italy and Czech Republic, the honking, hollering and whistling had crescendoed to symphonic levels.

The Squadra Azzurra beat the Czechs to qualify for the second round, which sent thousands of Italians into frenzy. Not to be outdone, Croats and Australians cranked their party into high gear while heading for the stadium. I journeyed back for a mellow evening at my friend’s garden in the suburbs. That night we heard the Aussies singing into the wee hours from ten kilometers away, celebrating the Socceroo’s last minute goal that advanced them into the second round for the first time in the nation’s history.

June 30
Frankfurt airport
Germany – Argentina

When Germany beat Sweden 2:0 in the second round, two fates were sealed. One, a previously skeptical national psyche was catapulted into a new and unknown sphere of levity, and two, Deb and I were destined to watch the quarterfinal between Germany and Argentina, the most important event in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the Frankfurt airport, due to her flight’s scheduled arrival thirty minutes before kick-off.

worldcupairportIf the German flags hanging from every balcony, car window, and store front weren’t enough of an indication that the country was undergoing a historical transformation, the young team’s refreshing playing style and ensuing four-game winning streak launched the nation into a new orbit. The very same black, red, and gold stripes, whose mere presence had left a vile taste in my mouth as a teenager, were now triggering a new, more refined set of responses. Here I was, standing before my people who in the course of sixty years had evolved from tank makers to solar energy consultants, feeling at ease. The nation that had been hell-bent on starting wars was now using their god-given gift to organize the planet’s biggest multicultural party. Riding this wave of brotherly love, we were jazzed to beat Argentina.

A short train ride from Stuttgart, I arrived at the Frankfurt airport in time to meet Deb at the gate. We hurried through the terminal, and, as I had suspected we would, found a viewing area equipped with big screens and a beer booth. We got there right after kick-off, to standing room only. Safe for the commentator’s voice, the airport was as quiet as a church, as if the whole country had ground to a halt.

scoreAfter a scoreless first half, we were in for a rude awakening when Ayala scored for Argentina only four minutes into the second half. It was the first time the German team had fallen behind in the tournament, and the moans and groans in the airport crowd hinted at a dwindling faith in the team’s good fortunes. In the 80th minute, Polish born striker Miroslav Klose’s header into the top left corner of the Argentine goal lifted us all off the ground. In a matter of a split second, eerie silence erupted into a thunderous wave of screams, outstretched arms, and flying objects that quickly rippled into the international terminal.

Regardless of the outcome of the game and the tournament, this goal opened a door through which there was no return ticket. In one final push, a nation incarcerated in the dark and dank vaults of incurable angst, chronic pessimism, and irredeemable guilt was now riding this team’s carefree spirit for good. If eleven football players could dispel the image of the boring, mechanical German and defy all odds to come back against a seemingly invincible opponent, then certainly we the people, the descendants of Mozart, Rilke, and Goethe, could trust in our own creative powers to recover our generation’s most oppressed treasure: our heart.

The eventual win in penalty kicks was all icing. Deb got to see my stoic compatriots jump in the air four more times, showing displays of affection that had been unheard of in such latitudes up until then. Back in Stuttgart, we were greeted by face-painted, flag-clad mobs, arm in arm, dancing on a sea of broken beer bottles, chanting their irreverent new anthem: “Berlin, Berlin, wir fahren nach Berlin,” meaning “We’re going to Berlin.”

July 9
Italy vs. France, final

When Deb and I decided to go to Berlin for the final we had no idea that the game itself would be all but an afterthought. In a way, the Germans’ last minute overtime defeat in the semifinals at the hands of a relentless yet uninspiring Italian squad felt like divine interference, a final exam administered to my people, testing us on whether the displays of universal goodwill had been authentic or just emotional gravy spilling over from a winning train. If any city was going to be the barometer of a new “Germanness,” it would have to be Berlin. Divided and walled-in after the war, Berlin had not only been the symbol of Germany’s image to the world, but also a mirror of its internal state of mind throughout its illustrious past and into the present. Once again, Berlin, one of the cultural hubs of Europe, had been chosen to host the world. However, unlike the 1936 Summer Olympics, the 2006 World Cup final promised to be a healing force in an otherwise divided world. And there I was, with my Jewish girlfriend, right in the middle of it.

worldcup_berlin.jpgThe day of the final, after Germany had beaten Portugal to take third place the previous night, Deb and I took a stroll near the Brandenburg Gate. Swallowed by a stream of football fans headed to the infamous fan mile, Germany’s largest public viewing area, we got swept up in the euphoria of seeing our national heroes at their victory, or rather third place parade. The skeptical look on Deb’s face signaled that she had seen enough big crowds, a sentiment I tacitly shared after a month of non-stop football mania. We veered into an empty side street that let out to a vast landscape of charcoal colored slabs. Rising before us like a labyrinth, the Holocaust Memorial’s undulating field of rectangular blocks beckoned like a civilization within a civilization.

At the far side of the memorial, where a row of shorter steles gave the appearance of a ramped entryway, two young men were sitting on one of the blocks. Wearing black, red, and gold hats and scarves, they were enjoying a leisurely morning smoke when approached by a balding gentleman.

“This is an insult to history,” he said with a heavy French accent. “You call this affront to the senses a memorial? How would you like it if I sit on your grave?”

Caught off-guard, the two Germans glanced at each other. After a brief moment, one of them looked up and said, “Maybe the dead like the close contact with the living. We are very comfortable here, so why shouldn’t they be?”

“Ah non, monsieur, this is not the way to honor the victims of genocide,” the Frenchman said. “Children are climbing on the ashes of injustice like a playground or something.”

“But why is it so bad to play? We can’t change what happened, but we can change how we want to behave today. If we can play today, then everybody will play tomorrow.”

The three of them went on to discuss the matter while Deb and I wandered through the memorial. This was the game we had come to Berlin for.



photos by Debra Baida & Sven Eberlein

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Sven Eberlein

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