June 29, 2012
I never participated in anything football-related. I attempted to understand it; went to the extent of reading an entire book on the basis of football’s place in popular culture and the athletic world. The facts were there. There was evidence, yet I still didn't feel it.
And then I moved to Germany. My second summer in the south of Deutschland hosted the UEFA Euro 2012 championships. I knew it was a big event when my little Heidelberg was ornamented with all things black, red and yellow. Boys started appearing in class in their white or green jerseys. But I only realized its magnitude when my Boston residing German/Persian friend came rushing home to Heidelberg for the games.
Growing up in a family where emotions were nurtured and members would get teary-eyed over scenes from “A Separation” allowed me to develop a certain scope of excitement towards the subtlest of things. I did not encounter “Culture Shock: Germany” on a conscious level up until a good nine months into my stay. Only recently had I started criticising the German lack of emotions and inability to show those few and far between ones that they had. To stay fair, I only said it to their faces. No backbiting was done. I would get comments on how “we do have emotions, it just takes a while to show them” or one person went as far as saying “We just don’t know how to express our emotions”. My burst of laughter was not artificial. For what is the use of emotions if you cannot share?
The first game Germany played was against Portugal. I spent the sunny Saturday in Mannheim with Kathrin, a Luxembourgish dentist with a heart of gold and a face of a baby's, shopping for summer clothes. The shopping trip turned out to be smooth on the credit cards, with me coming home with nothing but a polka-dotted dress and a bathing suit and Kathrin stacking up on her German team decorations, face paint and earrings after realising that this year’s green German jersey was out of stock. I had accepted an invitation to a football viewing at a friend’s place preceded by a grilling event on their balcony for two reasons; good meat barbequed and washed down with good beer (after all the Germans know their sausage and their beer), and to observe the extent of exhilaration the Germans would reveal throughout the game. The latter slightly overshadowing the former, yet constantly reminding myself that I am here to study different cultures, and no opportunity should be taken for granted. We drove back to Heidelberg in time to join the crew, bearing beer and meat scraped from the balding shelves of REWE hinting the popularity of such products on a sunny football afternoon. We were welcomed by a 6-foot-something bubbly German, in an ordinary green T-Shirt (he may have also been a victim of the lack of green jerseys in stores this year) and German flag suspenders holding up his shorts (yes, regular shorts not stereotypical Lederhosen). The atmosphere was nothing I had experienced before in Germany. I am uncertain whether it was owing to the excitement before the game or due to the weather or simply because they were funny and happy people. Besides me and Kathrin, there was one other non-German (ethnologically); a Persian girl, raised in Cologne, home to the many Iranians of Germany. Her enthusiasm for the game was unparalleled. If I hadn’t witnessed what was to come afterwards I would’ve concluded that it was due to her Persian roots. The game was watched in a living room not so big, with people squeezing in a couch or scattering on the floor being cautious not to block anyone’s view. Snacks and beer were passed around along with laughter. Germany lost many opportunities, frustrating the viewers in both stadiums; the one in Kiev and the mini one in the heart of Heidelberg’s Altstadt where we were congested in. With Germany’s first and only goal the frustration exploded into shrieks, high fives, and the clinking of beer bottle bottoms. The game ended, yet the party did not. Music blared from speakers and they danced; something rare in house parties. The excitement had glorified into passion. And I was there to behold it.
I had promised Kathrin to watch all of Germany’s matches with her. Yet I did not manage to keep that promise and only stayed loyal to a couple more games. The rest were either at home while talking to my childhood friend Samuel who was supporting the rival team just to keep the game interesting, or at the university Mensa grounds, where people displayed more concentration on what was happening on the wide screen installed in Marstall than any discussion in any class. The passion was adrenaline-charged, something you’d expect from a post-workout session in the gym. With the Germans winning every game, my expectations from the supporting spectators got higher. It was only after the Greeks’ defeat that I found how different these supporters were from the hooligans I had seen and feared while growing up in the decently safe city of Bristol. Drunk and happy, that’s all they were. No pestering, no perilous acts of violence. Nevertheless the police, those oh-so-lush muscular German men, kept a watchful eye on the crowds parading through Hauptsrasse towards Bismarckplatz. Some of those Polizei had spiced up their uniforms by donning on red, black and yellow leis, making me smile at their stern looks accompanied by enthusiasm. The bus driver pulled out all the stops and honked as much as his hands and our ears allowed him to. The event could be compared to the anticipation and confidence I saw on the streets of Tehran before the 2009 elections, with people dressed in fern green, with green paint on their faces and green fingers “V”-ing in the crowd advertising hope for change.
Last night the Germans lost to the Italians, and not to penalties, in the regular 90 minute period. In the previous days my Facebook and Twitter homepages had been packed with Germans jokingly bullying the Italians into accepting defeat. Well that didn’t happen, proving once again how football can be unpredictable, contributing to its magnificence. Staying home to study for a presentation on “Culturally Taboo Slips of the Tongue” due the next morning, I followed the game from my bed on my television that had been given to me by a friend insisting that it would help improve my passive knowledge of the German language. I’m sure it would have if I had watched anything other than CNN. With my parents on Skype watching the game, and my grandmother on board cheering for Germany, I felt the international appeal of this game. After all, my mother was quite the footballer back in the day. The final blow in the referee’s whistle and my building, occupied mainly by Italian Mathematics or Biology PhD candidates, detonating in cheers and Italian songs indicated the end of the game. Germany was out.
Upon receiving a text from my friend describing her football junkie boyfriend as “He is destroyed” immediately after the game, I realized it was bad. “They all are”, I assumed she was talking about the rest of the football groupies witnessing Germany’s final defeat. Knowing her, I knew she was not exaggerating. This was a serious mourning situation. I replied with a simple “Then why am I smiling?”
“You’re evil” she replied. Her big fluffy heart impeding her from sticking to that remark, “But I still like you”.
My presentation went smoothly. Talking about how word pairs such “Bunt Calls” can be Spoonerised into socially taboo expressions did little to brighten up the temperament. Their beloved team had been cut out. The Germans once again showed emotion; desolation…
Samuel once told me that football was treated almost like a religion in some parts of the world. My German football addict friend upon hearing that concurred to associate it with Germany. I must agree. In the last three weeks, the Germans have acted as Mormons to this game (no offence to the football fans), living and breathing everything football-related (or soccer as those who have spent their exchange semester in the States call it). From flags in my gynaecologist’s practice to jerseys worn by my 60-year-old professor in class; their harmless celebrations and support prove once again how organized and civilized this nation is. Their reserved methods of expressing emotions of ecstasy and despondency will never fail to fascinate me.
Football is big here, and it’s not part of the culture. It is the culture.