January 31, 2015 The fact that I have made it an entire year and a half in Germany without ever having seen a live soccer match is miraculous in and of itself. That’s hard to do, in a country as Fußball-crazed as this one.
Still, the sport’s been on the periphery during my entire stay. I arrived in Germany during the World Cup, and when Germany beat Argentina 1:0 I heard the cheering and the fireworks and the air horns even from my apartment up the mountain outside of the city. Now, here in Mainz, I know all the songs associated with the local team (MAINZ NULL-FÜÜÜÜÜNF!!!) because they are sung joyfully and drunkenly outside my window in the Altstadt after every. single. dang. game. And I’ve played approximately 1,000 games of Kicker (foosball) with the little boy I babysit, and lost approximately 999 of them. There’s Fußball in the blood over here, I think.
But last Friday night I found myself, along with 34,000 joyful Mainzers, pre-gaming at the local Irish Pub and then squeezing into busses and making the freezing treck across a field to the local stadium. We bought the requisite beer (or, in my case, mulled wine, because it is DANG COLD in Germany) and Bratwurst and climbed the steps to the very top of the cheap seats to stand in extremely close quarters with enthused strangers. And then the game began.
It was an experience, I tell you.
First, the fans. As my sports-obsessed little brother will tell you, European/German soccer fans have a different reputation than those in America–crazier, more devoted, with whole swaths of identity built up around The Team, The Game. Printed on our tickets were the words, “No entrance in the colors of the opposing team.” Yep. You don’t want to start a riot by wearing anything other than red and white. And during the game, you don’t just stand or sit quietly and observe. You discuss the happenings heatedly with your neighbor, and when you aren’t doing that, you wave your red-and-white scarf in the air and sing your head off. I don’t know how many songs and chants are associated with the Mainz 0-5ers, but they all sound pretty impressive when sung by a 35,000-voice choir. The sheer love and devotion in the air was palpable.
Afterwards, everyone squeezed into the busses again for the ride back to the city, where the real party was about to begin. With which I, in my apartment in the Altstadt, was already fully familiar.
In the end, though, soccer in Germany has to do with much more than just sheer devotion to a particular team: Fußball is the German version of patriotism. Here, it’s not yet OK to say, “I’m proud of my country,” but it is absolutely OK to say, “I’m proud of our team.” In fact, if you can’t say that, you are perhaps just a little bit suspicious.
But that’s not much of a problem, because pretty much everyone can. Fußball in Germany isn’t just entertainment for the masses; it’s a vital part of country and identity. The World Cup season is the only time when it is acceptable to fly the German flag, for instance–and they are flown, from balconies and car windows and garden fences, only to be taken down after the finale and packed away until next time. It’s a feeling of genuine pride and belonging that transcends all social class and standing: even the staidest of my literature professors at the university has a fangirl moment in his seminar the day after a big victory.
And on Friday, anyway, when the Mainz 0-5ers scored the only goal of the evening there was enough joy and revelry in the air to make one think the Berlin wall was coming down again. Scarves were thrown, songs were sung, and strangers were kissed.
It was a good night.