It is a perfect Northern European midsummer’s evening, the sky a delicate swirl of gentle pastels and the soft air just cool enough for a cardigan: we have our window open. Then, quite suddenly, outside a tremendous roar erupts. Men, women and children let out shouts and whoops of joy which ring in the street below. To us, inside, the noises are not so surprising, for we too are watching football (soccer). A German striker has just pounded the ball into the back of the opposition’s net. A goal! Across the city, fireworks pop and crack in the dusky sky.
In our street at least three cafes have erected large screens on the pavement for the occasion of the European Cup – and this is not unusual. Throughout Berlin, and indeed Germany, these screens (called ‘public viewings’) have become the focus for large crowds – from dozens to the hundreds of thousands, depending on the venue – to gather round and share the tribulations and elations of their fellow countrymen in each Germany match.
The buzzing atmosphere is inclusive, and strikingly euphoric – possibly nowhere more so than at the largest of these public viewings, the Berlin Fanmeile (Fan mile), which stretches through the heart of Berlin from the Brandenburg Gate to the Siegesäule. Along here – the Strasse des 17. Juni – which simply drips with poignant reminders of German history, a black, red and gold party of nearly half a millions revellers (interestingly more women than men) gasp, sigh and cheer together around seven gigantic screens. In the Hauptstadt (capital city) football has become the latest reason to party; it is more like a music festival or mass rave than a game of two halves, 22 men, and 90 minutes.
This overtly joyous, communal football scene is one I only know from Germany, though I suppose if you grow up watching football in Brazil, where most fans probably don’t have their own tellies, there must be similar sights. Cliché or not, we English tend to go to the pub to watch football – another pub(lic) viewing of sorts, but not nearly so family-friendly. And then people (well, men mostly) can get a bit rowdy (or aggressive in plainer words) having been in the pub for a while, or at least shout rather nastily at anyone who might be suspected of supporting the other side. Not so in Germany, where anyone is welcome at the football party so long as they don’t make any trouble themselves.
Such national euphoria on the occasion of a football competition has not always been the case in Germany, so says my football-fanatic German husband. He dates the broadening popularity of the sport and particularly of the national team to the appointment of the legendary footballer, Jürgen Klinsmann, as team coach in 2004. As I understand it (please excuse my lack of expertise), Klinsmann dramatically reinvigorated German football, bringing an elegance and a certain hunger to the national game. And he did so with much (but not yet quite enough) success. Now coached by the immensely popular Joachin Löw, Germany are still to win a major competition, despite being world-renowned for their very lovely football.
But it was when this new approach and its score lines were combined with Germany hosting the World Cup in 2006 that football became what can only be described as a national love fest. In their jubilant masses, people bought hooters, dressed up their children, painted their faces and bathed the streets of major cities (and the products on sale in supermarkets) in the vibrant colours of the German flag. From what I can see and hear in Berlin six years later, the spirit of communal celebration grows only stronger. In Britain, you have the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee for enthusiastic flag waving, and today in Germany, the football.
And though my inner St George’s flag will always flutter gently for England in their matches, my Berlin summer 2012 will be marked by fizzing fireworks, bags of peanut flips cloaked in black red and gold, and the sounds of excited children cheering on their favourite players at the cafe on the corner.