No Nazi jokes. That’s what I told myself when I landed in Frankfurt on Saturday to see the World Cup. The Germans are throwing a very nice party, especially for journalists. They’re setting aside tickets, even giving us free train travel. The least we can do is not mention you-know-what. But then you ride a German train, and you sit in a German stadium throbbing to the chants of a nationalist mob, and it all comes back.
The dark humor started last week. I’m on a fellowship in Cambridge with a few Englishmen who haven’t forgotten the Hun. The other day, a lecturer showed us a couple of slides fictionally depicting England under Hitler. The idea, which the speaker meant to challenge, was that if this or that hadn’t happened, history would have unfolded in a completely different way. That’s why Churchill said of the Royal Air Force, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Fortunately, the few on whom Britons are relying this week are just footballers, and the adversary is just Paraguay. But remind me again: What’s that South American country to which the you-know-whos disappeared?
Well, I didn’t get into the England game. For one thing, my British Airways flight was late. The crew shrugged it off, stiff upper lip and all that, but the plane was full of people with match tickets. Never have so many been so pissed at so few. At Cambridge, you see the tea-sippers and after-dinner speakers. But in pubs and vehicles packed with football fans, you see the sort of Brits who flew the RAF missions. As we descended toward Frankfurt, a baby on the plane started crying. “F— off,” roared a bloke in front of me. An hour later, swept up in the throng making its way from the train station to the stadium, I kept passing guys in England jerseys with their backs to the road. They were relieving themselves. The hooligan’s answer to Lebensraum, I suppose.
The media waiting list was 360 names long, and I wasn’t among the lucky ones. So, with the roar of the stadium in my ears, I left and hopped a train to Hamburg, hoping to catch the night game between Argentina and Ivory Coast. It’s a beautiful trip, full of chalet-like villages nestled in valleys. Churches are everywhere. Windmills circle in the breeze. On the train, everyone’s friendly. Americans play video games or yap on cell phones; Germans read books. It’s such a civilized country. Sitting on that train, listening to reassuring announcements, I tried to imagine how hard it must have been for German Jews to recognize the early days of you-know-what. Maybe that’s why they took so long to get out. Good folks can’t turn bad, can they? But they did, and they could again, and so could the Brits, and so could we.
But as I was saying, you-know-what is gone. It’s been replaced by the new you-know-what, the one that hit us on 9/11 and hit the Brits last year. On the way to Hamburg, I wondered about that. Wasn’t the 9/11 plot launched from Hamburg? Is it just coincidence that the home of the old fascism incubated the new fascism? My seatmate on the local train to the stadium, a lanky black teenager, was reading a sheet of paper in his lap. I glanced at the title. It said, “Difficulties of black people in Germany from World War II until today.”
At the game, which I get into from the waiting list—thank you, FIFA—I meet 11 black people who face serious difficulties in Germany. They’re the national soccer team of the Ivory Coast, and their present difficulty consists of surviving a World Cup group led by Holland and Argentina. FIFA and Germany hope the Cup matches will foster global brotherhood so that Africans, Muslims, and others won’t face difficulties of an ethnic sort. Hence the message spelled out in the middle of the field before each game: “A time to make friends. Say no to racism.”
For some, however, ethnicity is hard to forget. Next to me in the media stand is an Algerian named Omar. We have a great view from the edge of the upper deck. His English isn’t great, and my French is almost nonexistent, so we have trouble conversing, but we try. When he finds out I’m American, he indicates with hands and eyebrows that he’s not thrilled with some of us, but others are OK. Then he smiles, says something with the word “Belgian” in it, and makes the gesture of heaving somebody over the rail into the lower deck.
The Argentine fans outnumber the Ivory Coast fans. They’re armed with drums, have a better team, and whistle derisively each time an opponent screws up. I decide to root for the Ivory Coast squad, whom, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the Coasters. To my delight, they quickly humiliate the Argentines with fancy moves and brilliant runs. Their footwork is incredible. But their crosses are lousy, and they have no idea what to do with the ball in the box. Pretty soon, the Argentines start giving them a lesson in crossing. Midway through the first half, a free kick bounces in the box, and Hernán Crespo, the Argentine striker, pokes it in. Ninety percent of life is showing up, and Crespo, unlike the strikers on the other side, has shown up at the correct time and place. Ugly but effective.
The Coasters continue their beautiful impotence. Dribble, juke, lose the ball. Dribble, juke, botch the shot. Their star, Didier Drogba, pours his heart into the game, falling back from his forward position to take on the role of playmaker. But his teammates squander his efforts, and 37 minutes in, there’s another jailbreak. Argentine playmaker Juan Riquelme slides the ball diagonally through the Ivory Coast defense, and Javier Saviola slips in to tap it past the keeper.
At halftime, the Coasters still don’t get it. A dozen Argentine substitutes are on the field practicing elementary passes. Only three Coasters are out there, and they’re hot-dogging. It’s playground basketball versus the NBA. Not until the game’s final minutes do the Coasters find the desperation to play with discipline. They cross the ball through the box. They cross it back. Finally, with an enormous stretch of his leg, Drogba reaches back to sweep the ball into the net.
He rushes it back to midfield, but it’s too late. A few more acrobatic prayers, and the whistle blows. Another methodical powerhouse has dispatched another dazzling upstart. Someday the World Cup’s motto will come true, and we’ll stop judging people based on faith or color. But maybe it won’t be talent that prevails. Maybe it’ll be discipline.