Sunday, May 21, 2006
Okay, pay attention, because I hope this is the last time I'm going to even mention this issue.
The World Cup.
The hype had already become unbearable three weeks ago, but now it's beyond insane. You literally cannot step outside your door here without being assaulted with it from all sides. As an example, let's go to the supermarket. Here, you can see an 850g jug of Nutella in the shape of a soccer ball, loaves of bread cut so that they get the markings of a soccer ball, FIFA cereal by Nestle, and Fussball Flips, which are the same as peanut flips (you Americans can think Cheetos only with peanut flavor instead of cheese flavor, and yes, they're quite good), only in the shape of -- you guessed it -- a soccer ball. Not to mention the dozens of other products which are running promotions geared towards giving away tickets, temporarily offering "limited edition" versions of candies in soccer-ball form, and the ads blaring over the loudspeakers with World Cup themes.
Billboards everywhere urge Germans to be friendly to the visitors (they've got an uphill battle here in Berlin) and on others, various stars of the local soccer team have donned garbageman's outfits to urge Berliners to sock it into the goal -- "it" being garbage and the goal being the widely-ignored orange trash cans on every block. Other ads urge the ticketless or travel-impaired to buy the add-on cable channel Premiere so they can watch everything, while yet others promote their business' teamwork by showing players. If the concept "goal" or "teamwork" or "good sportsmanship" can be wedged into an ad campaign, it wears shorts and jerseys.
All this for four games. Really: that's all that are going to be played here in Berlin, but one of them is the finale, the world championship game, at the Olympiastadion, and that's the one I really wanted to miss. Unfortunately, the latest in a series of professional catastrophies has all but guaranteed that I'll be here for the entire month of June and the first week of July, which is when the event happens. Besides the fact that this means that my move to France may be delayed by as much as another year, it depresses me that I'm going to have to stick around here for this silliness.
I've never been a sports fan, of any sport whatever. Maybe this is because of the fact that I'm one of those people of whom it can be said that the only thing me and my friends have in common is that we were the ones picked last in gym class in school when it came to choosing teams to play anything, be it baseball, football, basketball, volleyball... But even sitting in front of a television screen watching people who make in three months more than I'll ever make in my lifetime run around to the cheers of thousands is brain-numbingly boring to me. Going to an event is different. There, I'm much more likely to watch the crowd. In fact, I vividly remember the last baseball game I went to because of the three-generation black family which sat in front of me, all engaged in a lively discussion/debate about arcane baseball happenings that made no sense to me but certainly engaged all of them -- including the women -- to the max. Who was playing (well, it was at Yankee Stadium) I can't recall, nor can I remember who won. Or even if we stayed to the end of the game.
There's another element to this, too, which is more than a little puzzling, and that's the national team aspect. Germany is a place where expressing pride in the country is Not Done, or, rather, it's done, but gingerly. There was the "Du Bist Deutschland" campaign which I commented on a few months back, and there's the current "Germany: Land of Ideas" campaign that's resulted in, among other things, a giant aspirin being erected behind the Reichstag (aspirin having been invented in Germany, after all). But these campaigns have been viewed as rather radical and audacious moves.
It's no great revelation that soccer and nationalism can go hand in hand. After all, in 1969, El Salvador and Honduras fought a war for about a week which grew out of a melée at a soccer match. I can still remember the spontaneous parade of cars flying Brazilian flags which came out of nowhere as I was walking down Kantstr. the night that Brazil clinched the last world championship. Who knew Berlin had that many Brazilians? And I also remember German intellectual friends of mine a couple of World Cups back talking about how they hoped Germany lost because a German win would promote all the wrong things about the country, including the inflexible coaching the team had received. There's no doubt whatever that the kind of soccer fan who waves the German flag and paints the red, gold, and black on his face is viewed with suspicion by many. And given how poverty and nationalism can interact, there are reasonable fears being expressed at the moment about the potential for problems with darker-skinned visitors to the playoffs.
So beneath the commercial blitz, there's a feeling of unease. People want to support the German team, but maybe not too much. Every German win is a double-edged sword. It's part of the national neurosis, that good old Burden of History.
With these thoughts, I went back to the Bethanien with a painter friend the other night, and saw a couple of so-so installations. Afterwards, we went to a very good pizza joint on the banks of the Landwehrkanal and talked about -- what else -- the World Cup. He filled me in on some stuff I hadn't been aware of, most notably that Germany's coach lives and works in America, where he's been under the sway of some New Age-y kinds of influences which he's imparted to the team, much to the deep suspicion of German traditionalists. "What I'm hoping is that Germany has to drop out early, but the American team gets into the next round of playoffs," he said. "It'd serve them right." Not that he's rooting for anyone himself; he sees another Brazilian victory as a foregone conclusion.
After dinner, I was wending my way back to the subway when he said "Hey, you gotta see this bar. I hope it's still here. It's the smallest bar I've ever seen." We went down a street and, naturally, walked right past it, but it was there. Called, appropriately enough, the Mini-Bar, it has room for about ten people in it. (It may be the smallest bar he's ever seen, but he's obviously never been to Tokyo). We decided to go in and have a beer, just because the place had a couple of empty seats, and a few minutes later, two guys came in with a stack of flyers for the bar to put up. They, too, decided to stay for a beer, and one of them pulled a box out of a shopping bag he had with him. It was a cheap plastic toy called Euro-Kicker, and was...a miniature soccer game! The two struggled to assemble it, and it became a small playing field with regular circular depressions, in which you mounted a little player on a spring. The goalie went back and forth on a slider, and the idea was that the ball could be "kicked" by flipping one of the players, which would hit the ball in the depression and move it to another player. Hard as it was to believe, these two adult men got seriously into this game as we watched. I was certain it was ironic, but the painter said that he doesn't believe irony exists in Germany, and, whether or not he's right in general, he might have been right in the specific with this one.
Anyway, it's going to be hard to miss, much as I might want to miss it. The only billboards that are really speaking to my needs right at the moment are the ones from EasyJet, who are offering "Escape the World Cup" bargains to their various destinations.
Tempting, but I have to figure out a way to raise €3-4000 to get out of here. I've endured Berlin this long, I can endure a mere World Cup.