Berlin drama was almost as high outside the stadium
Posted: Friday June 30, 2006 3:54PM; Updated: Friday June 30, 2006 4:40PM
The tension amongst Germans was high as their team and Argentina went to penalty kicks after 120 minutes on Friday.
BERLIN -- The other day we got word that Sports Illustrated would only be getting one credential for the Germany-Argentina game.
My colleague Grant Wahl and I were in a bit of a bind. It's a pretty big game, after all, and now one of us couldn't go. We considered a variety of things to decide who should attend: essay contest; rock, paper, scissors; 100-yard dash.
We were halfway through drafting rules for a leg wrestling competition when something struck me -- whoever didn't get to go to the game (which means getting to the stadium like five hours before kickoff, then milling around afterward and waiting for players to insult you as they refuse to be interviewed) would still be in Berlin for the biggest Germany match played on German soil in Lord knows how long, and would be able to watch the game, drink beer and whoop it up with der hoi polloi. So, putting on my best martyr face, I told Grant to go ahead and take the seat.
My plan was to watch the game at the Fan Fest, a giant public viewing area by the Brandenburg gate, near the Reichstag in the heart of Berlin. I went in there this morning and it was already bustling. There was talk that a half-million people would show up (I'm awful at judging crowds, so I have no idea if that's even possible), but the area was gigantic, so I didn't worry about it filling up.
Since it was several hours before kickoff, I decided to spend a little time taking in Berlin. (If you're ever here, you must go to the German history museum. The 20th-century-Germany exhibit in the permanent collection is stunning, and the structure itself -- a beautiful old building seamlessly joined to a newer wing designed by I.M. Pei -- is gorgeous.)
Around 3:45 p.m. -- kickoff was at 5 -- I headed back, only to be told the Fan Fest was already full. Apparently a lot of folks considered this to be something of a big game.
So I was on the lookout for Plan B. Since the entire city was at the Fan Fest, the streets were pretty quiet. But after moseying back toward my hotel, I came upon a place that was nothing more than a vacant lot with a bunch of tables and chairs set up in front of a couple flat screens. There was a stand selling beer and currywurst (a sliced sausage slathered in a red sauce and topped with curry powder). Strictly speaking, it wasn't a pub, but it had everything a German pub needs: brewskis and tube steaks. I settled in.
About 20 minutes into the game, it was apparent we were heading to penalties. The game just had that feel. Even after Argentina scored, you just sensed the Germans would equalize, and they did. Now, there's nothing better than watching penalties in a bar (or some other crowded setting), because penalties are such a random way of deciding a game.
(The only other shootout in the tournament thus far was the Switzerland-Ukraine game; I saw the last five minutes of the match and the PKs standing outside a Häagen-Dazs at the Frankfurt train station, with about 250 other people who put their commutes -- and lives -- on hold to see how it turned out.)
When you're a fan, you always feel like you -- or at least your team -- is somehow in control of its fate and will somehow make things work out. You can rationalize any outcome you want. But not in penalties. It's like eschewing extra innings in a baseball game and awarding the game to whichever team does better in that scoreboard game where they hide a ball and you have to figure out which cap it's under.
As a fan, you feel totally helpless. And there's also the here-we-go factor: It's like sweating out a college admission for a couple months and then finally getting the letter in the mail. You know that as soon as you open it, you'll either be elated or crushed. Likewise, when the shootout begins, you know that in five minutes you're going to have the same kind of moment.
I was actually rooting for a tie, and that's what we got. But along the way, I became more and more pleased that I didn't get into the Fan Fest area. I was in the one in Frankfurt for the England-Paraguay game, and my lasting memory of that is the mass of humanity all wedged together. When you put that many people in one place, you can't see the trees for the forest. But on this afternoon, sitting under an umbrella with 400 people on the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden, I got to know a lot of people -- if not personally, then at least they became known to me as distinct individuals.
There was the gigantic kid (think Bobby Bacala's kid if he were German) with the horn and the ridiculous haircut. There was the baby-faced kid sitting at my table chain-smoking and looking so tense that he probably should have been smoking two butts at a time. There was the pregnant woman who painted a soccer ball and the words "FUTURE WORLD CUP CHAMPION" on her belly. (She wasn't shy about showing it to the crowd.)
There was the mom and her 14-year-old son who were hugging all through the PK shootout, despite the fact that he was at that age where the last thing a kid wants to do is acknowledge his parents' existence, let along hug them in public. There were the four Argentines behind me who showed more guts than I ever have by cheering the game's first goal.
When we got to the PKs, the tension was so thick you could cut it with the little plastic fork they give you to eat your currywurst with. People were holding hands, living and dying with every kick, alternating between being barely able to look at the TV and singing at the top of their lungs and hugging perfect strangers when it was all over.
It was then that I realized that when it comes to watching a football match in a crowd, you don't need quantity to have quality.