National slide

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger explains why most German fans were not quite as upset by the result in Munich as their English counterparts would have liked

All German Sunday papers have sold out at Mun­ich’s main railway station, that’s why everybody on the train to Frankfurt is now hunched over the Observer or the Sunday Times. Or maybe it’s because, in this coach, they’re all English. Apart from me. The two men from Leicester at my table have im­mersed themselves in pieces on a cricketer called Keith Par­sons and the Ryder Cup, respectively. The six or eight fans from near Liverpool behind me are dis­cussing with gusto an article that mentions “drunken English football fans”, “baton-wielding German riot police” and “blood pouring from wounds”.

One of them is singing “I’m English till I die” while producing can after can from his obviously bottomless bag. He’s got “No Surrender” tattoed on his calf. And he’s sociable. Later, he’ll offer me an exclusive in­terview about people he keeps referring to as my “boys”. At first I think he’s talking about the team, then I gather he means the group of German Nazi thugs I had seen engaging in silly running battles the afternoon before. They are, I’m being informed, “all cowards”, having thrown bottles at “normal peo­ple” instead of squaring up to those who “were waiting for them”. Our pleasant conversation comes to an end when I have to tell him that, sorry, these people are not my boys.

He and his mates stroll to the bar, join­ed by one of the Leicester pair. When the latter returns, 45 minutes later, he tells us there are quite a few German fans in the bar, too, and that everybody is singing together while drinking the place dry in a hurry. I ask him what the Germans are saying about the game. He hesitates. “Not much. They were very quiet yesterday, too,” he says. “You know, what I don’t like about the Germans is that when they win, they tell everybody about it. But when they lose they pretend it didn’t happen and don’t say anything.”

That starts me thinking. Is this true? German foot­ball has just been through two years of almost sado­masochist self-destruction. The national team was labelled “the worst of all time”, the players were rid­i­culed as “fried sausages”, the various managers were dubbed incompetent (and a would-be one, Chris­toph Daum, “insane”). The qual­ity of the Bundesliga was criticised, the youth set-up denounced. Some pundits said we had disgraced two tournaments, others claimed it would be better if we didn’t get to the World Cup, so as not to embarrass ourselves again.

True, the Völler reign had brought back a sem­blance of sanity, but of course only until September 1. Dreadful! said the largest tabloid, calling the game “a lesson we can hopefully learn from”. Kicker asked its readers: “Are we back to rock bot­tom?”(60 per cent said no, 40 per cent yes). The coun­­try’s biggest sports weekly spoke of “shame”, printed an “open letter to the failures” and published a column by Günter Netzer headlined Now we have to fear everyone.

I mean, who’s quiet here? But maybe the man from Leicester didn’t mean the press but the fans. Was he, in his own way, as disappointed in the German fans as his fellow-countryman with the “No Surrender” tattoo was in the German hooligans – for somehow not res­ponding in style or according to unwritten rules?

Like I said, I had been on Munich’s main square on the afternoon of the game, when the so-called “riots” began. A young man to my right suddenly said: “Don’t worry. This is nothing. I’m used to it. It’s only a prob­lem when they start throwing things.” He was from Verona. “In It­aly,” he said, “this happens be­fore virtually every league match.” I asked him if there was fighting at internationals, and he shook his head. “Italians care for their club, not so much for the nat­ional team. When Italy win, it’s fine; when they lose, it’s bad. But not really bad.”

Which, I guess, is how most Ger­mans feel, too. I hadn’t met a single one that day who really professed to being a “fan” of the national team. And I had been careful not to pick people from my own age group (mid-thirties). That’s be­cause we grew up with the horror that was the 1982 World Cup (Austria v Ger­many, and then the Battiston incident) and have never since been able to feel sympathy for a Germany XI anyway.  Still, even the older people (who grew up with the mag­ic team of the early 1970s) or the young ones (raised on Italy 1990) were excited by the occasion, not by the prospect of seeing their team.

I should probably have told the man from Liverpool that the players aren’t “my boys”, either.

From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month