Tales of the unexpected – Germany’s youthful support

Despite ultimately finishing runners-up, in Germany Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger witnessed a new generation of young fans who are happy to fly the national flag

On the early evening of Thursday, June 12, I was comfortably sitting at home in front of the computer, getting everything up and running because there are a few business things I have to attend to when the national team is playing. As they were doing at this moment in Vienna, against Croatia.

At one point during the game, my phone rang. This hardly ever happens when a football match is on because most of my friends are, well, my friends. And so I was expecting to hear the voice of a loose acquaintance or perhaps somebody trying to get hold of my wife. Instead there was an ear-splitting din coming out of the phone. I checked the display and noticed the call was coming from the mobile of a friend who was in Munich, having been invited to a public screening of the match. Then I heard his voice, distant and cracked.

“God, get me out of here! I have been transported to football hell!” he said, sounding so desperate that I was certain his suffering had nothing to do with Germany losing the game. When I asked what the matter was, he cried: “There are scores of 15-year-old girls here, hundreds of them! They shriek every time a German crosses the halfway line, they squeal when there’s a close-up of Podolski or Schweinsteiger. They are utterly, completely clueless. And they are drunk. It’s awful, save me!” Then the line went dead.

I have avoided public screenings (known as “public viewings” in Germany, don’t ask) ever since the opening match of the 2006 World Cup, against Costa Rica, when I found myself standing under a relentless sun squinting at a distant screen and surrounded by flag-waving teenagers. This call was the first living proof I had that the mania was in full bloom again.

Two years ago, the mass partying in the streets and the rather unexpected proliferation of German flags had been one of the major stories of the tournament. Back then, the most widespread interpretation was that the new Germany had taken the World Cup’s motto to heart and was doing its very best to be the perfect host nation, welcoming friends from all over the world to celebrate together in carefree harmony. But now there were no guests from all over the world; there were, save for the Turks and a few other immigrant groups living in this country, only Germans. Literally millions of them.

The so-called “Fan Mile” in Berlin, on June 17 Street, was only the most stunning example. (Some 500,000 people watched the final here – and the entrances had to be closed almost four hours before the kick-off, because the place was already over-crowded.) Every major city offered not one but multiple opportunities for ­people to watch the games together, and that doesn’t mean pubs or beer gardens. In Dortmund, where I live, there was a giant screen on a downtown public square which holds 15,000. Since that proved too small, there was another screen in the spacious Westfalenhalle, an indoor arena. The day after I received my friend’s emergency call, a local paper reported that 10,000 people had watched Croatia defeat Germany in the Westfalenhalle. And then it added: “Looking at the first five or six rows, you had the impression this was not a football game but a Tokio Hotel concert.”

If you’re blissfully unaware of Tokio Hotel, let me translate this: it means the reporter was stunned to see nothing but teenage girls up front, almost swooning at the flickering images of the German players. In other words, the Westfalenhalle had witnessed the same scenes my friend had been reporting from Munich.

If the Nineties saw what was then called the gentrification of the game, I guess we now have to report, at least from Germany, that the age of juvenilisation could be upon us. No, that’s too narrow a term. I can still recall that my son and I watched almost every game of the 1998 World Cup together, just the two of us. But four days after my friend’s call, my wife sat next to me as I followed Germany take on Austria, and she was a bag of nerves. During the game I got a text from my son, saying he was watching the match in a pub together with boys and girls from his class. And after the final whistle was blown, my parents-in-law called to say how relieved they were that Germany had gone through. It wasn’t the first football game they had ever watched, but I’m willing to bet it was only the third or fourth.

So let’s replace “juvenilisation” by “generalisation”. Because if there was someone who didn’t watch the games and had something other than football to talk about this June, I have no idea who this person could be. If you know him or her, send my regards.

From WSC 258 August 2008