Sunday, July 09, 2006
From June 11-17, 2006, Doug and I spent one unforgettable week in Germany, taking in the world's greatest sporting spectacle- the World Cup. Thousands of people from all across the world came to Germany to celebrate their countries, their teams, and the game of soccer, and we were lucky enough to be two of them.
We hope you enjoy this collection of memories, photos and anecdotes from our trip. Please feel free to share them with family, friends and fellow fans. While it is difficult to put in to words how incredible the experience was, hopefully this scrapbook will give you a good taste.
I re-arranged this site to make it a little more reader-friendly, so, although it's a blog, the stories are in chronological order from top to bottom.
There was no doubt that when our Lufthansa plane pulled up to the gate in Newark that we were on the right flight.
The motto of the 2006 World Cup was "A Time to Make Friends" and waiting for the train we made our first- a group of fans from Australia. The Aussies, who go by the nickname "Socceroos," were making their first World Cup appearance since 1974, and their fans appeared ready to party. Already busy downing beers while waiting for the train, this group was in a rollicking, joyous mood, despite a long journey from Sydney to Hong Kong to Frankfurt. And we hope they had a good time, because one member of this group quit his job as a local broadcaster to make the trip.
And kudos to the German organizing committee who had plenty of well-marked signs, helpful staff and useful guides all throughout each train station. When we needed help or direction, we didn't have to go far.
We already had our tickets in hand for Monday's USA-Czech Republic game, but needed to pick-up the tickets for Wednesday's game in Munich between Tunisia-Saudi Arabia. (When we told the Aussies we were going to this game, one of them simply asked "Why?")
We were also on a waiting list for Tuesday's game in Frankfurt between South Korea and World Cup debutant Togo, so we were hoping to find out about the status of those tickets as well.
Unfortunately, the line to pick-up tickets took as long as a soccer game, 90 minutes, although not without its entertainment. An Englishman behind us was being needled by his friends, including one with an Austin Powers-like accent who said: "Get out of this damn queue, mate. It's gonna take you five hours! We can be in Amsterdam in four hours!"
Our long wait was rewarded however, when we found out we got the Korea-Togo tickets. I'm sure few Americans have ever been as excited to get tickets to see Korea-Togo, but we left the ticket center delighted: three games in three days were coming up!
In Frankfurt, 15,000 fans jammed both sides of the Main to watch games each day. We had arrived shortly before kickoff of the Holland-Serbia game, so we missed out on the coveted seats, but we did have a nice standing vantage point to watch the game and the endless parade of fans from around the world.
Holland won the game, 1-0. We were surprised that their fans were somewhat subdued, but we would find out later in the week that they definitely know how to celebrate a victory.
Gelsenkirchen was the smallest of the German cities hosting World Cup games, but that made for a great pregame atmosphere along the downtown area that begins just outside the train station. The local shops and street vendors were doing brisk business. While the Czech fans outnumbered the USA supporters, American fans were eager and ready to support their team.
In the words of Will/Harry: "If you were a hot dog, would you eat yourself? I know I would. I'd smother myself in brown mustard. I'd be so tasty!"
Needless to say we were immediately popular with the group of U.S. fans who had gathered on the southern edge of downtown. While it was fascinating to meet people from all over the world during the course of the World Cup, it was equally interesting to meet different U.S. soccer fans and hear their stories. And we met a lot of them pretty quickly once we pointed them in the direction of the cheap beer.
During our time on the streets of Gelsenkirchen we were also approached by Newark Star-Ledger soccer writer Frank Giase, who was happy to find a pair of Jersey boys in Germany. He included mention of us in his World Cup blog.
We were told that it would be a good idea to get to the stadium early, and getting there four hours before kickoff certainly qualifies as early. But it did give us the chance to mill around the outside of the stadium and check things out. The Arena Aufschalke was built in 2001, and is an impressive looking stadium from both the inside and out. Since it's inception it's hosted a European Champions League Final and now the World Cup.
One of the nice aspects of the World Cup is that you've got a fair amount of leeway with what you can bring in to the stadium. For us, that meant a backpack, which you normally wouldn't be allowed to bring into most American facilities. You can also bring in huge flags, samba drums, trombones, elaborate Aztec headpieces, stuff like that. Two things that are prohibited, as we found out, are ninjas and Nazis (see the left column.) Officially those are bans on wearing masks and making any racist remarks, which I suppose cover ninjas and Nazis.
Among the U.S. fans making the trip to Gelsenkirchen was Drew Carey, who was in Germany filming a show for the Travel Channel. We caught Drew on his way out of the hotel located adjacent to the stadium while we were killing time. While he didn't seem to care that Sharon is from the Cleveland area, he was kind enough to stop for a photo.
The Czechs scored five minutes in, took a 2-0 lead before halftime, and won 3-0 over a U.S. squad that looked intimidated and scared. When I was eight and playing soccer, my dad once shouted at me "Stop being so tentative!" It's pretty funny in retrospect, because the other parents wondered how an eight-year old was supposed to know what "tentative" meant. Anyway, I kept thinking about that watching the U.S. play.
The best part of the game? The introductions.
Despite the game, there are plenty of fond memories of Gelsenkirchen.
We took a tram to the game and talked with an American from Miami, who was having a hard time finding any place to watch the NBA Finals, and a native of Frankfurt who we dubbed "German Mike Eruzione," because of his loose resemblance to the captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. GME was in his early 20s and a lifelong resident of Frankfurt, and he discussed how exciting it was to have the World Cup in his hometown and see fans from all over the world come to Germany.
The guy from Miami and GME started talking about the World Cup policy on tickets, as both were trying to get scalper tickets for today's game. Each World Cup ticket has the holder's name printed on it, and if you want to legally exchange them with someone, you're suppose to pay a fee and fill out paperwork with FIFA. It's pretty well known, however, that ticket takers rarely, if ever, check the names, although we were told spot checks do occur. GME had a tip for the Miami guy on how to beat the system, which he was at first reluctant to disclose.
GME: "If you get checked, you just say, 'I work for World Cup sponsor and I just got these tickets from colleague yesterday."
MG: "Oh, right. We work for Yahoo!"
GME: "You work for Yahoo?"
GME: "Us neither!" (laughter)
I hope that story was as funny as it was in person. Probably not.
Of the three games we saw in person, this was the most entertaining. Togo struck first, but Korea, spurred on by their incredibly vocal fan base, answered with two goals for a 2-1 win.
Togo was a bit of a mess during the World Cup. Their coach resigned days before the start and then was talked into coming back. Their players almost boycotted a game over a pay dispute. The head of the federation accused the coach of being a drunk. And they lost three games by a combined score of 6-1. Other than that, it looked like they were having a helluva time.
We talked about his travels abroad in America, and he had come over twice for concerts- once to see the band Boston in Camden, N.J., and once to see Chicago in Hershey, Pa. If you're like Doug and I and have ever seen Camden, you're probably wondering why anyone would ever go there for a concert. Not exactly America's safest city. So when Doug asked how he liked it, he said in a very soft tone "Yeah, Camden's a little rough around the edges. Je--s Ch---t."
Well, like I said, maybe you had to be there. We're just glad he made it out of Camden alive.
Applewine is the alcoholic beverage of choice in Frankfurt. It's somewhere between hard cider and vinegar, but you get used to the taste. We actually ran into German Mike Eruzione again at our restaurant, (a good sign when the locals are eating at the place you randomly picked out for dinner) and heard him explaining it to a visitor. "Remember first time when you were little kid and you tried beer? Did you like it? No. Same thing with Applewine."
Over at the Romerberg, the jubilant Koreans were celebrating their win with loud but festive cheers and songs. Many looked like they'd be spending the night there, as sleeping bags and blankets were spread out around the plaza. One particularly brave, shirtless soul decided to scale the Fountain of Justice, South Korean flag in hand. Fortunately he made it up and down without incident. I think the other Koreans thought he was crazy as well, because no one seemed all that excited when he got to the top. It was more like an "Ok, buddy, you go do that," reaction.
Oddly enough, two men sat down next to us, one of whom grew up in Chicago about a mile from where I live now. Small world. He was wearing a German armband that was a thank you from a West German fencer who competed in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where our tablemate had been a volunteer.
We spent a half-hour watching the game with hundreds of others who had gathered to do the same. And we were pleased with the result, as Ukraine's 4-0 loss meant they had topped the U.S. for worst showing in the tournament to date.
Fortunately the train ride was uneventful, although when we were stopped underground between stations for about four minutes I did start to have my worries. As we arrived at the stadium station and climbed the stairs, we looked back at a sea of people still exiting the train.
Our main motivation for going to the Saudi-Arabia-Tunisia match was to see a game at the new Allianz Arena or, as it was known for this tournament, FIFA World Cup Stadium Munich. The stadium is being heralded as one of the finest facilities in Europe, and while the exterior is impressive (check out this link to see how they illuminate it with different colors at night), we were rather under whelmed once we entered.
The interior features drab, gray concrete and all the seats are the same shade of gray. Worst of all, we were in the third level and our only option to head up to the top were stairs. No ramps, no escalators- just stairs.
The view from the upper deck was pretty good and it's nice and clean and all that; just not quite as impressive as we had expected and in need of some character on the inside.
The Tunisia-Saudi Arabia game was billed as the weakest match-up of the 48 opening round games, and in that sense it lived up to the advanced billing. There was a noticeable difference in skill between these two teams and the others we had seen throughout the week. Someone told us earlier in the week that if we had enough to drink at the Hofbrauhaus, the game would look just like Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. I wish we had remembered that advice.
But the game still had its moments. The Tunisian crowd was a lively bunch and celebrated the first goal of the game with a traditional, albeit illegal celebration- the lighting of a flare.
This happens quite regularly at soccer matches in Europe, but orange jacket-clad security were still quick to move in once the pyrotechnics were ignited. The Tunisians also quieted down considerably once the Saudis tied the game at one.
Since tickets were relatively easy to come by for this game, there were a large number of Germans in the crowd who saw this as their best chance to see a game in person. There were so many, in fact, that they were able to get some German chants and cheers going at halftime. And with the Germany-Poland game scheduled to kickoff in Dortmund an hour after the end of this match, we, along with the majority of the Germans, headed for the exits early. Unfortunately, we left a 1-1 match and missed two goals in the last ten minutes (the game ended 2-2,) but considering the throng we saw on the way into the game, this was definitely a smart move.
Our postgame plan was to take the U-Bahn to the Olympiapark, the location of many of the venues from the 1972 Summer Olympics, as well as the Munich Fanfest. On our way out of the stadium, however, we were told by a local that the Olympiapark would most likely be closed due to crowds, and we'd be better off watching the game elsewhere. Signs at the U-Bahn station also indicated that the Fanfest was full to capacity.
But, we figured it was worth the trip over their just to see if we could walk around and get a glimpse of the place, one of the more unique facilities in the history of sports architecture.
Luck was on our side, however, as upon our arrival there were no crowds at the entrance, and we had no problems entering. We arrived about 20 minutes before kickoff of the Germany-Poland game, and a large, enthusiastic crowd of Germans was gathered and ready.
We spent some time exploring the Olympiapark before the game. The basketball arena where the U.S. got hosed in the '72 gold medal game against the Soviets and the swimming venue where Mark Spitz won seven gold medals still stand and are in use today. But our favorite attraction was a working merry-go-round that's been turned into a bar.
The crowds gathered for the Germany-Poland match were in a festive mood from the opening kickoff, although cheers and flag waving gave way to moans and groans as time went on and the Germans missed out on countless scoring opportunities. The jumbotron was situated on a small lake, surrounded by a grassy slope where about 20,000 fans enjoyed the best view. But even those of us who had to stand had a pretty good view of the action.
The end of the game approached and the match remained scoreless. We had hoped to see a German goal and the outburst from the crowd that would accompany it, but with time winding down, we decided to make our way back to the U-Bahn station and beat the rush. We were about a 1/4 mile from the center of the action and just a few yards from the station when we heard a tremendous roar that could mean only one thing: Germany had scored! We scrambled over to the U-Bahn security office, where we saw the guards celebrating and caught the replay on their small TV. The game ended seconds later and Germany had defeated Poland, 1-0, to secure their place in the second round.
We had learned on the trip that World Cup enthusiasm knows no bounds, especially when it comes to celebrating your national team. But having won three World Cups, we figured the Germans would take an "act like you've been there before" attitude towards a 1-0 win over Poland and qualification for the Final 16. We were quite wrong.
Upon returning to the Marienplatz, the celebration was already underway. Drivers were blaring their car horns, fans were dancing, cheering, chanting, climbing centuries-old statues, waving German flags. We had never seen a celebration anything close to this in person, and the closest thing we could compare it to was Boston after the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. Keep in mind, though, this was only a first round game and it was played six hours north of Munich. Best of all, though, it was a very joyful and peaceful party. No one seemed intent on causing any problems.
We walked over to the train station to wait for our train back to Frankfurt: a 12:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. red eye. We only had the opportunity to spend 13 hours in Munich, but we certainly squeezed in a lot of action.
Although we did have a first class cabin all to ourselves, we still didn't get much sleep in during the five hour train ride back to Munich. After arriving back at our hotel at 6 a.m., we slept till about 11:30, before bouncing back for another day of World Cup action. (To continue reading, click on "Older Posts" below.)