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May 21, 2006

Drinks, songs and goodwill

I don't doubt that hundreds of enraged e-mails will have reached Soccernet last week, complaining about the absence of a column from everyone's favourite country, lovely Germany. However, the people who run this website were, as always, completely innocent. There was no column because I was away on a serious goodwill mission, spreading the gospel about the World Cup host nation during a brief tour of England with stops in Exeter and London.

But before I bore you with my account, let me briefly get the truly important things out of the way. There won't be time for the regular end-of-season report this year, but since I know there are some Bundesliga fans out there who need ammunition to silence their doubting friends, here's the data you've come to expect each May: once more, Germany's top flight has convincingly beaten the big European leagues as regards goals scored per game. The figure (2.81) is down from last season, but it doesn't matter as most competitors have also become more stingy.

As usual, the French are bottom of the pile, with a mind-numbing 2.13 goals per match. Spain (2.46) and England (2.48) are on the same level. The big surprise is that Serie A has leap-frogged into second place, boasting an uncharacteristic 2.61 goals per 90 minutes.

I could insert a joke here about Italian referees having probably become more lenient, but that would be really cynical and you know how much I hate being that. Anyway, the Bundesliga has also broken yet another attendance record and is once more the best-supported league in Europe with well over 39,000 fans per game.

Now on to my five days in England. I went on an invitation from the Goethe Institute in London and the England Supporters Club, represented by the immensely active Mark Perryman. Mark has devoted the last ten years or so of his life to not only following the England team as a fan but, crucially, to help improve the reputation of the men and women who travel with the Three Lions.

These days, the throng which drinks and sings and cheers wherever England happen to play has next to nothing to do with the mindless lot that scared the continent during the 1980s and put so many people (including Englishmen) off the team.

In fact, one of the many camera teams which shot my increasingly tired mug and Mark's unfailingly exuberant face during those five days is making a documentary about how the England supporters managed to push the thugs to the fringes and even reclaimed the St George's cross flag from the fascist dolts who'd once turned it into such an unwelcome sight.

Still, nothing dies harder than a well-established stereotype, and so the biggest problem Mark and the England Supporters Club face is that the rest of the world is so slow in catching up to a new reality and still often displays hostility towards the English fans out of ignorance and suspicion.

Which, ironically, is a situation Germans know all too well. In Exeter, I met a German who's been living in England for ten years and works as a teacher. He said some clichés seem so deeply ingrained that they come forth in what are almost reflex actions. Such as a pupil greeting him with "Heil Hitler" about once every six months. The funny aspect of this, we agreed, is that the English don't seem to realise how similar they are to the Germans, not only, but especially, when it comes to football.

Which is why I was talking a great deal about German fan culture when I faced members of the England Supporters Club, in Exeter on Monday and in the Offside pub in Islington on Thursday. Most of the fans listening were mightily relieved when I could tell them that they wouldn't get distrustful and hostile looks from the police for their ritual drinking before a game (which will happen in countries like France, Italy or Spain), because getting legless is an integral part of German football, too.

But then I had to crush their high spirits by pulling out my season ticket and reading out the price printed on it. That led to discussions about how the German fans used to copy the English but have since been saddened by the fact their role models allowed themselves to be priced out of what we still consider the people's game.

The other main topic, of course, was the World Cup. Once more, we found a lot of common ground, because FIFA are undoubtedly public enemy number one in both England and Germany, because of all the restrictions, the rampant commercialism and especially the ticket problem, which annoys no one as much as the team with the largest travelling support and the host nation.

I guess some of the England fans had supposed or suspected Germans could get tickets much easier than them. But when I mentioned I had recently seen a tv show during which both Sepp Maier and Nia Künzer (the scorer of the golden goal that won the German women's team the World Cup) said they couldn't get any tickets, we raised our glasses and drank to the downfall of the evil FIFA empire. Ah, nothing fosters brotherly love like a common foe.

On both evenings there were also other speakers. In Exeter, a police officer reported on the co-operation with his German colleagues, then Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters' Federation gave useful hints and tips, before a nice guy named John conducted a brief language lesson for those who want to order their beers in German.

In London, representatives of Germany's Home Office talked about the World Cup preparations and members of the Goethe Institute London, all dressed in Germany shirts made by Mark and devoted to our most iconic national manager, Sepp Herberger, organised a lively competition based on learning German football expressions.

Events like these have been going on all around England for some time now. And as much as this week has been exhausting, it has also managed to rekindle my enthusiasm. Like so many Germans these days, I felt almost tired of all the World Cup hysteria before coming to England, as the media overhype is beyond relentless here.

But I met so many people during my trip for whom the tournament will be the biggest football event of their lifetime (the last World Cup was and the next World Cup will be too far from home) and who are so determined to enjoy themselves that I suddenly can no longer wait for the thing to kick off.


  • Uli's seminal history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

    Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.