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Jun 28, 2008

German football goes public

It's hard to believe the whole thing started three weeks ago.

There are moments when it seems as if the opening match was played in the dim and distant past, a half-forgotten time when Alexander Frei was healthy and Franck Ribéry rearing to go, when a guy called Roberto Donadoni was the Italy coach and only Bayer Leverkusen and Rangers fans had heard the name Andrei Arshavin.

Then there are moments when it seems as if the first whistle was blown only yesterday. What do you mean, just one more game? You can't do that to us, let's have a few more rounds. Please!

But that's what happens when you immerse yourself in something so thoroughly. What you're reading right now, for instance, is my eleventh Germany column of this month. Unbelievable. What else have I done with my life those past 25 days, what else have I thought about? Frightening.

Which is why I'm rather thankful for a man I'd like to refer to now as 'The Schalke Fan'.

You may recall my friend who was in the stands when Germany played Austria, the one I exchanged text messages with. Now, he was also in Basle to watch the Turkey match. He got back late on Thursday, and yesterday morning we talked about what he'd seen and done. Then he asked me where and how everybody else had followed the match.

I told him who'd gone to a public screening, who'd watched it at home and who'd been to bars or pubs. Then he said: 'Well, and the Schalke Fan?'

I answered: 'There was a re-reun of a three-year-old episode of 'Der Bulle von Tölz' on TV, and he watched that instead.'

'Der Bulle von Tölz' is a popular German crime series that sends me and most people I know to sleep immediately, which is why my friend began to laugh - until he noticed I didn't smile.

'Don't tell me you're serious,' he said. And when I just nodded, he added: 'But that's crazy! Why didn't he watch the match?'

'Well, you know him,' I replied. 'As far as he's concerned, it was just the stupid national team. There's nothing he could care less about. If anything, I guess he was supporting the Turks because of Hamit Altintop.' (Altintop was born in Gelsenkirchen, the city of which Schalke is a borough.)

'Are you telling me,' my friend said, 'that he hasn't seen any match so far?' I reminded him that The Schalke Fan had to go to a public screening of the Croatia versus Germany game for professional reasons.

'And you know how much he hated that,' I added. 'He said it was like a Tokio Hotel concert, with scores of clueless fifteen-year-old girls shrieking every time a German crossed the halfway line.'

Looking back on this conversation a day later, I realise that the strange thing about it is not at all what The Schalke Fan did - but that my friend and I, somewhere along the way, must have lost the connection to his line of thinking - which, and this is the point, used to be widespread less than ten years ago.

Actually, I'd guess that ten years ago the majority of people I went to games with would have done pretty much what The Schalke Fan did on Wednesday. Well, okay, they wouldn't have watched something like 'Der Bulle von Tölz' and they might not have missed a semi-final, but going to a gig or playing pool while Germany were contesting a group-match at a major tournament was certainly par for the course.

In June of 1984, Black Flag were playing here while the European Championships were on. Four years later I saw the Lime Spiders as the tournament went down the stretch. In 1990, the Bizarre Festival featuring the Ramones took place as the round of the last sixteen at the World Cup kicked off. The Fleshtones and Psychotic Youth played the 'Zeche' in Bochum during Euro 96, and these are just the dates I can recall.

It would take a brave booker and a braver group to try that these days, as even the small clubs which used to house such obscure groups are having public screenings of the matches now. And that's because everybody is watching. Everybody. From the people who'd go and see obscure bands to the fifteen-year-old girls who like Tokio Hotel.

There are 73.5million people over three years of age living in this country. And 29.4m of them were following the Turkey game via their TV sets. ARD, the station covering the final, is confident to set a new all-time ratings record on Sunday.

The current record is held by the 2006 semi-final between Germany and Italy, it stands at 29.6m (31.3m during extra time); while the previous record was set on July 8, 1990 as 28.6m Germans saw their team win the World Cup on television.

Now, this may at first seem to contradict my observation that a lot more people are following the major tournaments than in the old days, as the jump from 28.6m in 1990 to 29.6m in 2006 is, well, not really a jump. But there is one crucial difference between 1990 and 2006, namely the amazing public-screening mania that gripped Germany two years ago and is still in full bloom this June.

In 1990, virtually everyone who watched the game watched it in a living room or a small pub. But now there are literally millions watching the games who never figure in the TV ratings because they are staring at giant screens in public squares or even in spacious indoor arenas.

The famous Fan Mile in Berlin, where 500,000 people followed Germany's semi-final win against Turkey, is the most stunning example. Every larger city offers multiple 'public viewings' (that's the English neologism which Germans, strangely, use to refer to these spectacles). In Dortmund, some 15,000 crowded a downtown public square and another 10,000 or so went to the 'Westfalenhalle' trade fair center. Those who couldn't get into either place because there just wasn't any room left were spoilt for alternatives, as seemingly every pub, bar, disco or club was showing the game; including the youth leisure centre where during the 1992 European Championships I'd seen ... a band that might've been the Didjits.

Of course many of those millions are not die-hard football fans, they are rather living proof of what a sociologist I can't remember the name of recently said on the radio: 'Thank God for football! It's the last communal experience we have left.' Yet it's not just the thrill-seekers and the party addicts, it's also regular fans who have re-discovered both major tournaments and the national team.

But since I have a soft spot for dissenters in all walks of life, I'm glad to know The Schalke Fan. Such people are hard to find these days.


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