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2
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Nov 25, 2011

Tragic coincidence

Five months ago, I asked you if you'd mind me keeping you updated about life in my new home of Schleswig-Holstein, the federal state that has never had a team in the Bundesliga. (See "The land of a thousand derbies", June 28, 2011.) You said yes - or at least you didn't say no, which is about the same thing to a ruthless columnist always on the lookout for words to sell - so here's an account of what we did last weekend.

It all started in the spookiest of manners. We had an old friend from England over, and I'd briefly thought about going to see what is now my local club with him. That would have been an amateur game in the multi-tiered sixth division on early Sunday afternoon. However, we also had tickets for Hamburg's Bundesliga match against Hoffenheim later on the same day and since there was no way we could see both, we forewent the Oldenburg (in Holstein) game.

Now, what is spooky about that? Well, as we picked up my friend from the train station on Saturday and drove him though the thick North German fog, a voice on the radio told us that Cologne versus Mainz had been called off because the referee in charge of the match - Babak Rafati - had attempted suicide.

That was nightmarish enough, but what I didn't know as I was trying to steer us home through a grey mist was that the Oldenburg game had been called off as well - because a couple of days earlier the club's 24-year-old striker had, as the reports put it, departed this life in a tragic manner.

This phrase is, of course, a common newspaper code for a suicide. I don't know anything about the background - except that the lad's death notice in Tuesday's newspapers read "Sometimes life itself is the hardest opponent" - but the coincidence was spine-chilling enough for me to not instantly assume, like many other observers did, that Rafati's suicide attempt was connected to football.

After all, when a 24-year-old amateur player ends his own life, nobody says his hobby was to blame. Yes, Rafati is more famous than the kid we lost over here and football will have played a bigger role in Rafati's life than it did for the young Oldenburg player, but that does not mean that Rafati didn't have a life, with all its ups and downs and hardships, outside of the game.

There are many people right now who use the Rafati case to remind us that football is not the be-all and end-all. Well, if they really mean this, then they shouldn't automatically presume that football was the be-all and end-all to Rafati. Sometimes it's better to just stay quiet for a change and wait for the man you're talking about to speak for himself.

Anyway, I only learned of the local player's death on Monday, so the eerie parallels to the Rafati incident weren't on my mind the day before, when we headed for Hamburg. Which is a good thing, as the fog still persisted and made what is normally a 80-minute drive an exercise in concentration - and patience.

The fog cleared a few miles outside of Hamburg, but by that time we were already so late that dusk was falling. This was unfortunate, as I had hoped we could take a nice photo of my friend from near London in front of Uwe Seeeler's right foot. Not his actual foot, mind you, but a large statue - it measures 11 feet 5 inches in height - that has stood in front of the north-east corner of the ground since August 2005.

The artist who designed the sculpture, Brigitte Schmitges, has created many bronze feet since 1997, from obvious choices like Pele or Franz Beckenbauer to the 1954 World Cup winners Horst Eckel, Fritz and Ottmar Walter and Hans Schafer. However, Schmitges's other feet are life-sized models, which makes the Seeler monument not only unusual but probably the largest foot sculpture in the world - despite the fact that Seeler, lovingly called "Chubby" by his peers and "Uns Uwe" by the fans, was at least as well known for his aerial game as for his powerful shooting.

And we also didn't have the time to see the HSV cemetery. This is a funeral site for Hamburg fans just a stone's throw behind the ground's west stand that opened in 2008. Boca Juniors apparently have something similar for their supporters, but they use a part of a larger cemetery outside Buenos Aires, whereas the site in Hamburg was built specifically for this purpose. I would have liked to show it to my friend for this reason alone. Maybe next time.

The game itself was nothing to write home about, but my friend - who'd never seen a Bundesliga match before - liked it very much, from the beer and the clock that counts Hamburg's time in the Bundesliga to the ultras on the terraces and the "Humba" celebration between fans and players at the end.

The next day, Monday, we took my friend to Lubeck, once the capital of the Hanseatic League whose old quarter is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's also the place where the novelists Thomas and Heinrich Mann were born - and where Willy Brandt first saw the light of day.

As we walked past the museum devoted to the life of Brandt, the former Mayor of West Berlin and then Chancellor of West Germany, I was surprised to see a small poster of two footballers shaking hands before a game. "Doppelpasse," read the poster, "Wie die Deutschen die Mauer umspielten." That means "One-twos - How the Germans played around the Wall" and it announced a special exhibition in the museum about a common game in a divided Germany.

Almost life-sized cardboard cutouts of the two players from the poster greeted us as we walked in. It turned out they were Horst Scherbaum and Hermann Paul. On Christmas Day 1953, the two men captained select teams representing West Berlin (Paul) and East Berlin (Scherbaum). Some 53,000 people at the Walter-Ulbricht-Stadion saw what was dubbed the Reconciliation Game, won 3-2 by the East.

Since the Walter-Ulbricht-Stadion, which no longer stands, was in the East, there was also a return game, if you will, on December 26, 1954 that finished 3-3 and was watched by 33,000 at the Poststadion in the part of the city known as Moabit. Of course, that was many years before the Wall was built and the Cold War froze sporting relations between the two Germanies almost for good.

It was a good exhibition, with many stories particularly from the early period of the division of the country that I didn't know, such as the one about the centre forward Klaus Taube. Before the Wall was built, he lived in East Berlin but played for Hertha in the West. Which is why he was chosen for the combined Tennis Borussia and Hertha team that faced Santos FC in June 1960, thus becoming the only GDR footballer (or perhaps one of only two, it depends on your definition) to face Pele. Taube, incidentally, means dove.

I guess my friend from Shepperton was delighted that we had encountered so much football in a region I had warned him wasn't really mad on the game. Just for good measure we each bought a book on the history of VfB Lubeck and I also got myself St. Pauli's lavish jubilee volume at a very reasonable price. Hmm...maybe there's more football here than I thought. Or maybe football is everywhere if only you look for it.

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