Summer evenings in Berlin are longlit, they stretch, the city brims. In the long dusk, the public spaces grow suddenly thick with long-shanked people, the shops spill their wares onto the street, apartment-dwellers drink beer on their building doorsteps. It’s an unfolding of kinds. Summer is a special time in that city and I was always aware of my luck: I’d only been offered my exchange in June so it could coincide with a poetry festival held in early summer each year.
At dusk on a Friday evening I was leaving, catching the intercity train across the country, at the very time that the German football team would meet the Greeks in the second quarterfinal of the European Championship. My billeted housemate patted my head in consolation when I told her I’d be missing the match, and offered to text me updates.
I’d been in the city for a month by then, long enough to easily navigate the local trains to find my way to the central Hauptbahnhof. Opposite me sat four young women, all holding onto coloured bottles of lime-flavoured beer, all with their wispy, cornsilk hair piled messily on top of their heads. One was wearing a sleeveless dress tight on her body, with broad lycra stripes in red-gold-black. Another had a small flag twisted around her neck and shoulders; all three had thick stripes painted on their cheeks, and plastic leis, the fabric flowers strangely alien in red and gold and black. A station later, they were joined by two big-shouldered men wearing flags as capes.
At the Hauptbahnhof the angled escalators were awash with those three stripes, red and gold and black, with striding young men carrying glass bottles and plastic horns, blaring them out in a call-and-response that echoed strangely through the vaunted ceilings of the station. A bakery was selling hard-boiled eggs, the shells dyed in three thick stripes. There were women wearing flags as strapless shirts, pulled tight across their breasts and tied between their shoulder blades. I wanted to take photos of these people, the way they swelled over the lips of staircases, the way they clustered at the doorways, red and gold and black.
For the past few weeks, it had been impossible to find a pub or cafe without a live broadcast every evening, many beamed onto what I’d learnt is called a Groﬂbildleinwand, in that famous ability of the German language to build multilayered compound words: a big-picture-linen-wall. There were projectors set up in the inner courtyards of terraced shop buildings, in the oversized foyers of Soviet-era apartment blocks. On an even bigger scale, the stretch of road leading up to the Brandenburg Gate, just a short walk from the main station, had been transformed each night into ‘The Great Fan-Mile,’ an open-air and very public viewing strip. Its screen, the biggest linen screen of all, was suspended beneath the Gate’s thundering copper horses, before a thundering, flag-bedecked crowd. The Fan-Mile was sponsored by Coca-Cola. The screen hung exactly where the Berlin Wall once stood.
I’d watched the first German game of the European Championship out of a vague curiosity, streamed through very dodgy wi-fi with Australian friends who are living now in Neukölln, a suburb that I like to think of as the Bankstown of Berlin: considered rough because of its high proportion of migrants, mostly Turkish, and of low-income families, and its low proportions of bookstores and baby boutiques. Before the match, on a rare day of sun and clear skies, we were walking through the town to find an empty piece of canal-bank to sprawl along, and ran into a pack of jostling men, all wearing flags around their shoulders and shouting through thick accents that I couldn’t understand, too round in the vowels to be Hochdeutsch. ‘First they wear the flag,’ my friend murmured, ‘then they burn the flags. Then they burn the books. And then the people.’
He was joking, of course – and in bad taste, too – but like me this man grew up in the southern part of Sydney, and like me was in his very early 20s the summer of the terrifying riots in Cronulla. We’ve both been left with a deep discomfort around flags, the kind of gaudy patriotism behind their display which often hides something much darker. The suburb I grew up in sits on the border between Western Sydney and the Shire; it needs to be traversed in order to travel between the two diametrically different places. The cars I saw howling down the main road with flags waving from the windows are inseparable in my mind from the posters reading ‘Fuck Allah, I love Cronulla’, ‘We grew here, you flew here’, ‘Love it or FUCK OFF’. Many of the kids I went to school with have the Southern Cross tattooed across their hipbones, peeking out from their low-cut jeans.
Germany, too, has been uncomfortable with flags for most of its recent history, for reasons obvious and understandable. It’s not a place where it’s acceptable to talk about national pride; the shadow of the recent past is long and heavy. But somehow, with football, everything changes. With that first match, suddenly the cars were streaming down the streets, horns blaring, with elasticised flags stretched over their side mirrors: in another great display of word compounding, my language teacher referred to these as Nationalkondome.
When I caught the tram home after that first match, just after midnight, it was crammed tight with singing youths swigging from cans of Red Bull and laughing wildly; I’d never felt unsafe at night in this city before. My friend again, said wryly: ‘And they say the Turkish youths have no sense of homeland.’
I saw these Nationalkondome again the very next day, on a car parked beside a Holocaust memorial that has been maintained beside Grünewald train station. The memorial marks the platform from which all of the deportation trains departed, the place from which Germany’s Jews were sent off to extermination camps: the numbers of deportees each day are recorded on an unthinkably long series of metal plates, rarely fewer than one hundred, rarely a pause longer than three days. The memorial was paid for by Deutsche Bahn, the German railway as some kind of act towards contrition or recognition of their role in those grim logistics.
Somehow, with football, everything changes. When I was studying German at university in Sydney, I remember watching in a literature seminar a film by the iconic Rainer Werner Fassbinder called The Marriage of Maria Braun. Made in 1979, the film is a kind of allegory for post-war Germany, with the eponymous Maria standing in for the nation as a whole, sleeping with American soldiers in exchange for nylon stockings, waiting for her husband’s return amongst the ruins of her city, saving up egg rations to make mayonnaise for a relative’s birthday. These are the details I remember. In the final scene, Maria leaves the gas running in her kitchen, and then lights a cigarette, killing herself and her husband, while the commentary from the grand final of the 1954 World Cup is heard from a radio downstairs. The commentary, a replay of the real live broadcast, is the very last thing we hear, persisting as the screen fades to black, and the credits begin to roll. Tor! Tor! Das Spiel ist aus! Deutschland ist wieder wer! the radio cries, The game is over! Germany is somebody again!
As a student, I could never understand the reaction, the over-reaction; I could never figure out exactly what a football game was doing at the climax of a story about national despondency and shame. But the German media, in 1954, called the game ‘The Miracle of Bern’, after the stadium in which the game was played. The championship came nine years after the end of the Second World War, when Germany’s infrastructure and economy were just beginning to pick up pace, when it first started to seem like the rubble could be rebuilt. The championship came when the country was still struggling to reconcile its recent history, still bringing to trial the criminals of the war. Football could be a safe source of pride, a simpler symbol for the re-emerging strength of the nation.
It’s startling to me now that this alliance between sporting might and economic might is being played out again; all the more so now that Germany is in a very different set of circumstances (almost the opposite position in European politics, in fact, and in Europe’s economic hierarchy). This quarterfinal, Germany and Greece, was once again being positioned as something more than just a game.
Before the quarterfinal, opposing spectators were said to have confronted each other outside the stadium, in the Polish city of Gdañsk. ‘Without Angela,’ the Germans chanted, ‘you couldn’t be here.’ Germany’s hard-line Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had been something of a mascot for her country’s team throughout the tournament, attending most of their matches, and cheekily referred to by the media as a lucky charm.
The Greek spectators shouted their reply, ‘We’ll never pay you back! We’ll never pay you back!’
This European Championship, in June 2012, took place at a time in which the very idea of Europe as an entity was under threat, when the purpose and future of the European Union was being questioned like never before. In Australia, we’re largely sheltered from the storm that is tearing through Europe, but here the people are angry, and they are afraid.
The European Championship is an expensive event to host; training sporting teams is the sort of luxury that countries like Greece’s austerity measures are meant to be curtailing. In a time of crisis, perhaps it’s all the more understandable that sport should come to stand for some kind of solace, for national pride that has lost any meaningful direction. The German team has been nicknamed ‘The National Eleven.’
This quarterfinal, then, became another kind of allegory – at least as far as the media was concerned – for the financial and political divisions of Europe. There was talk about ‘Blood in the Water,’ the infamous water polo match between Hungary and the USSR, which took place just months after Soviet forces suppressed the Hungarian Uprising, and ended early in a brawl between the players and a near-riot in the crowd. Within Germany, the rhetoric was about forcing Greece into submission on the sporting field, a sentiment they’ve been hesitant to adopt in the political arena. The Bild, the most popular German tabloid paper, ran the headline: ‘We can’t save you today.’
The irony is that the European Financial Crisis, as I’m now accustomed to hearing it called, is inevitably changing the make-up of German society – and nowhere is this more prevalent than in Berlin. In the past five years, there has been a steady stream of migration into Germany from across Europe, economic refugees of a sort, seeking the employment, opportunity and prosperity that has eroded in their home countries. The relatively good living conditions have also made Berlin an attractive destination for artists and creative people of all kinds – expenses are low, and the middle class is comfortable enough to ensure that the cafes are hiring. There’s more diversity here than ever before, a greater sense of the international in a city that has always struggled to think of itself as a truly cosmopolitan world capital. But even that is not unproblematic.
I walked past a clothes shop last week with a black shirt in the window, and gothic script: Life is too short to learn German.
Yet even with the small surge in national and economic pride that Germany’s resilience to the crisis has engendered, and its obvious symbolic display in flags and chants and cheering for which the European Championship has given space, there’s a deep resentment in Berlin of the changes that economic prosperity is bringing to the city, the processes of gentrification and sanitisation that are affecting the way the city looks and sounds – as well as how its people can live within it. When Germany was divided, the West German government gave large rental subsidies to people willing to live in the walled-off enclave of Berlin. But now demand is rising and with it rents and costs of living, and many of Berlin’s older, poorer residents are being squeezed out.
As the quarterfinal played out, I was tucked away on my blue-grey train, alternately reading in English and watching the trees give way to farmland, the landscape flatten out, sprout windmills. At one stage, a voice over the intercom asked if there was a doctor or nurse on the train who could offer assistance to a passenger; within a minute, it chimed in again to say that there were now more than enough in attendance. Sometime in the next hour, the chime sounded again ‘Dear Football-friends’ (another of those lovely compound words) ‘a goal has just been scored.’ Even the train conductor was in on the act.
A friend of mine watched the match from a pub in Athens, and he told me later that the people there were talking of a miracle, a godly intervention that would help them win the game against a better-rated, better-equipped team. That men were running rosaries through their fingers until the third German goal was scored.
Afterwards, a small poster went viral on the internet: against a deep blue background, the words in white – ‘Sorry Greece, but you couldn’t have afforded the party anyway.’
Official politics, in contrast, must maintain a veneer at least of friendliness and decorum, of some kind of cooperation: Greek finance minister, Yannis Stouranaras, and Angela Merkel both smile stiffly as they shake hands for the TV cameras, despite their ongoing tensions. It’s unsurprising that Merkel is often pictured as a cyborg in European political cartoons: there’s something affectless, expressionless, distant in the political body. Instead, it seems, it is the sporting body that is left to carry the emotion of the state – after all, sport never can be bloodless.
At tournament times, even the language of sport becomes nationalised, somehow synedochic: it wasn’t the German team that humiliated the Greek players in that loaded quarterfinal, but Germany that overpowered Greece. As if the nation somehow subsumes its sportspeople and the object that they are kicking around is something other than a ball.
But what fascinates me more is the way that bodies become political; become, perhaps, the body politic. Even in a time of financial crisis, there’s so much money invested in training and bodily performance, the sharpening muscular reactions, the sculpting of the body into its most suitable form. State money goes into building these bodies, just as it builds national infrastructure, hospitals, roads, schools: since 2002, the German government has spent more than half a billion Euros on football youth development programs alone. The players’ bodies, that is, are no longer just their own; to put it conversely, their bodies are not just vehicles for their person, for a self, but for some bigger idea of a country, of its performance, power, hope and pride.
It is, perhaps, just these bodies that are the key to the symbolic power of sport: bodies make sport at once intensely personal, full of moments of personal struggle, joy and very physical pain, even as it is abstractly political, its encoded meanings expand at the very moments it focuses inwards. These bodies are freighted, like inter-city trains, they are potent and symbolic as waving flags.
There’s another, wonderfully bizarre football story that I stumbled across during my last week in Berlin, on a scorching afternoon, a day of a dry heat that seemed to bounce off the city pavements. I visited the Stasi museum in the middle of the city, somewhat ironically, to escape the stifling presence of my German housemate, who moaned quietly on days like this, pressing packets of frozen peas against her forehead and drinking semi-frozen bottles of mineral water on the kitchen floor.
The museum building is an old theatre, later used by the Nazis as a committee house, and then as offices by the Stasi, the GDR’s ‘Ministry for State Security’; like much of this city, it was being renovated. Parts of the exhibition have been moved to a corner of the building only accessible by crossing through the study rooms, silent, with thin lino floors and partitioned tables, and a handful of middle-aged people bent over microfiche machines. Only later did I realise that there were files beneath the lenses; that these people were probably focusing in on their own official histories, seeing themselves, years younger, through the eyes of shadowy observers they may not have realised were even there.
Here, the exhibition had collected material about the Stasi and its connections with the football league set up within the GDR, shortly after the post-war division of Germany. A huge poster of Erich Mielke, the notorious Stasi leader, stood at the door; Mielke was beaming broadly with his arm around a very awkward-looking player.
In the early 1950s, the Stasi set up a flagship football team, Dynamo Berlin, based in the state-sponsored Dynamo Sports Club, where athletes of sound body, as well as sound political character, were hothoused for the glory of the nation. (Dynamo was also the club in which East Germany’s notorious athlete doping system was most rigorously implemented.) The alliance between the Stasi and Dynamo Berlin, whilst widely known, was never official. Skilled players from other teams were often ‘strongly advised’ to switch allegiance to Dynamo, and referees tended to give the team the benefit of the slightest whiff of doubt. Throughout the 1980s, Dynamo Berlin won ten national premierships consecutively.
Internationally, of course, both East and West Germany were represented by their own separate football team, and the fraught, competitive politics of both nations were always brought to bear upon the sport. It was Mielke who put it, in the clumsy bureaucratese of the GDR, thus: ‘Football success will highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order.’ Naturally.
But there was only one time that the German Democratic Republic met the Federal Republic of Germany in a football match on the world stage, in the 1974 World Cup, which was held in a stadium in West Berlin. East Germany won the match, 1–0, the late goal scored by Jürgen Sparwasser. Much was made of the victory, of course, and the players were feted as ‘Heroes of the People’, and greeted with a tickertape parade on their return to their socialist homeland. Twelve years later, and one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jürgen Sparwasser defected to the West.
Having defeated Greece, Germany exited last year’s European Championship in the semifinal round, knocked out 2–0 by the slightly less-fancied Italian team. I watched the semifinal from a pizza cafe on the outskirts of Neukölln, the waiters emptied fizzing bottles of champagne over the cheering patrons when the Italian team won. On the train home, a middle-aged woman was still crying quietly, the flags on her cheeks melting away. My housemate was despondent, and locked her lucky, oversized hoop earrings, striped in red, gold, black, in the bottom of her wardrobe for the next World Cup, in 2014. The Nationalkondome, on the other hand, were not so quick to go away.
Fiona Wright’s first collection of poetry, Knuckled, won the Dame Mary Gilmore Award in 2012. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney and the Poetry Editor at Giramondo.