Here in Germany, where my wife and I live, drugstores have recently begun to stock their point-of-sale racks with all manner of red, black and gold-colored items: face paint, Dr. Seuss-style hats, miniature flags. This past week saw flags hung in previously nondescript windows throughout the country. The German team is one of the favorites to win Euro 2012 -- a tournament they’ve already won more times than anyone else -- and the country is preparing to back Die Mannschaft.
It wasn’t long ago that such displays of national pride were taboo in Germany. This all changed during the 2006 World Cup, which marked the first time since World War II that Germans could display their national pride without worrying (too much) that the rest of the world would confuse it with a return to nationalism. Though it may seem second nature to U.S. fans to celebrate the USMNT, this was a big step forward in how German fans consume the sport.
In a recent column, Michael Cox commented that “One of the most fascinating aspects of football is how playing style differs across different regions.” He’s right. At no time is this truer than during international tournaments, when each team displays a little bit of its own culture in how it plays the game.
But that’s only half the story. The way in which different fans watch and consume the game is equally fascinating. Just as I look forward to watching what each team brings to the tournament, tactically, and how they react to one another on the field, it will be interesting to see how the different fans celebrate the tournament and react to the different political and social challenges that always emerge during a sporting event as charged and important as the Euro Cup.
How the Ukrainians and the Poles will respond to the BBC’s (and by extension, England’s) allegations of racism is the big story so far. But there are other stories, too. For Germany, attending a tournament hosted by Poland and Ukraine takes on additional political overtones due to the ever-present legacy of the Second World War. Not only did the Nazis exterminate 90% of Poland’s nearly 3.5 million Jews, but several Nazi death camps existed in Poland, including Auschwitz. How the Germans should respect the past and then paint their faces and cheer for a national team they’re rightly proud of is an issue the country has struggled to come to terms with for some time now.
Earlier this year, the German federation decided that the national team would visit Auschwitz to pay their respects to the victims of the holocaust. Whether or not they should visit altogether is an issue of fierce national debate and last Friday, when the moment finally arrived, only three members of the team actually participated.
As Der Spiegel reports, that was only the half of it:
[Former German striker Oliver] Bierhoff, in charge of public relations for the national team, had said in March that the squad would address the Holocaust during the tournament but had not decided in what form that would happen. "It can be a fireside chat or a lecture," he had said. Bierhoff used the German word "Kamingespräch" for fireside chat -- a reference to an informal discussion or briefing. Kamin means fireplace but can also mean chimney, which Graumann [The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany] said evoked the chimneys of Auschwitz.
He said the use of the word Kamingespräch showed "colossal insensitivity and tastelessness" and was unbearable given "that people in Auschwitz, my grandparents for example, were gassed, incinerated and sent up the chimney."
It’s never just a game, this thing we call soccer. It exists in a constant state of political, social and tactical flux. This next month will mean a great deal to a lot of people, and who kicks a ball in what net is only part of the story.