The night host nation Germany was knocked out of the World Cup, Berlin police had to fish German fans wrapped in national flags out of the Spree River. These people hadn’t attempted suicide (a favorite myth of World Cups past speaks of Brazilians who supposedly rain from apartment blocks after their team loses). They were simply still celebrating.
The World Cup has introduced the unprecedented notion of soccer as party. To soccer fans, as Nick Hornby wrote in his classic memoir Fever Pitch, fun never used to be the point. A game was tedium interrupted by stress. Fans experienced it as a sort of Ninety Minutes Hate: an Orwellian emotion they directed not only at the opponents but at their own team and even at themselves for being there. The stands at World Cup games would resemble a Hieronymus Bosch painting, with thousands of faces contorted in agony. The word for fan in Italian, the language of the new world champions, says it all: tifoso, translated literally as typhoid victim.
The World Cup experience has been made even grimmer in recent years by nationalism and xenophobia. And for Europeans, the tournament gained meaning from memories of World War II. That’s why for the Dutch, French or English, the biggest matches were those against Germany. “Soccer is war,” said Rinus Michels, Holland’s manager at the 1974 World Cup. Soccer author David Winner says that in the narrative that is the World Cup, Germany traditionally played the role of villain: the baddie who slayed the beautiful teams. Winner adds: “A World Cup without Germany would be like Star Wars without Darth Vader.”
In American sport this sort of angst exists only for Red Sox fans. Most Americans watch games for fun. This dawned on me once during a New Jersey Nets basketball game at the Meadowlands, when scantily clad women on roller skates, aided by a man in a wolf costume wielding a tennis racket, hurled rubber oranges into the crowd. The fans loved it–and enjoyed the game, too, fueled on sugar rushes from the food. A soccer crowd would have hurled those oranges back. The rage of our fans has encouraged an erroneous belief in the United States that lots of them were hooligans. In fact, hooligans were always extremely rare, though much publicized because hooliganism looks great on TV. But as World Cup fever spread around the globe, soccer conquered new audiences thanks to television: Japanese, Chinese, Indians, women and even some Americans switched on. For these new fans, soccer was not freighted with hate, machismo and memories. It was just fun.
The crowds at this World Cup didn’t need victories for national self-esteem. Most of them didn’t even need stadiums. People flocked to the “Fan Miles” in cities across Germany simply to watch soccer together on big screens. One of Germany’s games drew nearly a million people in Berlin, probably the largest gathering for a soccer game (or any game?) ever.
For these people, soccer wasn’t a lifelong obsession but a new hobby. Oliver Bierhoff, general manager of the German team, commented in wonder that many fans no longer seemed very interested in results: They supported any foreign team that caught their fancy. There was much play-acting: People imitated the soccer fans with painted faces they had seen in television advertisements. They photographed themselves celebrating. Fandom became less authentic, but nicer.
The tournament was a very particular kind of party: a festival of reconciliation to finally close World War II. That’s why it had to culminate in Berlin, with Sunday’s concluding match in Hitler’s Olympic Stadium. The young, fresh, attacking and not very gifted German players finished third but ended up calling themselves “the champion of hearts.” Many foreigners supported them and watched cheerfully as millions of Germans for the first time allowed themselves to wave German flags and chant “Deutschland!” For most of them and us, the war was over. The World Cup has lost its villain.
This tournament has been fun despite the tedious defensive soccer. It is being called a great World Cup because of the fans, not the games. Albrecht Sonntag, a German football sociologist who teaches at the Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Commerciales d’Angers in France, says: “The party is bigger than ever, even though the game is worse. The spectacle has shifted to some extent from players to spectators.” Soccer is losing its drama–there’s no drama if the outcome scarcely matters, as New Jersey Nets fans know–but hey, you can’t have everything.