Dispatches From the World Cup

Bracing for a Fight at the Germany-Poland Match
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 15 2006 1:19 PM

Dispatches From the World Cup

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World Cup. Click image to expand.
David Odonkor of Germany and Michal Zewlakow of Poland

Sixty-five-thousand fans filed into Dortmund's quirky Westfalenstadion on Wednesday, where they watched Poland and Germany stage an exciting, highly competitive geopolitical metaphor. In the end, Cautiously Resurgent Nationalism eked out a narrow victory over Retribution for Historical Wrong. Oh, they were only playing a soccer game? Sorry, I guess I've been reading too much of the International Herald Tribune.

Partly because of the historical overtones, Germany-Poland is the only match on my schedule that truly frightens me. This game is full of bad juju. As the New York Times puts it: "The expectation was that if there was going to be violence during what had been a relatively peaceful World Cup competition so far, it would probably take place at the Poland-Germany match." In November, Polish and German thugs met for an organized brawl in a forest near the border; 30 Germans and 55 Poles were arrested. And before the game Wednesday, on a computer just a few paces from the stadium, I read that police had arrested four known Polish hooligans, reportedly armed with knives. A single phrase, known to any fan of British soccer, keeps running through my head: "It's about to go off."

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Anyone looking for ominous signs certainly doesn't have to look hard. They are everywhere, just waiting to be picked up by visiting Yankee journalists. Let's get mine out of the way quickly, then. First, there's the broken glass shimmering along the streets after a game (from dropped, and occasionally spiked, beer bottles). Second, there's Fan Camp.

For the past two nights, Dortmund Fan Camp has been home to me and my traveling companions. It is a massive, underbooked, hangarlike space, full of that weird German mixture of bright tackiness (the adjacent Fan Hall is decorated with sparkly hearts and diamonds, and the first sound to greet me upon entering is something out of the Belinda Carlisle songbook) and incessant rule-making. Our sleeping quarters lie in a cavernous pen, with perhaps hundreds of cots arrayed regimentally under the eye of a guard. It is in Fan Camp that I noticed a funny thing about German signage: The symbol that hangs above exits is a green man who appears to be fleeing in abject terror. It's an ever-present entreaty: Run!

I'm in this paranoid frame of mind when, at 8 a.m. on the morning of the game, I awake to the surly quack of an air horn, followed shortly by chanting. This continues for approximately 24 hours—the same air horns and the same songs, quacked and sung on the train, at the stadium, in the shower, in the restroom. It's all the more disconcerting when you start to pick up the strains of familiar tunes—"Evita," "Crocodile Rock," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Guantanamera"—all now pressed into service by German soccer fans.

By 4 p.m., all of Dortmund seems half-drunk. A man pisses against a tree in full view of police, and my friend spots a Polish fan with a shaved head and a shirt that reads something like, "Nobody likes us, and we don't care. Hooligan." I ask two cops at Fan Fest, both wearing brush-cuts and tapioca-colored shirts, if they expect much violence today.

"Not in Dortmund," one says. "Not in Dortmund."

The other is more skeptical. "It's been calm," he says, shaking his head. "So far. But watch the clock." He taps his wristwatch. "It's early."

The game does nothing to ease the tension. It's a long crescendo, with Poland playing roughly even in the first half with a plainly superior German team. German fans, already on edge after their team's slack defense in the Costa Rica match, seem to get antsier by the minute. I would, too: There's something about this team that makes them difficult to like. They're too good and too talented, perhaps, to justify their neuroses.

Things get testy in the second half. The referee starts handing out cards, including a red one. The medics make two trips to the field—those "+" symbols on their backs combined with the numbers on the players' jerseys made the field look like a giant equation. A drink holder goes flying a few rows from me. A Coke takes to the air. Then suddenly, just a few minutes from the final whistle, Germany's David Odonkor, a substitute, crosses to the streaking Oliver Neuville, another sub. Neuville one-times the ball into the corner of the net. Everyone screams. The father and son next to me embrace. It takes me a full beat to realize that I've just high-fived a German fan behind me.

And that night, from what I can tell, it doesn't go off. Perhaps everyone is either too euphoric or too deflated for any fisticuffs. About the only commotion I witness comes in the Fan Camp common room shortly after the game, as my friends and I sit drinking Bitburgers. Around us a group of Poles nurse their beers, looking spent. Then, from the back of the room comes a "BANG!" and we swivel our heads. "A bomb?" one of my companions offers, maybe half-joking. No, it's a forlorn Polish fan, popping a balloon.

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