“YOU can’t be English,” said the young German woman, spotting me with a bottle of cola. “You’re not drinking beer, and you haven’t taken your top off.”
Some of the 100,000-strong English contingent who travelled to Germany for the 2006 World Cup were better at observing the national stereotype than others.
I had two excuses when I failed to live up to the stereotype on a sunny evening in Frankfurt early on in the tournament: 1) I wasn’t drinking beer because I was (and am) teetotal; 2) I didn’t take my top off because I was sober enough to realise that my body ain’t a pretty sight.
England fans still have a bad reputation abroad. Some of that is deserved, but it’s unfair to tar everyone with the same brush. In Germany three years ago, there were England fans who hung inflatable Spitfires from city-centre statues and sang anti-Irish songs, but there were also England fans who mingled happily with supporters from other countries and were prepared to show they had a sense of fun. The four students from London who turned up at the Italy-Czech Republic match in Hamburg dressed as the Teletubbies, for instance, were arguably more entertaining that the game they attended.
I didn’t know I was going to the World Cup until less than a month before the tournament started. The Manchester Evening News had just begun experimenting with blogging on its website, and the editor felt it would be a good way to cover the tournament.
The idea was to send a reporter out there to get a fan’s eye view of the competition, beyond the heavily stage-managed press conferences, the Sepp Blatter platitudes and the endless hype and inevitable disappointment surrounding the England team.
I wasn’t first choice for the assignment; at least one other person turned it down. For me, that was stroke of luck No. 1. There were three more.
Two: Because the M.E.N. was still getting its head around the whole blogging lark, I was giving a free reign to write about pretty much anything I liked, as long as I posted twice a day.
Three: The competition was held in Germany, which is not only a very friendly country, but also has an excellent public transport system.
Four: Each of the 12 host cities had catered for supporters travelling without tickets by setting up giant Fan Fest parks with big screens. It meant that if you couldn’t get a ticket for the game, you could still visit the city and enjoy the atmosphere.
By and large, that’s what I did. And that was how I started blogging. I travelled with no media accreditation and no match tickets. I did get into four games while I was out there. A friend got me a ticket for England’s opening game with Paraguay in Frankfurt, while I took a chance and went to the touts to get in to three other games.
It was a tout’s paradise in Germany, and that was largely down to FIFA’s incompetence. They managed to come up with a strategy that made it virtually impossible to resell tickets legally. And during the group stage, the touts thrived.
Yet when the knockout stages began, I noticed that black market tickets suddenly became a lot cheaper. Whereas the touts had been charging 2,000 euros for a chance to see Brazil play Australia in the group stage, it was possible to buy a ticket for Portugal’s second-round meeting with Holland on the black market for just 150 euros.
The reason? Fans from South Korea, Croatia and all the other countries who had been knocked out in the group stage were selling their tickets, flooding the market.
The worst night of the tournament for the touts probably came in Cologne, when Switzerland met Ukraine in the second round. The Swiss had surprisingly won their group, when France had been the favourites to do so. Many French fans had bought tickets for the match in Cologne on the assumption that their team would be involved. Instead, Thierry Henry and his mates had to face Spain in Hanover. Those French fans were now competing with the touts for business.
“Swap: Four Switzerland v Ukraine tickets for one France v Spain ticket,” read a card held up by one Frenchman. He’d have been lucky, even at that exchange rate.
I considered buying a ticket there and then. Then I thought: No. Let the touts sweat for a while – it’s about time they earned their money.
So I headed off into the city centre and watched the match on the big screen there for a while. When I got back to the ground at half-time, a handful of touts were still there, looking utterly forlorn. One offered me a 60-euro ticket for 40 euros. It seemed a price worth paying.
With hindsight, I was probably still overcharged. It was easily the worst game of the tournament. Both sets of players gave the ball away and fell over a lot, and the fans inside the stadium, many of them German, were not impressed.
A fan from Hanover, who bought the seat next to mine from the same tout, kindly translated the chants for me. “There are singing, ‘Oh, this is so nice,’” he said. “We call it English humour.”
A chorus of boos greeted the whistle for the end of normal time and extra time. Even the penalties were dreadful, with Ukraine going through on the basis that at least they were able to score some of theirs.
As they celebrated, the stadium DJ had the brass neck to play ‘Stand Up For The Champions’, one of around 36,453 football-related songs set to the tune of ‘Go West’.
I spent three-and-a-half weeks in Germany, visiting 13 cities in 26 days. I went to the concentration camp at Dachau with a group of English, German and Polish fans to remember the 42,000 people who died there, and found it a chilling experience. I saw Germany play Argentina on a big screen in the shadow of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, along with one million other fans, and was overwhelmed with the significance of both venue and the occasion.
I saw some pretty surreal stuff, too. The sight of women dressed as giant condoms outside the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, handing out contraceptives to fans as part of a safe sex campaign, was not one I could shift from my mind easily.
Germany 2006 was weird, moving, powerful and funny. Even if I do cover other World Cups in the future, they’re unlikely to top my first.