Football: Some of my best friends are Germans

A story for the World Cup
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The Independent Online
VISITING Berlin while the Germany-Portugal qualifier for France 98 is being played at the Olympiastadion, I end up watching the game on TV with a bunch of old cronies across town. One of them walks in late.

"Who's playing?" he asks. "Helmer?"

"Helmer," I concur, then start reeling off other names in a kind of bored and monotonous chant. "Helm-er... Hassl-er... Basl-er..."

Others laugh and join in.

"Kohl-er... Reut-er... Zieg-e..."

The joke lumbers on through the game along with cracks about Klinsmann's manifest inability to break his international goal drought and speculation about just what kind of car the French ref, Monsieur Batta, can expect as a bung from the German authorities. "BMW!" someone shouts, as Portugal's Rui Costa gets booked. "Opel Manta!" another admonishes, as Bierhoff is judged offside. And when, in the 76th minute - just five minutes after Barbosa scores for Portugal to take the lead - Rui Costa gets a red card for the second bookable offence of not leaving the field quickly enough when substituted, everyone begins a chorus of "Mer-ced-es!! Mer-ced-es!!"

In truth, I can't remember too much more about the game, except for a general sense that, at that point, Portugal were outplaying Germany and deserved to win. My German friends seemed to agree and, jokes aside, were shaking heads in befuddlement at the harshness of Rui Costa's sending- off. But they can afford to be magnanimous. In the whole history of the World Cup, Germany have only ever lost one qualifying game, and that was back in 1985 (although, promisingly, it was to Portugal). They even find it funny that I'm sitting there among them, furiously willing their team to lose.

Someone stabs the remote and we switch to a channel that's offering the same game but with Portuguese commentary. All we hear is: "Reut-er... Zieg- e... Hassl-er... Kopk-e..."

So anyway, yes, some of my best friends are German - a statement I mean both as literal truth, and with all the irony that formulation allows. I lived in Berlin for many years, and though I don't want to live there any more, no city on earth feels more like home. I've fallen in love with Germans, travelled with Germans, drunk and danced and laughed and watched football with Germans. And I've cried on German shoulders, more than once.

Yeah, and some of the people I hate the most are German, too, but at least this is because I have got to know them. In my childhood Germans were unambiguously The Enemy. Bad eggs, the lot of 'em. My aged Grandpa, slowly expiring upstairs, had been wounded in the trenches. The top of an old chest of drawers in the attic had been splintered by falling masonry during the Blitz. Television constantly screened old movies full of heroic Brits and snarling Nazis. Me and my pals ran round the nearby woods playing Jerries and English, pointing sticks at each other and making staccato, machine-gun noises. I was 10 years old in 1966. Victory seemed right and proper.

Despite having prevailed at just about every encounter over the three intervening decades, Germans still nurse a sense of outrage about the "cheating third goal". But it does seem to me that Germans of my generation have come to deal with the past a lot better than their English equivalents, many of whom might as well be still running around with sticks going "rat- a-tat-tat-a-tat-tat". Of course, there are knobheads in every nation (and an extra-specially large amount of them in the former East Germany) but I still cannot imagine Germans taking revenge for a World Cup upset by torching English cars in the street - even if only because they would be hard pushed to find any.

I watched most of Italia 90 in the back room of the Pinguin Club, a west Berlin bar where I sometimes worked. Earlier that year, on the night of the first East German elections, I had messed around with Jagermeister, orange juice and other ingredients and finally came up with a layered drink in the colours of the German flag - the Einheitscocktail, "Unity cocktail". We would give it away free at "Great Moments in History", which cropped up that year like clockwork. Yes, went the joke as our customers grimaced - for the thing tasted truly disgusting - it is just like German unity: really complicated to put together, really expensive, and when you've finished, it makes you sick.

To live in Berlin at that time was to watch the old order, quite literally, collapsing around you. We would talk politics and history deep into the night. Everyone was worried about resurgent nationalism and the effect that a German World Cup victory might have. In the end, though, German friends would quite reasonably shrug and admit: "But I still want us to win, because that's my team."

And, of course, I felt the same about England, wobbling their way towards the semi-final. The Cameroon tie came just a couple of days after currency union and the last gasp of the East German economy. The day of the semi- final against Germany found me flying to England on family business. I caught most of the first half between planes at Schiphol airport. On the next plane, the captain kept us up to date with the score. "We're now flying at 33,000 feet - and Lineker has just equalised."

Right in the middle of the penalty shoot-out, seconds after Pearce fluffed it, we landed and the captain went silent. Everyone dashed out of the plane and into the terminal, looking to left and right. No TV. No nothing. My dad was there to pick me up and we raced back to my parents' house. On the doorstep stood my mother, who silently shook her head.

Back in London for Euro 96, I called up the Pinguin before the semi-final. They laughed: "We were just thinking of calling you, too." I called them later from a payphone in a pub, drunk and a little deflated. They were gracious and sympathetic: "It should have been the final, Dave, just like it should have been in 1990."

But something along the way has changed. I have always known one or two Germans who just cannot abide the national team. "Everything that's wrong with Germany," they mutter. "Organisation and system to the exclusion of personality and flair."

"I don't understand it, really," moaned one German friend in the Pinguin some time after Euro 96. "We're not South Korea. We're not China. We're not a nation of robots."

I had to laugh at this point, and we launched into a lively discussion about international perceptions of Germany. Soon it was back to football, though. "Ince!" my friend enthused. "Shearer! Gascoigne! Fantastic! What a character! Why don't we have players more like them?" Instead they have: "Kohl-er... Basl-er... Helm-er... Hassler..."

After Rui Costa's dismissal, the Portuguese manager has to pull off someone else to bring on the player he wants. Somewhere in the reshuffle, they lost whoever was supposed to be shadowing Ulf Kirsten, Germany's answer to Desperate Dan. In the 81st minute, he scores with a typically artless, thundering headlong charge. Portugal are almost certainly out. Germany, with only Armenia and Albania to face, are almost certainly through. And though everyone acknowledges it was a lacklustre performance, not one of my friends is arguing with success.

Dave Rimmer's story appears in The Agony and the Ecstasy, an anthology of new writing about the World Cup, published tomorrow (Sceptre, pounds 6.99). Commissioned and edited by the novelist Nicholas Royle, a selection of contemporary writers celebrate the World Cup in works of both fiction and non-fiction. Those contributing to the book include Pete Davies, the author of All Played Out, the best-selling book about Italia 90, David Baddiel, Maureen Freely, the screenwriter Colin Shindler and the novelist Conrad Williams. Dave Rimmer lived and worked in Berlin for eight years.

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