What a week! The group stage is over and knockout round begins today. For some of us, it has been a traumatic few days.
First, my beloved Unicorns — the amateur club I play on here in Berlin — lost our league championship by one point. A grave disappointment for me but, I realize, not necessarily for the entire country.
Then on Wednesday came something even more harrowing: Germany, the reigning world champion, was defeated by South Korea 2-0 and lost its chance at winning the World Cup. In the first round. The team finished at bottom of their group.
The sympathy flowed in from my friends abroad. “It must be like a morgue there,” one texted me. “Are they crying in the streets?” another asked.
If you were looking for doom and gloom, there was much to be found. My neighbor Peter, a writer, had watched the match on a sunny rooftop plaza — perhaps too lofty a location for such a mediocre showing. (It’s hard to deny that the German team’s playing was subpar.) When I asked him how he felt afterward, he said there was an air of “depression.” A fistfight had even broken out.
Peter suggested that there were implications for the nation’s soul itself, with the team’s exit from the tournament reflecting a wider sense of unease. Chancellor Angela Merkel is right now fighting for her political survival at home, where she’s facing pressure to be tougher on immigrants and refugees, both within her own party and from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party.
A few weeks ago, I wrote in this newsletter about how the far right views the ethnically diverse national team. A person I talked to on the streets of Berlin on Wednesday had another thought about the connection between football and politics: She was worried that the team’s defeat would play into the far right’s self-pitying, us-versus-them worldview. “I just hope that some of those flags disappear now,” she said, “and the nationalism right along with them.”
Nils, a software engineer I met at a nearby bar, remembered how four years ago, German television had broadcast a live stream of the national team’s plane on its way to the World Cup in Brazil. Everyone had been more optimistic then, in football and in life. It would have been good for Germany if the team had gone through to the next round, he said, “because the atmosphere in the country is not that nice, and sometimes sports can help.”
But there are many sides to Berlin — and to Germany. After the match, as I passed some fans walking mournfully home, I found a beer garden full of local families who seemed very relaxed about Germany’s World Cup demise. Children squealed joyously in a wooden playhouse, dogs lolled their tongues on the grass.
Outside, I asked a local if he saw any connection between what had happened on the pitch and what was happening in the government. He didn’t. “This year we have come together to celebrate the team and not talk about politics,” he said.
Now it’s time for the next rounds. As I write this, I’m getting ready for France versus Argentina, which is sure to be a fun match. I have no doubt that the bars in Berlin will still be full.
Musa Okwonga is a poet and writer based in Berlin. He is the author of two books on football, A Cultured Left Foot and Will You Manage?