Travel: Father and son with World Cup fever

In celebration of the 2010 World Cup, starting in a couple of days in South Africa, we’re reprinting a travel story from four years ago, when Summit Voice editor and publisher Bob Berwyn and his son, Dylan, enjoyed some first-hand Cup action during a trip through Germany, Austria and France.

Poland and Armenia line up before the start of a Euro 2008 qualifying match. PHOTO COURTESY THE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

By Bob Berwyn

We know we’re about to dive into the midst of World Cup madness even while our plane is still far out over the Atlantic. Instead of telling us about the weather at our destination, the pilot gives updates on the first game of the tournament. When he announces the score of the opener – Germany 4, Costa Rica 2 – most of the passengers cheer, setting the tone for the landing at Frankfurt International Airport.

Soccer fever is running high, and even the normally stone-faced security guards and customs officials crack wide smiles as fans from around the globe throng through the portals. The guy who checks our passports is wearing a Brazil bracelet, and the final inspector waves us through with a big grin and without so much as a glance at my backpack: “Willkommen in Deutschland. Viel Spass!”

Dylan, my 8-year-old son, marvels at the riot of colorful jerseys, T-shirts, flags, hats and balls, and immediately starts calculating how many souvenirs he’ll be able to carry back. I see it as a teachable moment, and I’m hoping that by the end of our trip, he’ll recognize the 32 flags of the countries participating in the tournament and know how to locate them on a map.

I’ll even have to do some homework myself. Some of the teams in the Cup — Serbia-Montenegro and Croatia, for example — are representing countries that didn’t exist when I was growing up in Germany back in the 1960s and 70s. And Serbia and Montenegro split into separate countries since qualifying for the 2006 Cup began, further illustrating rapid-fire changes in the European geopolitical map.

As the European umbrella broadens, smaller cultures within the region have re-emerged and staked claim to what, in some cases, are ancient, almost tribal identities. While there’s been some fear that European integration will lead to a loss of cultural roots, I actually believe, based on a few recent trips, the opposite will hold true.

Far from being old and settled, Europe has a progressive, wide-open feel to it these days, as the open borders of the EU enable a stimulating and invigorating re-invention of what it means to live, work and play here. In spite of short-term economic hiccups, the security offered by the larger structure likely will encourage a flowering of regional and local cultures.

The World Cup, we come to find, is helping with that cultural integration, as tens of thousands of fans from every corner of the globe mingle at airports, train stations and during the giant street parties that become the hallmark of this summer’s cup. People here are beginning to think of themselves as Europeans, marking an astoundingly quick evolution of political consciousness in a region that for centuries was marked by intense nationalism.

Meanwhile, Dylan and I have become incidental World Cup tourists. Our last-minute trip to Germany, Austria and France wasn’t planned around the event, but I was aware that we’d be parachuting into the middle of what is best described as a month-long Superbowl, spread out across a country just a bit smaller than Texas. We don’t have tickets to any of the games, but we’re not alone. Most of the people we meet are there as members of a global soccer tribe, wrapped in flags, with faces painted in the colors of their national teams.

It’s not always easy to tell who’s who — in many cases, they’ve swapped banners, and it’s just as easy to find an Italian draped in a Brazlian flag as it is to find an Argentinian wearing a French jersey. But many still take their football seriously.

On the train to the Cup

On the early morning train from Frankfurt to Munich, while Dylan sleeps in our compartment, I chat with a hardcore German fan in the stand-up dining car, where he’s enjoying a breakfast beer or three, along with some sausages. He tells me the German tricolor flag on his face, already smeared from the first night’s revelry, will stay as long as his team remains in the chase. He’s happy about his team’s win, but not convinced by their performance, and he actually touts the American team as a contender. (The U.S. lost in the qualifying rounds.)

Munich has always been a hotbed of German soccer. It’s home to FC Bayern, the most successful team in the Bundesliga, and several of that team’s star players form an important core of the national squad. The train station is rocking when we arrive, mostly with Mexican fans preparing for their team’s match versus Iran the following day in Nürnberg. It seems that every inch of sidewalk space is taken up stands selling everything from soccer-related flip-flops and beach towels, to keychains and cleats.

After an afternoon nap slightly mitigates our jetlag, we venture out into the streets, where the main square, Marienplatz, has been transformed into a giant outdoor beer hall, at this point echoing with cries of Viva Mexico! In one of those small-world deals, we bump into a cluster of futbol fans from Denver: Hector, Manny, Fred and the rest of their crew have flown in with their families for all three first-round games, and we compare notes on the festivities so far.

We’re in my old college-days stomping grounds, so I show them around and we quickly strike up a fan-based friendship. It turns out that part of their gang couldn’t make the trip, and they have a couple of extra tickets for the game against Iran the next day. They’ve already sold a few and made some cash, and they generously invite us to join them for the trek to Nürnberg. What an unexpected treat! The game is a routine opening round match, but the vibe is incredible, and we return to our Munich digs completely energized and ready for whatever else the cup may throw our way.

Even some of Munich’s oldest traditions give way as the tournament proceeds. The city’s old-fashioned beer gardens, shaded by magnificent chestnut trees, have always been oases of peace and quiet from the urban hustle. But for the tournament big-screen TVs are set up outside, and the Oompah band is having a hard time holding the crowd’s attention.

As we wander back into the city later, we stumble on to the World Street Football championships, ending the evening with a group of Brazilians who have set up an impromptu samba stand. Dylan convinces me that he absolutely needs a yellow and green street football (a little lighter and smaller than a regulation ball) and even though I have no clue how we’re going to schlep it around Europe for the next three weeks, I get caught up in the moment, and before you know it, we’re dribbling our way down the sidewalk and back into the subway.

By the time we roll into Linz, Austria (our base camp for the bulk of the three-week trip), Dylan has become a self-proclaimed soccer expert, especially once he grasps the offsides rule, and wants to bet on all the games. Truth be told, it’s a pretty easy game to understand, probably one of the things that makes it so appealing. And on this level, it’s more — much more — than a sport.

Fútbol … everywhere

As the days progress, it becomes clear that this World Cup is an international catharsis, a clearinghouse for politics, social and cultural issues. It becomes so easy suddenly, based on the common interest in the game, to approach nearly anyone on the street who’s wearing a jersey or wristband and start a friendly conversation.

During an impromptu pickup game on a field near the Danube, disaster nearly strikes. After a long run down the field, Dylan launches a powerful right-footed kick toward my goal, but it spins off his foot and tumbles down the embankment into the river as I secretly feared might happen. We watch the ball swirl in an eddy and look for a long stick. It floats tantalizingly, just out of reach and looks like it’s about to head downstream toward Vienna and the Black Sea beyond. Just in the nick of time, a kayaker appears and sweeps the ball back to shore with his paddle.

We watch games everwhere: In our hotel room, at my aunt’s apartment with my dad (who gives Dylan the same soccer insights that he shared with me 40 years ago), in the town square with thousands of other fans and in tiny street corner pubs and even in store window televisions, where Dylan instantly makes friends with other young fans, debating the relative skills of Klose and Ronaldo, and then practicing their step-over dribbles and behind-the-leg passes.

By the time the quarterfinals roll around, we’ve worked our way to the French Riveria. Just down the road from St. Tropez, we pile into a beach café to watch Germany take on favored Argentina, and the place is packed once again with fans from all over. While there’s no historic love lost between Germany and France, the natives are exceedingly polite, cheering the Argentine side’s first score and then applauding wildly as the Germans equalize with a deliciously graceful and deadly combination of headers past the replacement goalie. Everything stops as the teams line up for penalty kicks, and when the Germans prevails, everyone hoists their glass for a salute to the warriors on the field.

“Germany against France in the finals,” says Jean, the friendly waiter, before waving us out the door.

We catch only a few glimpses of the rest of the quarterfinals during the long train ride from southern France back to Frankfurt, but it only takes a one quick look at the glum Brazilians sleeping off their hangovers in the train station to know that the dreams of the South Americans have been dashed, at least for this year, while blue-clad French fans can’t seem to stop hugging each other.

Thanks to the miracle of jet travel, we return to Summit County in time for the semis, watching in near disbelief as the Azurri patiently wait for almost 120 minutes to decide the crucial match against the host team.

The trip is over, but the memories linger, and our summer sojourn in Europe will always be remembered as the World Cup trip. We’re already making plans to return in 2008, when the European Championships will be held in Austria and Switzerland.


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