I am back in England after three weeks or so at the World Cup, a pilgrimage I vowed to make every four years for the rest of my life after I met an Irishman in Seoul in 2002 at his tenth finals (I think he was wearing the same tweed jacket back in 1966).
The first I travelled to was Italia ’90 and compared to that, Germany’s organisation was light years ahead. Germany’s rail network was excellent and Bandarqq although its ICE trains were not quite as fast as France’s TGVs in 1998 or Japan’s Shinkansens (bullet trains) four years ago, they were very frequent and reliable. I found the city transports almost faultless, with the exception of the near fatal crush on Gelsenkirchen’s trams, which appeared to be running a Bank Holiday service before the USA v Czech Republic match.
Accommodation was readily available although I did fall foul of one of the many establishments that took your money and allowed no cancellations once travel plans changed, as they invariably do for fans in knock-out tournaments.
The fan fests were great ideas and worked very well, except for the draconian ban on bringing water in despite the searing temperatures, and the hard sell from the sponsors at every opportunity.
This leads me to another gripe with FIFA.
Given the indefensible ticketing policy that gave England an official total allocation of 14,700 and a company called Avaya 25,000, and saw dozens of people with “Suche karten” (want tickets) signs in every host city, why did we have to sit there and listen to the stadium announcer at every match triumphantly announce the game was sold out, with the same words in block capitals on the big screens? It was a sell-out all right.
Throughout I marvelled at the folly of England’s efforts to stage the 2006 World Cup. For a start England’s transport network is some years behind Germany’s, where trams, cycle lanes and double decker trains are the norm, not the rarity. One could argue that England’s stadia are better, though the modern arenas in Munich and Gelsenkirchen are streets ahead of anything the home of football has, until perhaps the new Arsenal and Wembley stadia open.
I thought the choice of three venues with running tracks, Stuttgart, Nuremburg and Berlin, also meant three venues with subdued atmospheres however renovated the buildings were, and at least England would have hosted the finals with soccer-only arenas. But the ‘smaller’ stadia such as Cologne and Hannover had top drawer atmospheres and superb sightlines. My favourite remained Leipzig, the most spectacular of the venues from the inside and so grand and imposing from outside, with a monumental approach redolent of the 1930s.
I would question the choice of small and inaccessible Kaiserslautern as a host city although Moenchengladbach might well have replaced it had their stadium renovation plan been in place by the time of the initial bid. One could argue that Derby, a venue touted for an English World Cup bid, has similar shortcomings.
But I do not wish to moan. The World Cup was at home in a great host nation and was a superb fan experience all things considered.
The best two things about the decision to give the World Cup to Germany were the amount of space in the country available for visitors and the positive reaction of the host nation’s people. Germany’s cities were so visitor friendly, boasting wide streets, many of them pedestrianised, and extensive beer gardens to make all the fans feel happy and relaxed.
The Germans were relaxed too. Even when thousands poured into the streets of Berlin or Munich after German victories the atmosphere was hugely celebratory, not aggressively tribal as it would have been in England.
There were TVs everywhere, even in the river (in Frankfurt) and the fan fests proved they had got it right in welcoming fans with or without tickets (most people saw none).
Above all it seemed the authorities were welcoming the influx, not worrying about any possible problems that could result. Unofficial merchandise was everywhere and there were no problems finding flags, scarves and shirts with the country of your choice, far cheaper and more attractive than the perenially overpriced and ugly official FIFA souvenirs.
I remember Euro ’96 as a tournament with unreliable transport connections, police and local authorities afraid of putting up big screens because of the public order risk and the centre of London oblivious to the tournament that was taking place on its doorstep. Add to the fact England is a cramped and awkward country where football fervour too often leads to ugly nationalism and you can see why Germany was so much the better choice.
I salute them for hosting a terrific party where it was hard to see what more the Germans could have done to live up their motto of ‘Die Welt Zu Gast Bei Freunden’ – the world as a guest among friends, or, as they translated it, ‘A Time to Make Friends’.