Sun shines on Germany for World Cup

COLOGNE – When world soccer’s governing body FIFA decided six years ago to award the 2006 World Cup to Germany ahead of England, Morocco and South Africa, the critics pounced immediately. They said it was an unimaginative decision which would not help take the game beyond its traditional bastions, especially as Germany had hosted the tournament in 1974. The Germans, they argued, had nothing new to offer to the greatest sporting show in the world after the Olympics. How wrong the critics were. Germany has not only embraced the 18th World Cup, it has taken it in, given it a lavish dinner and kept it entertained with sparkling conversation. On arriving in Cologne it is strikingly clear that you have gained access to one almighty party. There is a spring-like array of color as the flags of the 32 countries taking part adorn the airport, shops, cars and homes. Some apartments proudly fly the flags of more than one country. The majority sports the gold, red and black of Germany, but there are enough green and yellow Brazilian flags flying here to make it seem like a suburb of Rio. Even teams that have been knocked out of the tournament, like Poland and Croatia, still have supporters; the red and white banners hanging out of apartment windows serve as an indication of the roots of those living inside. Cosmopolitan spirit These days the World Cup is about so much more than just soccer. Naturally, there are the commercial interests but FIFA has stated its intent to use soccer as a force to drive development in far-flung corners of the globe and unify people who share a love of the game. With this spirit in mind, perhaps there is no more fitting place to hold the World Cup than Germany. This is the country, after all, that more than any other reached out to migrants in the wake of World War II and offered them a place to live, study and, above all, work. In return, the migrants gave Germany everything they had. Their impact is perhaps more visible in this part of the federal state of Nordrhein-Westfalen than any other German city. Cologne is the oldest major city in Germany, dating back to AD 50 when the Romans where in charge here. Since then, it has been taken over by the French and bombed into ruins by Allied airplanes during World War II. So-called guest workers and foreign students from Eastern Europe, Turkey, Italy and Greece (current Greek President Karolos Papoulias among them) have played a part in rebuilding the city, which takes up some 40,000 hectares on the left and right banks of the River Rhine, while imbuing it with a cosmopolitan spirit. Today, some 20 percent of the city’s 1 million inhabitants are foreigners. For a few weeks this summer, that number has temporarily shot up. Cologne is renowned for its carnival, which is known as the city’s «fifth season» and starts on November 11 each year. This year, the carnival has come to town early. Cologne has hosted five games during this World Cup and the city’s carnival-loving residents were out in force at the match between Togo and France on Friday, making sure the event was sold out even though the Africans had no chance of advancing from Group G after losing their first two games. For France, there was everything to play for. This was the side that had scaled the world’s soccer mountain by winning the World Cup on home turf in 1998. The French confirmed their place on the peak two years later when they were crowned European champions. After that, France began sliding down the slope. It was eliminated from the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan without scoring a goal. The malaise was confirmed in 2004 when Greece beat France on its way to a historic European Championship win in Portugal. In 1998, the images of the players, many of whom were the sons of foreign migrants, were beamed onto the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as France hailed the side as the ultimate example of what multiculturalism could achieve. Eight years later and with the recent riots in France fresh in the mind, politicians are no longer so keen to associate themselves with the current team. Going into the game, France knew that a win by two goals or more would guarantee «Les Bleus» a place in the second round of the tournament after draws against South Korea and Switzerland. In comparison, the Sparrow Hawks had been unlucky to lose to South Korea and Switzerland, leaving them with only pride to play for. Yet, for one balmy evening in June, the people of Cologne decided to adopt Togo’s lost cause. Togo or not Togo In some ways the fate of the African side had been the story of this tournament. Three days before its debut appearance at a World Cup, Togo’s 68-year-old German coach Otto Pfister walked out on the team after the country’s soccer federation refused to pay the players’ bonuses. Pfister, however, was on the bench for Togo’s first game despite being called a drunkard and a traitor by the federation’s secretary-general Komlan Assogbavi. The German later admitted that his walkout had been designed to spur the soccer officials into action. Before its second game, it was the Togolese players’ turn to threaten a no-show against Switzerland. This time FIFA intervened and said it was making sure that the players would get their bonuses. The whole saga had given Togo, made up mostly of players from lowly French club sides, the tag of the ultimate outsiders. Cologne loves an outsider. The city’s biggest club side, FC Cologne, has rarely threatened to be a top contender in the German Bundesliga even though some of the country’s greatest players such as Helmut Rahn, Wolfgang Overath and Pierre Littbarski have at some stage called the Mungersdorfer stadium home. In the days of Rahn, in 1959-60, legend has it that the players drank beer for refreshment during the game because it was easier to get hold of than clean water. The club’s mascot, a billy goat named Hennes, was also famed for his beer-drinking prowess. Built in 1923, the impressive arena has since been overhauled twice. The latest renovation was completed two years ago at a cost of 119 million euros so the 46,000-seater stadium would be ready for the World Cup; no last-minute rush for the Germans. Similarly, the infrastructure and the organization were faultless. For fans using public transport, the tram ran right outside the stadium. For those driving, there were four color-coded parking lots in which to leave their cars, depending on which stand they were sitting in. The fact that 46,000 people managed to get into and out of this stadium, in Cologne’s suburbs, without a single traffic jam or even a car horn honked in anger, is testament to the superb preparation of the hosts. Every seat was sold for Friday’s game, just as every match at this World Cup has been a sellout. Understandably, France had strong support. The Marseillaise rang out around the four corners of this perfectly rectangular stadium from the throats of some 10,000 Frenchmen. Togo, however, had the support of the locals to count on. But this was not just the odd clap or cry of encouragement. Half the stadium was decked out in the brilliant yellow of the African underdogs. One German had decided to drape himself from head to toe in lemon-colored traditional African dress. You got the impression that even the most fanatic Togolese would be embarrassed to be seen at home, let alone in public, in this garb. On an occasion like this, though, the sartorially challenged German was welcomed into the crowd like a Nubian king worthy of his people’s adoration. Non-stop music No carnival would be complete without music and at this World Cup, wherever there is an African team, there is also non-stop music. Armed with bongos, drums and an endless amount of energy, a group of some 10 Togolese provided the incessant rhythm for the crowd in the stands while the French team struggled to find their tempo on the pitch. After a vibrant first 45 minutes, Togo lasted until early into the second half but two goals in quick succession from stalwarts of the once-successful French side, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, put France 2-0 ahead and put an end to the passionate resistance from the Africans. Urged on by the animated Pfister, Togo kept on pressing until the last minute but the players’ efforts were in vain. Or so it seemed because as the final whistle was blown, the crowd rose in unison to acknowledge the Africans. And then something incredible happened. As the relieved Frenchmen waved to their even more relieved fans, the Togolese began a lap of honor. This surely made the Africans the first team to ever exit the World Cup to a standing ovation after losing every game. This spontaneous act of mutual appreciation embodied the spirit of this World Cup, whose slogan is «A time to make friends.» Togo went home without gaining any points but it could take solace in the fact that it had made many friends.

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