I’d been facing the arrival of this day with a steadily increasing sense of dread, knowing what I’d agreed to subject myself to. It would tricky enough were I to align myself with my adopted city of Munich, one of Nuremburg’s two archrivals. It would be comparably difficult were I fan of the sport that I, but not most Europeans, grew up calling “football”. It would probably even be problematic were I a fan of some other comparably popular competitive spectator sport, though I’d be hard pressed to come up with a single example that even approaches the popularity of soccer in Europe, especially in Germany where they call it “Fußball” (a word which still evokes for me a wrist-wrenching table game played with something like a cross between a ping-pong ball and a golf ball). That I’d ever been a fan of any sort of team sport, be it American or European – indeed, I’ve never even understood the mindset of team sport participation, let alone sport fandom – promised to make the afternoon bizarre, at the very least. Add into that my deep dislike of crowds, as well as the fact that the day’s match was against Nuremburg’s second greatest rival, the derby game against their twin city of Fürth, and it was rendered increasingly uncomfortable as we approached the security check. As with the few high school sporting events I’d been forced to attend, all the shouting and chanting filled me with a deep sense of discomfort, unease, and confusion. I wasn’t certain whether the presence of Die Polizei in riot gear made me feel safer or more nervous. At least the press of bodies eased up a bit once I’d been frisked and the contents of my purse inspected.
It’s hard not to think of another sort of potentially violent form of group-think, here in what was once the heart of the Third Reich. The kilometer-long pilgrimage along the Dutzendteich lake would require wearing a blindfold, if one wanted to avoid any reminders of National Socialism. Across the lake is the Volkskongress, the never-finished assembly hall which now houses a documentation center which preserves the history of that horrible time. The half-razed Steintribune features in too many well-known film clips with tens of thousands of Nazis marching in front of the massive edifice. The stone pylons around the Zeppelinfeld are surrounded by chainlink and razor wire, with an oddly familiar green sign stating “Emergency Exit: No Parking” auf Englisch, presumably mounted by my countrymen once they’d taken over the place in 1945.
At least it was an easy even to dress for: my wardrobe contains plenty of red and black, and none of the kelly green that would get me mistaken for a supporter of Fürth. Nuremburg can’t seem to decide which shade of red is their color, oddly enough. The uniforms are the sort of maroon color one could, at a stretch, call “Harvard Crimson”, one which says “Weinrot” on the nostalgic lace-up jersey we purchase for me to wear. Equally represented, however, is a bright, true, primary-cherry red, the sort of candy-apple that perfectly graces a 1965 Ford Mustang convertible. When I ask if this shade isn’t too close to the red of Munich’s red and white, that color is dismissed as “much more orangey” and “infrared”. Neither do I get an answer to the question of why, if Nuremburg’s colors are red and black, the jerseys of both fans and athletes have white accents. Apparently the nuances of athletic fashion are lost on me. I enter the arena wearing a cherry-striped black scarf that clashes horribly with my burgundy shirt.
If my vague memories from deep in the mists of time are correct, this jersey is roughly the same color as those worn by my team during the single season I spent playing girls’ soccer in fifth grade. I vaguely recall the mechanics of the game, though I find myself somewhat confused by the fact that the goalies don’t match their teams in this game. American football played by far the largest role in my home, and the red to which I was encouraged to feel allegiance was the “Go Big Red” (my first complete sentence, according to family legend) of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Even though my parents’ alma mater was in the midst of its frequently victorious Tom Osbourne years during my childhood and adolescence, the appeal of spectator sports was lost on me even then. My comprehension and success in participatory sports fared not much better. My body, which could handle dancing and piano-playing with ease, steadfastly refused to acquire any of the gross motor coordination required to throw, catch, kick, dribble, or in any other way handle a ball. If there is such a thing as orbophobia, fear of spherically-shaped sports equipment, I surely had it. In short, I was hopeless. While playing goalie, the ball got by me more often than not; I was equally useless as a fullback.
My anxiety grew as we took the bus from near the apartment of my friend’s brother, where we had parked the car, towards the Dutzendteich Bahnhof bus stop, where we would begin our inexorable march towards the stadium. I started grasping for an out. At one point, we passed by a forest; drawing on my years of attempting to be Danish, I suggested that we could go for a nice walk amongst the trees instead. We passed the Tiergarten stop, and I piteously offered to go to the zoo for the duration of the game. As we walked along the lake, my nervousness blossomed into the ridiculous. “I could go play with the fishes... it’s not that cold!” Signage advertised an “Erotik-Messe” in the building next to the stadium, which I will confess, despite its sleazy reputation, sounded vastly more appealing than spending my afternoon in the company of 50,000 screaming soccer fans.
Along with extant reminders of Germany’s racist atrocities are some rather uncomfortable reminders of atrocities committed by my homeland. After seeing a few examples, I remark on the rather incongruous and unexpected experience of seeing the Confederate battle flag in Germany. I am informed that there is a particular segment of FCN fans who have taken this symbol as their own. (I later discover that this is widely spread around Europe, the soccer fans who use it are well aware of its racist overtones, and that they are usually sufficiently racist themselves that they don’t care.) I find myself torn between the desire to beat my forehead against the nearest ugly Nazi concrete pylon, and the overwhelming urge to find one of these clueless douchenozzles and punch him in the nose. In light of the fevered pitch of the day’s game, my hosts remind me that it would be ill-advised to start a fistfight. Security was so tight I didn’t even dare to bring my knitting.
Most of the people in our section are sufficiently well-behaved that the panic attack I feared while in the security line never emerged. One notable exception is the fellow across the aisle from me whom I have chosen to think of as “Mr. Shouty”. He has one of the Southern Cross buttons on his jean jacket, and I imagine that he’d shout pretty loudly at me as well, were I to succumb to the compulsion to walk over, rip it off his clothing, and crush it beneath my foot. Lower down and to my right is the Überfan section, which has not stopped singing, drumming, chanting, and waving flags since well before I sat down. In a way, they make me think of practitioners of some ancient ecstatic religion, one where transportation away from the mundane is achieved via dance and vocalization. I find myself wondering what the history is behind of the two shades of red, as the black and red stripes and crosses on their flags are uncomfortably close to the black and red of the Swastika. It doesn’t require much imagination to envision them with slightly different flags, singing currently verboten songs, changing now unthinkable slogans, following their shouts of “Sieg!” with “Heil!”, and waving a banner with a picture not of Max Morlock (a legendary FCN player after whom the street outside is named, and after whom many fans want to name the stadium), but of Der Führer.
I’ve often wondered if there is something broken in my brain, some missing element that allows a human being to transform from an individual into one of hundreds or thousands, thinking and acting in unison. Even my very left-wing and anti-authoritarian host, who later ends up in an argument with his brother about unthinking obedience to and compliance with the police, muses that he might have found it hard to resist the crowd-inflaming sentiments that were whipped up in this very place so many years ago. While some might find it joyous, even glorious, to feel so unified in purpose with so many other people, whether for innocent purposes or not, I frankly find it frightening. Where others might feel compelled to let go and get caught up in the moment, I tense up and retreat into my mind, always an observer, never a participant. This much, however, is certain: nothing drives me to put pen to paper faster than being in a strange situation I don’t comprehend. This essay was half begun mentally well before I dug my ever-present notebook out of my purse. Perhaps it would be good for my writing if I made a habit of lurking in the corners of places I’d otherwise never venture, channeling my experiences into the written word as a means of processing all the unfamiliarity. At the very least, it has been the only way I could cope with this, my first professional football match. Nuremburg lost, 0-1; I gained something less compelling and definable than victory, but nevertheless useful.