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A German World Cup

A few days ago I sat in front of the television as the United States team held on for a tie against Italy in the World Cup of soccer. The TV commentators lauded the effort of the American team, which played with a one-man disadvantage during nearly all of the second half. They also cursed the referee who gave red cards to two American players.

I enjoyed the game but, unlike the residents of real soccer-playing nations, I didn't grow up living and dying by the successes of the U.S. team. So my emotional investment is less than it might be. One thing that does stir some nostalgic memories, however, is seeing this year's World Cup take place in Germany.

In 1978, I was in Germany for a year as a high school student, living with a family in Hamburg. I'll save you the trouble of counting the years backwards in multiples of four. It was a World Cup year.


Not only was it a World Cup year, but one in which the German team was the defending champion. I had just turned 18 years old at the time. I was a small town kid from the Midwest who was naive about most things, but especially unfamiliar with the grave importance of soccer to sports fans in most of the rest of the world.

That year the tournament took place in Argentina. Naturally, everyone in my host family was glued to the TV for most matches. And I remember the Argentine stadiums vibrating with astounding noise whenever the host team ran onto the field in their blue and white striped uniforms.

In 1978, the German team did not win the World Cup, nor did it reach the final. The German newspapers reported a suicide in which the victim cited the poor play of the national team as one reason to end it all.

When I look back on those days, I'm struck by the way world politics have changed. Back then the Cold War was still going on and Germany was divided into East and West. Argentina, whose team would win the World Cup that year, was a fascist dictatorship whose dirty war against its own citizens is now well known.

In 1978, Germany was not just a divided country but one that had undergone radical changes. It's hard for me to imagine a nation more haunted and more changed by a shameful past. As a result of World War II, the Germany I saw had gone from fascism to pacifism. Its ruthless Gestapo had been replaced by a timid police force that had no idea what to do when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.


Today, Germany is united again, and it's probably much changed from when I last lived there. Meanwhile, America has surely lost what was once its sterling reputation in Germany as a benevolent victor and defender of freedom.

Still, it's sweetly nostalgic for me to watch TV and see the German soccer stadiums filled with fans and to imagine them spilling out into to winding medieval streets in city centers to celebrate a victory. I love hearing the poetry in the names of mid-sized German cities like Kaiserslautern and Gelsenkirchen, where the American team has taken the field.

So as I watch the games this year I'll raise a glass of pilsner and remember my youth and the time I spent in a complex, changing and fascinating European country.