On my second trip to Europe this summer, I visited the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. My hotel was just off of Ludwigstrasste, about a mile and a half from the library. I’ve been to Germany many times now, even living there for a year. I was used to sedate, polite, not-too-emotional, always-in-control people. Not too patriotic either.
When my wife and I moved to Tübingen from Münster during my sabbatical several years ago, we had the privilege of living in university housing. I asked the landlord if it would be OK if I draped a flag on our balcony. He discouraged us from doing so. When I said, “not an American flag, but a German one,” he still discouraged us. It wasn’t forbidden of course, but it was frowned upon. I didn’t know if this was his peculiar attitude or was one shared by many of his countrymen. As the year went on, the sense I got was that Germans were not particularly patriotic. (I won’t go into the reasons why.)
But this trip was different. I flew to Germany during World Cup Soccer. At first, I landed at Heathrow Airport in London, just when the game between Britain and Germany was starting. I landed in Düsseldorf when the game was wrapping up. And for the first time, I noticed a rabid crowd in Germany. They beat England and moved on to the next round. And they were going berserk! A week later, I was in Munich. The crowds there were even more unrestrained than the ones in northwestern Germany.
While I was in Munich, Germany played Argentina in the semi-finals. I was in my hotel room, listening to the crowds in the surrounding apartments, as the game was going on. I could tell every time that Germany scored a goal: the din was supersonic. After a couple of hours of failing at getting a late afternoon nap, I finally went down out to get some dinner. I wasn’t prepared for what I would see. The main drag, Ludwigstrasse, was jam-packed with people. The street was blocked off in both directions as far as the eye could see. This would be at least a mile. The crowds were thicker than Bourbon Street on a Saturday night. Guys were peeing on walls in plain sight. Cops were everywhere but they were essentially just keep major crimes down. A guy stole a large German flag right in front of me. All I wanted to do was get a meal but all the cafes were overflowing—standing room only. There were several ad hoc beer stands, with long lines. No cars were on the street—it had been roped off. Tens of thousands of broken beer bottles littered the street. People draped themselves in German flags, old women painted their faces with Germany’s colors, shoes were painted the same way. Even the BMW Museum, north of downtown by a few klicks, got into the spirit of the event by offering free face painting of black, red, and gold. Patriotism was back!
I finally gave up trying to get a seat at a cafe and hopped on the U-Bahn to Marienplatz. In the subway there was a kid strung out on drugs; some paramedics were trying to revive him. When I got downtown, the crowds were loud and boisterous, but not as loud, boisterous, or packed as Ludwigstrasse. I was able to get a meal. By the time I returned, 11.40 PM, Ludwigstrasse was much more subdued. Street sweepers were busy cleaning up the beer bottles, and the crowd was dissipating. By midnight it was back to normal. Cars were on the street again. It was if nothing had happened. (Germany is, after all, the cleanest country in Europe.) Except for the occasional flash of bare breasts, the live peep shows, and Dixieland jazz, Bourbon Street has nothing on Ludwigstrasse during World Cup Soccer.
The next day, two other teams were playing soccer. All the outdoor cafes had plasma TVs on so that the crowds could enjoy the games. At least a third of all the customers were wearing the colors of the country they were cheering for. But they weren’t Brazilians, and probably few were Danish. The same people who had cheered for Germany the night before were now cheering for another country with equal fervor. Perhaps my opinion of German patriotism had been exaggerated.
World Cup Soccer is far more important to Europeans than the Super Bowl is to Americans. In fact, it’s far more important to just about any country in the world than the Super Bowl is to Americans. I have yet to see old ladies wear rams’ horns, or paint themselves in gold, black, and white. But when it comes to soccer, every demographic of society cheers for their home team—and other favorites—during the World Cup.
Now, I am a slow learner. I don’t connect the dots too quickly. So, pardon me if you already knew this. But it suddenly dawned on me, while I was in Munich, that one of the easiest ways to make inroads into a foreign culture is to know soccer. Missionaries should devote quite a bit of time to knowing about the national team of the country where they will be ministering. It’s an immediate conversation starter. And it shows that we are involved in the lives of the citizens, in the things that are important to them. I would strongly recommend that missionaries learn the names of all the national soccer players, and learn their stats, too. Know what city they are from, what position they play, how they are regarded in their homeland. Missionaries have a tough job just getting accepted in a foreign land (much like anyone from another state moving to Maine!). Knowing soccer, and becoming a genuine soccer fan, is a great way to open doors. And if they can get a hold of a TV, they should invite their neighbors over to watch the games. The next time the World Cup rolls around, I plan to do a little homework, since I don’t know what countries I’ll be in. Wherever it is, I’ll know soccer.