Anyone who went to the world cup will know just how much hotel prices ramped up. The one consolation of not being able to afford to stay in the centre of Frankfurt was the chance to avoid the usually affordable, but rather seedy looking hotel district around the central station. My trip for the Confederations Cup, the year before, had seen me lodged into a Turkish run establishment which although not terrible, did have that look of one of those hotels that acquires all of its furniture from the house clearance sales of dead elderly people.
As it was I couldn’t check in upon arrival as my room was still occupied, and was told to come back in two hours. On my return I was told I could check in and go to my room if I wanted, but that the room hadn’t been cleaned yet. I decided that would be the best option. After all, how bad could a room apparently previously occupied by teenage girls be? I was surprised to say the least. I’m not a fastidiously tidy person myself, but it looked like a herd of buffalo had stampeded through the room, and then the most insomnia afflicted of the herd had tried sleeping there. Had Black Sabbath stayed there for a week it would probably have looked tidier. OK, I thought, this is all going to be changed and cleaned up by a severely underpaid maid, so I’ll just have a quick shave and be gone. I went to the sink and found I wasn’t the first person to have had that idea that day. Quite what the girls had been shaving, I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to know, but if those were leg hairs then they must have legs that wouldn’t look out of place in the back row of a rugby scrum. I decided against the shave. I could bear to look scruffy for the day. It was just then, razor in hand, that perfect timing meant the maid opened the door, saw me, and apologized and left. Fantastic – now she’d think I made all that mess. And not only that, if I didn’t clean the sink she’d be convinced I was the one who’d had the novelty shave in the sink as well.
My World Cup hotel in Frankfurt, on the other hand, had me based for 6 nights in a no-frills budget hotel at the end of an industrial estate called Niederrad. The hotel itself was fine, despite having to check in three times as my booking was actually 3 separate internet bookings, due to the vagaries of the internet room availability process, and even the 15 minute walk to the station didn’t seem too bad once you knew the short cut. On the downside, it was at the arse end of ½ a square mile of factories and office buildings, and the streets were so empty you wondered if you’d stepped onto the set of a low-budget 50s sci-fi film, where the whole town has been kidnapped by aliens. The one thing it did have going for it, other than being reasonably priced and free from the trappings of the kind of Brazilian artistry not related to football, was that it was slap bang between the stadium and the city centre, and just one handy train stop from both. From there it was a four minute, one-stop trip to the main station.
The city had apparently been swamped with English fans for the opening England game of the World Cup, but my ticket allocation in Frankfurt was for the Portugal v Iran match, as well as today’s game, South Korea v Togo. It’s fair to say that South Korea’s fans hugely outnumbered Togo’s. The red-clad fans were everywhere, many of who seem to be dressed to get noticed as much as just show their support. One such face-painted, spiky-haired girl caught my eye in the station and I asked if I could take her picture. She agreed and posed with her equally attired boyfriend. To be honest, I didn’t actually want him in the picture as well, as impressively as he was made up, his chubby features rather detracted from her more pleasant ones. I had thought of cropping him out of the picture, but luckily didn’t as he asked to see the finished result.
There would be more photo opportunities in Frankfurt’s main square. It had been taken over by Korean fans, with many of the women seeming to regard the whole affair as some kind of photo opportunity, seeking out the glare of the cameras. Most posed in front of the medieval-looking half-timbered buildings on one side of the square. The buildings were actually fake, having been built in 1974. They were apparently based on buildings that used to be there, but from a historical point of view they had about as much historical heritage as glam rock. It has to be said though, they looked rather more appealing than overdone make-up and spandex.
Also taking over the square were a group of Korean dancers and drummers, who defied the rather warm midday sun to put on a display of energetic dancing and drumming that made me sweat just watching it, so god knows what it did to them. All I know is I wouldn’t have wanted to be within 100m of their laundry basket that evening. They were very impressive, dancing about for at least half an hour, but probably much longer, before making their way on foot, still dancing and drumming, out of the square and towards the stadium. Given that the stadium was about 3 miles away it seemed a tad ambitious.
The stadium station was another of the those where the German sense of humour is I evidence, allowing you to be pleased at how near the railway line is as you pass within touching distance of one end, before carrying on and depositing you so far away you wonder if you’ll need your passport to get back. It was a journey I’d make 4 times in all over the two visits. Three times for games, and one to pick up a ticket from the ticket centre for Japan v Croatia. With great planning and foresight, the world cup organisers had thought about the best place to locate this ticket centre, and come to the conclusion that the most convenient place would be as absolutely far away from the station as possible. I don’t know how far it actually was to get there, just that I suspected that if I’dwalked any further I’d have been signs proclaiming “Welcome to Offenbach”. Naturally there was a strict queuing system in place, even though there were only four people there.
To be truthful, on a nice day the walk to the stadium isn’t all bad, milling along with thousands of other people all going to the match. The two world cup games still had that enthusiastic buzz of people just enjoying being there, with the harsh realities of needing results or having to go home not yet entering into things. For the confederations cup game a year earlier, everyone was there to just enjoy it regardless. The confederations cup game I’d gone to see was Greece v Japan. Germany has a pretty large Greek community, particularly in that part of the country, and around 15,000 or so were at the game. Many were wearing the traditional Greek army uniform – a uniform of pride in Greece, but looking like somebody playing keepy-uppy with a cat’s fluffy toy while wearing Victorian pyjamas, a tutu and a nightcap to anyone else. As I raised my camera a group of such guys were thrilled to be in my picture and waved madly. I was actually just taking a picture of the stadium, but thanked them anyway.
Of far more interest to me were two pretty young Japanese girls in kimonos. I walked near them, thinking of snapping off a sneaky photo, but never quite did. As the ground loomed large I bit the bullet and just went up to them and asked them outright if I could take their picture. Naturally they agreed, but somehow they came out much less photogenic in my picture than in real life. I didn’t do them justice, which is a shame as I was quite taken with both of them. So much so in fact that those two girls turned me on to the idea of going to Japan, which I did just two months later (and where I also realised that they were wearing very cheap kimonos). Of course now I’d broken the ice by being the first to ask them to pose, the world and his dog dived in requesting their picture.
Korean girls, a year later, as I’d said before, were almost as equally photogenic. A whole troupe of them paraded round almost seeking out cameras before the Togo match – among them one who either came from a very unfortunate family destined never to have grandchildren, or it was a geeky guy in glasses looking like an escapee from Revenge of the Nerds, hoping he wouldn’t be noticed.
Perhaps more surprising were the Iranians present for their match with Portugal five days later. Either the media has truly lied to us and Iranian women are a lot more liberated than they are portrayed to be, or the fashion is for burqas to be worn eight inches above the knee this season. Naturally they also posed for pictures happily for ages, although the menfolk who insisted in also being in shot, most of whom who had moustaches which made you think that somewhere there’s a paintbrush missing its bristles, tarnished things slightly.
Frankfurt’s new stadium was a classic new stadium, without the negative connotations the phrase often carries. Two equally sized tiers curving round to hold over 40,000 with a translucent roof that made the place light even when fully closed. The strangest part of it was a large cube-shaped video scoreboard, impossibly suspended on wires from around the stadium’s roof perimeter. These angled out from the cube in such a way that made you suspect the world’s largest spider would make an appearance at any moment.
For each of the three games I went to, I ended up sat at the opposite end to the one I wanted to be in from a supporting point of view, but it didn’t matter. The Greek fans were impressive for turning out in such large numbers. As there were so few Togo fans present for their match with South Korea, it was left to the Koreans to make the atmosphere, which they did. Their enthusiasm, even if it was a little high-pitched at times, was impossible not to be taken in by. The Portuguese were colourful, noisy and passionate, everything a good crowd should be.
All three games were interesting, without being in any way classics. Possibly least was Japan v Greece in the Confederations Cup. The Greeks were no doubt keen at the start of the event to show their Euro 2004 win was no fluke, but by the end they were just trying to show that qualifying for Euro 2004 wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t going well for them. They were still defending well, with tackles flying in with GPS accuracy, as if homing beacons were attached to defenders’ feet, but up front they had as much punch as the Venus de Milo, increasing the Greek angst by the minute. It came as no surprise that one of Japan’s much rarer attacks resulted in the game’s only goal. The Greek fans took the defeat in good spirit and there were nothing but smiles and handshakes for the Japanese fans they encountered upon leaving, which was a stark contrast to their team, who’d they’d have readily turned into the next day’s kebabs had they been able to get their hands on them.
In the South Korea v Togo match, Togo overcame having almost all of the crowd supporting the Koreans, as well as an ability to look less co-ordinated that a bag-lady’s clothing, to take a first half lead. Korea, urged on by an ever more enthusiastic, and at tenser moments ever more squeeky support, got back into it in the second half. They were helped somewhat by Togo having a player sent off, equalising from the resulting free-kick with a fine strike from the rusty haired Lee Chun-Soo. Ahn Jung-Hwan had received a hero’s welcome when he came on for the second half, and he would be the man of the hour, shortly after the hour, with his deflected strike proving to be the winner.
Portugal v Iran looked to be an open game on paper. In reality it was about as open as a small-town laundrette at 3am on a Sunday morning, with both sides looking like they’d struggle to break through a boiled egg’s shell, let alone a defiant defence. The Portuguese fans sang on regardless, perhaps under the impression that singing can bring people, in this case the Portuguese team, out of a coma. After an hour it worked. Deco, who’d barely been showing any signs of brain activity all afternoon, suddenly had an awakening and smashed the ball from outside the box past an Iranian keeper looking more helpless than a new-born zebra born to a mother being chased by lions.
Iran’s fated was sealed when a defender tripped Figo in the box in a manner that could have only been more comically clumsy had he worn large rubber boots, an orange wig and clown make-up. Cristiano Ronaldo, who again perfected his big-screen ability to look personally insulted by God every time something in his life doesn’t go perfectly to plan, made no mistake and all but invited the Iranians to book an early taxi for the airport.
At least after the Portugal match it wasn’t quite so oppressively warm as after the South Korea match. Catching a train in such conditions is never ideal, but when they let you on, packing you in to such a density that battery hens are writing to the MPs in protest, then shut the doors and wait for 10 minutes, things are not good. The humidity on board was working up its own eco-climate, and most expected tropical rainfall before the journey’s end. The best you could hope for was that the people next to you that you’d be smelling of for the rest of the were pleasant, and preferably of the opposite sex.
There was another opportunity for some to have a further exchange of bodily fluids presented to those outside the Irish Bar opposite Frankfurt’s main station. As the fans packed in to watch Italy play the USA, a bus advertising a local “nightclub” stopped outside and some “workers” got out and distributed loads of calling cards. Those inside the pub could then play a game of “spot who tries to sneak a card into his pocket”. One person spotted (with or without card is unknown) was a guy with a resemblance to Wayne Rooney. Every time he came to the bar a chorus of “Rooney, Rooney” greeting him, and he even posed for photos. Someone said he was Wayne Rooney’s brother, which I took to be a joke at the time, but he did look like him, was a scouser, and did get the whole “posing for photos” bit down to a fine art, so maybe it was. On the other hand he was wearing a shirt with “Brasil” on it.
The city was a real crossroads for the different fans, and this bar the most obvious meeting point. Many nationalities were in, but a fair few Americans and Italians were there, watching the BBC’s embarrassingly unknowledgeable coverage. A US-UK frostiness perhaps not seen for a couple of hundred years descended when a group of English lads cheered when Italy scored, but they also cheered when the US scored to show their deliberate antagonism was nothing person. Before too long some US fans had crossed the room and were dancing with them on the tables and nobody cared. It was an example of what another English fan, chairman of AFC Wimbledon supporters club if I recall correctly, was saying – essentially the vibe about the place was so good that even the sort of English idiot who fight at the drop of a hat would rather have a good time than get involved. On TV the World Cup is about the matches, but there, being there is what’s important.