Berlin, Ukraine 1 Tunisia 0

Ukraine 1 Tunisia 0, Olympic Stadium, Berlin (23/06/2006)

Berlin is certainly a city that’s full of history. In fact few others are so shaped, or so well known for the events of the 20th century. Going on about “the war” is regarded as a common British failing, but in Berlin, it’s hard to avoid it. So many of the cities landmarks are known for events of that time, or the divided aftermath.

One consequence of being a divided city for so long is that the city had no central station. That had now been rectified by the creation of the vast new Berlin Hauptbanhof, across the Spree, just north of the Reichstag. Huge, as well as hugely impressive, its construction in glass and steel mirrors the Sir Norman Foster Reichstag cuppola. The station was open in May 2006, just a few weeks before the world cup.

Another construction nearby was a small temporary stadium directly in front of the Reichstag. This was not for football matches, but was a twist on the viewing screens elsewhere in the nearby fan park. For a small price, fans could come in and watch a live match on the screens, supposedly in a stadium style environment. I saw one game in there, and to be truthful it didn’t quite work. You didn’t get any atmosphere, or feeling of being at a game. On the other hand, the hot dogs outside were made with very nice Nurnberger sausages, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Another construction, this time on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, was the “Football Globus”. This was a giant football you could enter via a staircase, and inside was an international football exhibition, with films and interactive screens. It had the feeling, like a smaller and thankfully less costly version of the Millennium dome, of being designed before anyone had thought of what use it could be. It was an interesting enough diversion, but if you’d made the effort you’d have been a little disappointed.

Past the Brandenburg Gate, which features four horses atop it with almost cartoon-like smiling expressions, was the fan mile. Entry was restricted by barriers, and given the location, it looked like a recreation of the old Berlin Wall. Unlike in the past, at least “Ossies” were allowed through.

Other historic reminders abound. Just south of the Brandenburg Gate is the ususual Holocaust Memorial.  Hundreds of concrete pillars of varying heights are arranged in a grid pattern on land of undulating depths. When walking through, columns which look knee height from the edge suddenly tower above your head. And just south of there is Hitler’s bunker, unmarked and hidden beneath an appartment block’s car park. Construction abounds. South of there, areas of wasteland that were once off limits as Berlin Wall buffer zones, now thrive with life and regeneration. To the east, the Fernsehturn TV Tower at Alexanderplatz had been repainted so its spherical observation deck now resembled a football.

Even further west, where I was staying, there were reminders too. I was not far from the remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm church, mainly destroyed by air raids, but “preserved” in its damaged state as a reminded of war.

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin, is of course associated with the Nazi era Olympics of 1936. It had just undergone a makeover to add a new roof to fully cover the 70 year old stadium. Marrying a modern roof with the classic limestone of the original stadium isn’t easy, but it’s been carried out so well that it’s almost hard to imagine the place without the roof now.

With this being the last game of the group stage, there was almost an end of term feeling about proceedings. Many of the fans over for the group stage are there to enjoy the experience. They don’t expect their team to qualify, but even so, the reality starts to bite as results go against them. For this game, second were playing third. Spain were already through. Saudi Arabia were already out. Tunisia played Ukraine, and nothing less than a win would stop them making the first flight home.

This may have been one of the few games were tickets were often available in the final sales phase, but as I walked towards the Olympic Stadium down the plaza outside, I was struck by how many Ukrainian and Tunisian fans were there. They aren’t teams you’d imagine travelling in huge numbers, and I’d barely seen any in Berlin itself, but the atmosphere was looking like it was going to be a lot better than I was fearing. I am a neutral myself, obviously, but I wouldn’t want a stadium full of them.

I’d visited the stadium before, but just as a tourist on a gloomy day when no game was on. It was hard to see the appeal of the place. It looked grey, cold and quite dreary. In the summer sun, without thousands of fans milling about, the stadium just came alive. The previously dull stone walls now shone with pride. The windswept plaza, dispiritingly echoing to the sound of bored youths on skateboards, no longer seemed soulless and oversized. It may be geared for the main event rather than the ordinary, but clearly if you give the place that main event, the whole vision becomes clear.

I took my seat in the top tier, to the omnipresent whisting and strumming of Bob Sinclar’s Love Generation, and for once wasn’t too impressed with my seat. I’d been “downgraded” at some other games for a reduced price obsructed view ticket, and always found that to be no problem at all. I was here in a supposedly top notch category 1 ticket, miles behind the goal line, and with a handrail directly in my line of vision across a fair part of the pitch. There was also a guy to my left, in the row in front, who had a huge head. Not freakishly huge like the Mekon, but still large enough to have me hoping he wouldn’t lean forward during the game, or I’d have more joy sitting behing Isambard Kingdom Brunel in his stovepipe hat. OK, I can’t blame FIFA for the guy’s head, but when you’d paid 100 euro for a ticket, you don’t expect a worse view than a reduced 36 euro one.

Handrail, seat position and annoying large head aside, it’s hard to fail to see why the stadium is so popular in Germany. Untidy press boxes apart, it’s a perfect two tier bowl that actually looks improved after renovation, in stark contrast the the shambles Wembley became after its all-seater “upgrade” in the 80s/90s. Even with the gap at one end for the Olympic torch, the stadium seems so large that it’s hard to believe it only hold 76,000. It was a superb setting. How could players fail to perform on a stage such as this?

Well, quite easily as it turns out. Maybe it was the tension of the situation, or maybe the Ukrainians were giving a sneak preview of the tactics they’d use so effectively, and so boringly, against Switzerland in the 2nd round. Whatever it was, this was easily the worst game I saw at the world cup. Both attacking forces couldn’t have been stifled more if they’d been bound with gaffer tape and stuck in a locked cupboard, as there didn’t seem any goal threat from any angle.

Eventually, well into the second half, a rare attack lead to a ill-timed challenge and a penalty for Ukraine. The referee couldn’t wait to give it. I’m sure he was a desperate for something interesting to happen as the rest of us. Shevchenko tucked it away with ease, sending the keeper the wrong way, to the delight and relief of the Ukraine fans. There may have been 20 minutes left but it was game over. Tunisia didn’t look like scoring one, and there seemed more chance of them sprouting wings and flying than getting the extra second goal they’d also need.

It was no surprise it did end 1-0. Ukraine were through, and with one more chance to hear Love Generation over the PA system, I lingered and took in the surroundings of what was my last world cup match. It was like the world cup was over. True, it’d still be going on when I arrived home in England the following day, but it wouldn’t be the same world cup as “my” world cup as I’d actually experienced it, there, in Germany, in person.

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