This is not how the world championship of soccer was supposed to be framed. This is not how Germany was supposed to take the next step in its thousand-mile journey away from the stain of the Nazi regime. This was supposed to be about a game (and making some money). This was supposed to be fun.
But it's already proving to be quite a stretch, this motto for the 2006 World Cup: "A time to make friends." While the German government is desperate for the planet's largest single sporting event to come off as one big happy festival - the official logo is a bunch of smiley faces - thuggery and intrigue have inexorably crept into the picture.
During the run-up to the games, hospitals have seen about half a dozen foreigners who have fallen victim to liquored-up skinheads, pummeled for being brown, or yellow, or black. Panicked reports of officials' fears were fed early on by the ominous statement, from a former government worker who now represents an anti-racism group, that Asians and Africans who enter any one of several areas in Germany might not come out alive.
On top of that, there was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to contend with. The possibility of the world's most famous Holocaust denier and defiant would-be nuclear weapons holder showing up in Hitler's heartland cast a long shadow over the entire World Cup ever since Iran qualified for participation.
The mere thought of the Iranian team's presence in Germany was enough to make the far right-wing National Democratic Party (NPD) salivate, encouraging them to declare their intentions to greet the team with resounding fanfare for Iran's match against Angola in Leipzig on June 21. Skinheads descending on the country from all over the rest of Europe could join them for a huge hate-fest.
On the other hand, Jewish groups and anti-anti-Semitism groups were prepared to stage their own demonstration should Ahmadinejad come to Germany.
What a scandal it would be for him to waltz into Nuremberg, infamous scene of the Nazis' huge rallies! Senior officials couldn't possibly be seen with him, but they couldn't legally bar him from entering the country, either. And if he should comment on his "doubts" about the Holocaust (and how could he not?), what a bind the government would be in, seeing as Holocaust denial is a serious crime in Germany!
While Ahmadinejad seemed to change his mind from day to day, saying variably that it was his right and privilege to cheer his national team and that a Zionist web was conspiring to prevent him from setting foot in Germany, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany refused to comment on the possibility of an Ahmadinejad visit or any implications it might have for Germany's more than 3 million Muslims. Neither would the government issue an official statement on the subject.
Iranian officials thought they had put an end to Ahmadinejad's maybe-I-will-and-maybe-I-won't teasing last week when they announced unequivocally that the president, whose father had just passed away, would not be traveling to Germany for any of Iran's World Cup matches.
Of course, a few days later the Iranian soccer team's coach Branko Ivankovic told The Jerusalem Post that Ahmadinejad has personally told him he plans to attend World Cup matches in Germany this month if his team qualifies for the knockout round.
"He came to our last training in Iran and gave us support. He also said he would come to Germany if we make it to the second round," said Ivankovic.
While the verdict is still out, all signs point to an Ahmadinejad-free tournament. Earlier this week, a spokeswoman at the Nuremberg Municipality said, with obvious relief, "He's not coming. It's not our problem."
To make sure that hooliganism also won't be Germany's problem during the World Cup, the country has taken extraordinary measures. Some 7,000 soldiers will back up federal and provincial police and they will be joined by several hundred experts in football security from across the continent. Security personnel will monitor activity around stadiums via a complex system of myriad surveillance cameras, aided by special undercover "spotters" who will spy out trouble before it starts. Known toughs will be refused entry to the country. Even the ticketing system, which requires fans to provide personal identification, is meant to weed out troublemakers.
All this has given authorities confidence that the dire early predictions of a security breakdown were overblown.
"We are looking at [violence] very carefully because of the latest unfortunate events," German Organizing Committee Vice President Horst Schmidt told The Associated Press on Saturday. "But we have no information that this needs to be expected in the stadiums." Of the 48 matches in the first round, Schmidt said, not one is classified as a high risk.
Now, then, as the World Cup prepares to kick off on Friday night, most of the negativity and chaos that swirled around the games last month has subsided, giving way to the relative calm of football fever.
THE WORLD CUP is a stage - a humongous stage - not only for the athletes who play for global glory and four years of bragging rights, but for the host country. And for everyone who descends upon that country, too: Car companies. Beer companies. Clothing companies. Memorabilia peddlers. Even tens of thousands of prostitutes from all over Europe, coming to attract the business of hundreds of thousands of men on adrenaline highs. And racist rowdies as well.
For decades, hate groups have recruited from the hordes of mostly young, white, working-class men who pack European football stadiums every week, handing out hate material and even breaking into the battalions of hardcore fans who come to represent their teams. In Portugal, the fascist No Name Boys fly their flags at Benfica matches; in Norway, it's the Boot Boys; in England, neo-Nazis and hooligans joined forces in Combat 18, and so on.
For its supporters in eastern Germany, the NPD prepared a World Cup match schedule peppered with incendiary comments. One shows German national team member Patrick Owomoyela, who is half-Nigerian, in his Germany uniform, overwritten with the words, "White - not just the color of the jersey! For a real national team!" A German court banned the NPD from distributing the material, threatening a stiff fine. But the party has already won by attracting the spotlight.
"They are not so stupid, you know... When they make a rally, they come, maybe 40 of them, to champion 'Germany for Germans,' or some such thing. And they know that 100 people will come to protest against them, and another 200 police officers will come to control the crowds. So they end up looking like the persecuted party, you see?" explained Annetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti-racism group in Germany.
The NPD's overture to fellow Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is transparent enough, said Kahane. Even though they might claim some convoluted connection to Iranians as fellow members of the tenuous clan called Aryans, German far-Right groups like NPD and their followers are not about to break out of the xenophobic mold, she said.
"Oh, they admire very much the idea of these proud people... as long as they live far away," said Kahane. "But if [foreigners] ever want to live in Germany... then the NPD does not admire them anymore!"
The threat of far-right violence in eastern Germany during the World Cup is not as high as it is made out to be, according to Kahane. What's more, it is nowhere near as significant as the racism and violence that plagues Germany on a daily basis, she said.
Looking beyond all the gasping coverage of the foreigners' beatings, one discovers that a serial killer has been murdering Turkish immigrants in Germany, assassin-like, over the past several weeks.
It's symptomatic of the real fault line upon which Europe so precariously sits: the steady rise of neo-Nazism confronting the explosive growth in immigration, Muslim immigration in particular. This is a major problem for the entire continent - where Islam is the fastest-growing religion and non-Muslim, non-immigrant birthrates are low, and where unemployment remains high - but it is not an issue for which the World Cup is likely to be a lightning rod.
SO VIOLENCE and racism outside the stadiums should not be too much of a problem. What about inside the stadiums? There, black players are routinely treated to monkey calls and pelted with bananas or peanuts. It is sometimes so bad that players threaten to walk off the field in the middle of a match, or even move to new teams to avoid the harassment. Fascist salutes are given to encourage extremist fans... or to taunt them.
Virulently anti-Semitic cheers are hurled at entire teams and their fans. The problem is so endemic to the sport that Pope Benedict XVI sent an anti-racism appeal to fans before an exhibition game between Italy and Germany in March.
"Racism has, for far too long, been damaging the beautiful game we love," Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, the sport's world governing body, said at a recent press conference to announce strict new measures to punish teams for racist fans.
But even that is not all it's made out to be, said Markus Pinter of FARE, Football Against Racism in Europe, the umbrella body of groups working to rid European football of racism.
After all, this is not 2001, when two acclaimed British players took part in the mob beating of an Asian student outside a nightclub and Lennart Johansson, president of the Union of European Football Associations, had to admit that "We don't do enough to hinder" racism.
"When we started in 1999, FIFA and UEFA didn't have any anti-racism programs," said Pinter. "Now they do have anti-racism programs. All the major leagues throughout Europe have anti-racism programs as well. Even most of the clubs have anti-racism programs. Everyone is aware of this now. What we are doing is working."
Much of the old-time hatred evinced by football fans has been limited by debilitating penalties levied against clubs or national teams by the sport's authorities. "Professional" hooligans are banned from entering many stadiums, too.
Now, although racial taunts are still prevalent in European stadiums, Pinter said they are less an expression of hatred than they are an attempt to distract opponents.
"What we see today, the bananas on the field and what-have-you, it is not real racism as we know it," he said. "It is mere provocation."
As Sinisa Mihajlovic, a defender with Lazio of mixed Serbian and Croatian descent, described his bitter run-in with Patrick Vieira, a black French midfielder who plays for Arsenal, in a 2000 Champions League game: "I called him black shit. He called me Gypsy shit. It's part of football."
Unfortunately, that sort of thing is part of football.
So is the persistent chant of "Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas!" at the matches of Amsterdam's club Ajax. But the team, which proudly accepts the moniker "the Jews" and whose fans wave Israeli flags during matches, has just a foggy and long-lost connection with Jews. The taunts come from their fiercest opponents in the Dutch league - not, at least primarily, out of any truly anti-Semitic sentiment, but as a way of riling up the competition.
Likewise, Lazio's hardcore fans have waved Nazi flags and yelled, "Auschwitz is your country, the ovens are your home" - not at Jewish players, but at Italian rivals. Italy's league, which has become notorious for its fans' virulently nationalistic ties to their favorite teams, is riddled with abuse that extends to geography as well as religion and political affiliation.
Rarely are the chants as genuinely hateful as the anti-Arab rantings of Israeli fans, although even that situation has not reached the level of violence that has blackened the rivalry between the Scottish clubs Rangers, a Protestant-affiliated team, and Celtic, the Irish and Roman Catholic team. A handful of murders have reportedly taken place during clashes between the rival clubs' fans in the past several years.
The fact of the matter is, however, that football in Europe is more integrated and diverse than ever. In England, France and Germany, black players star for the wealthiest and winningest clubs. Every year, more players from growing football hotbeds such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast sign rich contracts with top-flight teams in Europe's whitest countries. Many of them have become naturalized citizens of European countries; France's 23-man squad has a dozen blacks, and Owomoyela, target of the NPD, is Germany's second black player.
That's the funny thing about the NPD's "white jersey" ad: Germany's uniform may be white in the middle, but it has more than a little black, orange and red around the edges, too. Just like Germany. And just like football. n