Croissants and soccer

Every time countries meet on a football field our author thinks of the World Cup he watched in Berlin – drinking coffee at FC Magnet Bar.

Like this but in the morning.
Like this but in the morning.imago/Krause

Berlin-When I moved to Berlin over 20 years ago, I never expected to develop a love of international football tournaments. At the time, American football was more interesting to me and my team – the Denver Broncos – had had a few good years. But then the 2002 World Cup happened.

At the time, I had been laid off from my job with a financial news start-up and was enjoying one of the best jobs in Germany – Arbeitslosigkeit. The Arbeitsamt back then had little idea what to do with an out of work English-language journalist so I only saw my caseworker once – she told me times were tough and she wouldn’t be able to offer me anything. Arbeitslosengeld flowed into my bank account for a year.

My German friends were very passionate about the World Cup but I was only half-interested, and that only because the US was in Germany’s group. The games were being played in Japan and South Korea so they were on in the morning in Berlin. Every day we shuffled unshowered and hungover down to FC Magnet Bar in Mitte to watch the games during the group phase. A guy who usually handed me beer deep into the night offered me coffee and croissants instead. Games seemed slow to me and I didn’t have much understanding of the intricacies.

Then, on a walk one day, I stopped to watch several games of kids of different ages at Jahn Sportpark. Cross-field passes rarely landed (and were even more rarely adeptly fielded). Headers? No. Simple mistakes seemed to make watching the games unbearable. After watching professional matches it felt like the players had been encased in bubble gum. Maybe because I was under-stimulated by my Arbeitslosigkeit, I was eager to compare their games with the pros.

The next World Cup game felt like magic. Cross-field passes were a cakewalk and mistakes so rare they sparked waves of criticism among everyone in the bar. My uncle played American football in college and had once taught me how to watch the entire field during American football games to see the bigger strategy. I applied his lesson to football and it started to make sense. I started to understand.

I can only imagine it’s a process most German eight-year-olds go through while collecting Panini stickers and developing a love of bureaucracy.

Germany beat the US in the quarter-final that year and I remember being annoyed at the joy the crowd at FC Magnet felt after the victory. When Germany made it to the final, Team USA’s loss seemed less like a loss and more like an accomplishment since we held the Krauts to just one goal.

I watched the final with some British friends in my living room. And afterwards I got to enjoy the most German of emotions when Brazil beat Germany 2:0 for the title: Schadenfreude.

My enthusiasm for international tournaments then grew in 2006 when the World Cup came to Germany generally and Berlin specifically. It was hard not to get swept up in the hype, especially since we got tickets to a group game each in Leipzig and Berlin as well as the quarterfinal in Berlin, where Germany beat Argentina in penalties.

I was also working again and my kids were small but just getting out of diapers, so the games were probably the first times my wife and I had been out without them.

But even in 2006, every match put me back to drinking coffee and eating croissants amidst the stale beer smell of FC Magnet on sunny summer mornings. And every European Championship and World Cup since has as well.

Because of my sentimentality, I was looking forward to the tournament last summer after the months of the first lockdown – and I was disappointed when it got delayed, though you’re the first person I’m admitting that to.

Many of my German friends say they’re having trouble getting in the mood for the EC this time around but I don’t understand. The tournament does feel like it snuck up out of nowhere – we’ve been waiting for life to return for so long it’s almost too much that everything is happening at once. But it’s also helping ease the transition – I’ve been sitting in front of the TV every night for over a year but now it’s no longer because of the pandemic, it’s because I want to.

And because I love going back to 2002 FC Magnet.