Reporting on what is arguably the most stereotype-laden international football rivalry in Europe is not an easy task. One is always at risk of perpetuating the worst cultural misconceptions, fuelling the divisions and hatred that poison what should be the unifying power of football. These are my thoughts as I walk the shoulder of a quiet country road in northwestern Germany, picking up my belongings from the personal-effects-strewn pavement.
I left Munich early this morning with a group of German supporters, who offered to drive together to Bremen and from there get on a last-minute flight to London to attend the semi-final.
Right around Osnabrück we had a massive fallout when I couldn’t let yet another smirking reference to ‘catenaccio’ go, so they unceremoniously booted me from the Westfalia minibus, citing ‘irreconcilable differences’.
Due to the spotty service, I’m unable to get in touch with my trusty assistant Franco, who is in London trying to smooth out the situation and clear my access to Wembley Stadium after last week’s incident involving the Austrian chancellor’s wax simulacrum. I can only keep on walking and hope to catch the game in a pub somewhere.
After a while, a car stops and the driver asks if I need a lift. After she repeats the question in English, I accept and hop on. At the wheel is Sabine, the mayor of Bramsche, which is where I am. When she learns I’m a sports reporter, she invites me to watch the game at the town-organised ‘public viewing’. She then proceeds to tell me all about the town and especially the hugely important historical landmark that lies just outside: the Kalkriese, a meadowy clearance where historians believe Arminius, a Germanic prince, led an alliance of Germanic tribes to victory and to the destruction of three Roman legions in 9 AD, a victory so significant that it is credited with having prevented the romanisation of the Germanic peoples and caused the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.
I learn all this in the exhaustive museum on the site. I also learn the notable fact that Arminius was kidnapped from a Germanic tribe as a child by Romans, raised in Rome, and later he was granted Roman citizenship and ended up becoming a Roman knight before rebelling. I guess you can take a kid out of Germany but you can’t take Germany out of the kid.
Leaving the museum I’m convinced that there’s a powerful metaphor for tonight’s game somewhere in there, but I’m distracted by a noisy gathering in a field on the other side of the street. It must be the ‘public viewing’ the mayor was talking about. I’m also hungry and there’s definitely a grill going, so I cross the street.
Shit heavy metal is blaring from a big set of loudspeakers. A lot of shaved heads, eagles everywhere, Arminius merchandising, German flags, motorcycles. Everyone wears sunglasses and looks drunk or determinedly on their way to it. I’m starting to suspect this is not the mayor’s family-friendly get-together, but a big-bellied giant grabs me by the arm and pushes me into a small tent, where a short guy with piercing blue eyes is counting cash.
I get frisked by the giant, who takes my phone and wallet. To my protests that I’m a member of the press, the short guy, examining my credentials, says in heavily accented English: “We’ll see if you’re a liar. Football, eh? Big game tonight. I invite you, be my guest.” We walk out in front of the loudspeakers, where a scary-looking bunch of skinheads is setting up a big projector.
I spend an awkward hour before kickoff sipping beer and eating all sorts of grilled meat and sausages that everyone insists I try. I nod and munch and sip but all I want is to throw up. The giant follows me around everywhere and makes sure I don’t get too close to the street or the surrounding woods. My disgust peaks during the German national anthem: everyone starts chanting the pre-WWII lyrics while Nazi-saluting the screen. I sit quietly next to my host, who is beaming and guides the crowd conductor-style in the booing of the Italian anthem.
I’m even given a microphone and urged to say something before kickoff. With the short guy acting as translator I begin: “I know that tradition is very important to you.”
Cheers from the crowd.
“And tonight it is very important to me as well, because the tradition is that Germany never beat Italy in the final phase of an international tournament.”
A poorly aimed cup of beer splashes to my left. Boos.
“Penalties,” I add, “are just a way of picking who should get the prize after no team managed to beat the other, so... you still never beat us.”
The reference to the infamous 2016 semi-final shootout gets across, as does a plastic cup full of cheap pilsner that hits me right in the face. I’m drenched and the crowd roars in laughter.
I sit back, wet and smelly, and the game starts.
Italy are back to a conventional line-up after the gamble that paid off against Iceland, with Belotti in attack flanked by Bernardeschi and Insigne. Donnarumma is back in goal after the injury sustained in the game against Austria. Germany have the same starting eleven that beat Ireland, with the sole exception of Emre Can instead of Sané in midfield.
For the first twenty minutes the game is nervous and fragmented, the pressure heavy on the players of both sides. Then something happens and Germany start to relax, which is not a good thing for us, because it means they stop making mistakes and suddenly all the cogs of their mechanism start to click in sync.
In the last ten minutes of the first half they produce a smattering of attempts, all of them the result of high quality passing that ends with a shot on goal either by Kroos, Reus or Werner. Whenever they get hold of the ball, the boys in blue try to advance with the web of short passes that’s been their trademark in this tournament, but excellent tackling by the German midfielders prevents anything significant from happening too close to Neuer.
A goal seems inevitable, and it comes right at the end of the first half. Kimmich tries to cross from the right side, Palmieri intercepts clumsily but loses his balance, so Kimmich has an easy way into the box and smashes a shot at the near post. Donnarumma does his best but merely lunges hopelessly at the missile.
Behind me, the Nazis explode. Beer splashes everywhere, someone grabs me by the shoulders and a cold, half-eaten bratwurst is shoved down my pants. I spend the half-time break trying to clean up and thinking of a way out, but the giant is shadowing me now, and when I ask for the bathroom he just laughs.
The second half picks up where the first left off, but it only lasts a few minutes: when Mancini puts in Pellegrini for Barella, something shifts. Germany get complacent and Italy take control of the ball. After 67 minutes, Pellegrini takes a chance on a dead-ball at the right edge of the box and shoots. Neuer is not expecting it but manages to touch it onto the crossbar. It rebounds to the far post, where Belotti heads it in calmly with both feet on the ground.
I raise a fist and duck. The crowd behind me curses and scowls but this time they direct their anger and their edible projectiles at the screen. Afterwards, a tense quiet falls both here and on the pitch in London. There’s an eerie silence interrupted only by rare belches and mumbled cursing. Then, when the clock strikes minute number 88, the Nazi cavemen start to chant what I assume are Hitler-sympathetic rhymes. The singing gets louder and louder as Reus goes past Florenzi and curls a delicious ball into the box. Werner is already in mid-air before Bonucci manages to jump, and Donnarumma is beaten again.
The scene behind me is a glimpse of Hades: men and women are jumping, hugging, shouting, tearing their clothes apart, a drizzle of beer overhead. But it’s just a flash. Suddenly the lights go out, the music stops and the screen goes dark.
From the street I can make out what looks like a procession of people with candles and torches. This does not look good, I think, imagining an ambush by a rival Nazi faction. But looking closer I notice that the candles seem too close to the ground... and then a police van turns the floodlights on.
It’s a procession of kids and families, with a big “NO NAZIS” sign in front. Sabine is leading it. Policemen get out of the van and seize the short guy. I can make out something about permits, but then all hell breaks loose.
Someone is firing smoke-gas from inside the tent and the Nazis are trying to make an escape with the motorbikes, but the kids - suspiciously efficient - are already pushing them all to the ground. Through the fog I can make out some of the boys quietly peeing in the helmets.
Someone shouts behind me, I turn and get punched in the stomach. I fall on the ground and throw up.
Nauseous and aching, I crawl to the edge of the woods managing to get stepped on only a couple of times. I get up and start walking in the darkness. I hit trees, scratch every exposed piece of skin and fall again and again. When the noise and the lights seem far enough I lie down and fall asleep.
I wake up hours later at the break of dawn. I’ve pissed myself and everything hurts. A badger scuttles away. I start to walk back. When I get to the remains of the Nazi camp there’s a blue fog hanging low over the rubbish and the overturned beer tables. Crows are pecking at leftover sausages. This must be what the place looked to Arminius two thousand years ago.
Then I realise history was actually made last night. Germany beat Italy for the first time.
On a football pitch, at least.
I walk where the tent stood and miraculously recover my phone, wallet and € 630 that someone clearly didn’t want anymore. I limp towards town. When I arrive in the centre it’s still early, everything is closed. I keep walking.
My phone rings. It’s Franco.
“Where the fuck have you been, boss?”
“Long story. Come and get me, I’m in Germany, a place called Bramsche, I think.”
“Bramsche! Where Arminius beat the Romans! There’s a Gasthaus in the town square, the Blue Rooster. Excellent Eisbein. Give me six hours, I’ll meet you there.”
“Oh, and by the way: I settled everything with the consulate and also with Wembley, all clear for the final, you’ll be able to get in with no problems.”
“Yeah, we play on Sunday.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? We lost.”
“Wa...-“ the connection drops.
I look around. Across the street there’s an electronics shop and the TVs in the window are showing the highlights of the game. I run.
Goal Germany. Okay.
Belotti tap-in. Okay.
88th minute. Werner header. Then a close-up of the referee in front of the VAR screen. Then the yellow card to Werner and the slow motion from the opposite angle of his arm holding down Bonucci.
Then a run from Florenzi on the right wing and a savage tackle by Can. Free kick just off the corner of the box. Bernardeschi steps up.
Eyes peeled, I’m now leaning with both hands on the shop window like a child peering into a candy shop, except I’m all dirty, scratched and stinking.
The ball flies in an impossible curve and bends right around Neuer on the far post. Goal. Cut to the stands, Italian fans going crazy. Cut to a sad German supporter. Cut to a human pyramid of blue shirts on the pitch. I’m in disbelief. We made it.
I hear a voice behind me.
“I missed the end too, you know?”
I turn around. It’s Sabine.
“I had something more important to take care of,” she says with a smile.