Monday, June 26, 2006

"The native dances and their charming songs - but wait a minute, something's wrong..."

Kaiserslautern and the surrounding greenery of the Pfalz are best viewed from above – but the city doesn’t look bad from down below either.
It’s just that the lofty 286.5-metre setting of the ‘Betzenberg’, atop which the Fritz-Walter-Stadion sits, suggests an expansive beauty beyond the tight and bustling city streets.
Here are quizzical church spires peeking over the clusters of peagreen trees, as fat and full as a child’s crayon drawings.
There are the wriggling town squares, one brimming with vivid shades of big-screen viewers, another waiting for the tipsy kickabouts when dusk falls, still another quaintly oblivious to all the football fuss elsewhere.
Kaiserslautern is perhaps the smallest and most compact Weltmeisterstadt this summer.
Unlike in other host cities, where the friendly Fans’ Festivals can seem a little detached and enclosed, Kaiserslautern’s is unavoidable whichever turning you take.
The festival is, in fact, the streets – where crowds of all coloured shirts bustle down narrow lanes, crammed between stalls offering food, booze and all manner of inevitable football tat.
Never have I seen, before this summer, so many people willing to cake on so much face-paint, from the daintiest little flags upon one cheek to an alienesque, all-over coating of many colours.
Queues of all ages were waiting to have Australian or Italian flags virtually blowtorched across their flesh – safe in the knowledge, the paint can all come off at the end of the day.
Staff at a nearby tattoo parlour, perhaps having hoped to cash in on the drunken hordes, looked rather more miserably – and redundantly – on.
There were educative elements about, too.
While one stall banner promised to teach German in five minutes, that quickfire course remained elusive when I lingered a little too long and was instead invited to take a short trivia test.
That five-minute solution, even a refresher, could have been useful since before answering the questions they had to be translated from German.
But I managed to get through most of them, either educatedly guessing or, in one especially easy example, just knowing somehow, that ‘das legendaere Wembley-Tor’ was probably scored not in 1954 nor 1974, but 1966.
What else was there to be learnt?
Well, that Kaiserslautern was the birthplace in 1862 of the Pfaff sewing machine – that the city was named after Kaiser Friedrich I, also known as ‘Barbarossa’ for his red beard.
Also, that Kaiserslautern is 730 years old, 1 FC Kaiserslautern last won the Bundesliga in 1998, and that the Betzenberg peak is, yes, 286.5 metres high.
Unusually for the second round so far, both teams were returning to a city which had already paid them host.
(I think Germany, in Munich, are the only others to make such a swift comeback.)
Everyone certainly seemed settled and comfortable, careening through the streets to play up in their own different ways, languages and dances for the large numbers of small camera crews.
I even managed to take my modest international media whoreing up a level.
Having been quizzed by Russian radio, and filmed ‘working’ by German TV (actually discussing travel and hotel arrangements with my dad), now I could be reaching out to the soccer-philes and –phobics of the US.
American comedian Drew Carey, host of the US Whose Line Is It Anyway?, was performing a piece to camera in the middle of the street – inevitably with catcalls, cheers and beery AAAAAAAARGH!s from passing Aussies.
Having felt his mild-mannered TV vehicle, The Drew Carey Show, was a little unfairly-maligned – at least, when watching hidden-away late-night ITV showings in a phase of student insomania – I popped over for a quick chat.
He insisted on having our conversation about England and Germany, football and soccer, shot by his on-call cameraman.
Drew’s over here for 40 days, filming a series of shows for a US travel channel – or maybe, the Travel Channel – and indulging his three-years-and-counting enthusiasm for the game.
He spent last night in Stuttgart, hanging out with a crowd of England fans – doubtless the best indoctrination for an eager-to-learn American.
‘Half the England fans are the greatest – and the other half I want to run away from as soon as possible.
‘I just haven’t worked out yet how to tell which is which.
‘At least, not until I get up close – and can tell how drunk they are.
‘But they have taught me all the words to, what is it? Three lions on the shirt, somebody still gleaming… Is that right?’
Sadly, tonight’s match wouldn’t have done much to convince the millions of American non-believers of their utter, utter wrongness when it comes to the (sometimes) beautiful game.
Having started the tournament looking rather un-Italian in all their attacking flair, the Azurri have slipped back into uninspiring ways.
The strikers once again lamentably failed to tuck away any of the chances offered – Toni, Gilardino and substitute Iaquinta.
Surely even the lumbering and aged Christian Vieri could have done better – especially today, a match made for the only Italian who speaks like Crocodile Dundee.
The straight red card for Marco Materazzi looked harsh, forcing Italy to withdraw even more deeply into themselves for much of the second half – even though a knock-out win obviously needed to be seized.
The man he fouled, Lazio’s Marco Bresciano, proved a pest throughout – as did Scott Chipperfield, the defender who managed to pop up for the Australians’ two best chances.
Vince Grella, in midfield, also harried and hassled the Italians throughout – managing to out-Gattuso Gattuso, as it were.
That dodgy last-minute penalty, just when we were expecting another turgid 30 minutes, was cruel – enough to provoke pity even for the Aussies.
Fabio Grosso, in his surging dart from left-back into the box, showed more persistence and invention than any of his colleagues in the preceding persistence and invention than any of his colleagues in the preceding 94 minutes.
He rode Bresciano’s first challenge well – then again, it was outside the area.
The second, from the again-excellent Lucas Neill, appeared to have passed him by – and he the tackle – when he did suddenly take a stumble over the prone Aussie defender.
And Spanish ref Luis Medina Cantelejo pointed straight to the spot for an Italian penalty – and you just knew instantly, it was going in, it was game over.
Even the Australians didn’t seem to muster much of a justifiable protest – and once Francesco Totti had dispatched the inevitable, the ref duly put them out of their misery and blew the full-time whistle.
Not that Italy’s delirious players seemed likely to have returned to the pitch to kick off again, anyway, having been buried under a mountain of substitutes, coaching staff, physios, kit men, coach drivers and tea ladies.
A dull, forgettable game had somehow reached a dramatic finale – though it seemed strangely anti-climactic as well.
At least the 'foul' will make useful footage when the Italians make their four-yearly complaints about refereeing bias and an anti-Italian conspiracy when they eventually depart this tournament.
The whistling, booing Australians were still 286.5 metres high – yet had nonetheless been brought back to earth with a most almighty bump.

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