Monday, June 19, 2006

Why the World Cup should replace the UN

There is such a great spirit in the air here. I wonder how the blind nationalism endemic to this Cup can lead to this air of global tolerance that is constantly on display here. On the surface, it is counterintuitive. You believe in the superiority of your team over all others. The success of your tribe, your team, and your colors in the subconscious mind become linked to your own sense of personal success or failure. Perhaps that is the common denominator linking all these fans. They all put their heart and soul into their team and this game, and they all at one point or another will taste both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. As REM said best, “Everybody hurts sometimes.”

As I walked along the Rhine tonight at 3 in the morning on a cool summer evening in Dusseldorf, I was thinking, “Where else in the world could I have conversations with Argentines, Angolans, Mexicans, Swedes, Brits, Scots, and Serbians in a two hour outing?” I literally did this the other night. I bought an Alt Beer typical of the Rhineland and joined the never-ending street party. The setting is always the same. Only the characters, or in this case countries, fluctuate, depending on who’s playing in the stadia of Cologne or Gelsenkirchen. It truly seems like a global village. Set against a drab post-modern German exterior is a very colorful atmosphere. Flags and national team jerseys drape people’s backs. Hues of brown skin parade proudly alongside their pasty fare-skinned brethren.

I’m beginning to appreciate the World Cup as a satire on cultural symbols, stereotypes, and psyches. Mexicans wear giant sombreros. Americans impersonate Elvis. Even the Scots, who didn’t qualify for the tournament but would never miss a good party, were seen out wearing kilts. Yet, more than anything, the World Cup is an international meeting of the [drunken] minds. A reminder that people actually live and breathe and eat in Ghana. An opportunity to meet representatives from 31 other countries who have pride in their countries or love for the game of soccer, or both. A place where it is ok for men to put their arms around perfect strangers in a display of empathy for a painful loss. For one month every four years, racist and xenophobic thoughts are replaced by thoughts of a round ball.

So here’s my grand thought of the day. Instead of the often ineffective and toothless UN, we should have a World Cup themed international body to make and enforce world decisions. They will meet for one very intensive month every four years in a different country. Adidas will sponsor it. Ronaldhino will be the Secretary General. The number of votes will be decided by penalty shootouts. The more people that come from their country and make a penalty kick with the world’s fattest man goaltending, the more votes that country has. Headquarters will move from New York City to Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Everyone will be forced to drink a pint of German Ale before making a decision on anything. Sorry Budweiser. And ready for the best part? All those hooligans that are forbidden from attending the real World Cup will be deployed on any UN Peacekeeping missions. To all my friends who are lawyers, let’s make this happen.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Rationalizations from Germany

Learning about the Holocaust is different from any other history lesson I ever received. Ever since I was a small child up until this very day, every time I learn about the Holocaust I have the same physical, emotional response. I feel a sharp, tingling sensation through my whole body that leads to chills mixed with rage, energy, and clenched fists.

I intentionally boycotted Germany during my 1998 trip through Western Europe. Eighteen years old then, I could not understand how a country could commit a crime such as the Holocaust. By visiting Germany, I felt as if I was somehow validating the Nazi crimes. Now twenty six, I still can’t comprehend the Holocaust. But two World Cups later, I realize that coming to Germany doesn’t validate the Holocaust any more than visiting the US validates the slaughtering of the Native Americans. As great a moral blunder the Holocaust and the Native American genocide were, it is also a moral blunder to harbor ill will towards a child for the sins of the father.

As soon as it was announced that Germany would be hosting the 2006 World Cup, I have been slowly coming to grips with the fact that I would be visiting Germany. Should I visit the camps? This is the question that has been racking my brain for a while now. My fanatical obsession with soccer has forced me to come to Germany before I was ready to visit its darkest regions, not so far away from the World Cup circuit. Every so often while flipping through my Lonely Planet guidebook I accidentally turn to the page of a concentration camp. I keep flipping because I’ve realized I’m not ready; emotionally, spiritually, conceptually to visit these horrific places. In this past year I have visited the Pakistani earthquake region where I saw mass grave upon mass grave. Yet, I could come to grips with this because it was God, or Mother Nature, or supernatural forces, who was ultimately responsible. Why is it so much more difficult to accept a crime perpetrated by humanity? Or is humanity simply an extension of God by virtue of being created by God?

Another reason I am not visiting the camps on this trip is an egocentric one. I want to show Germany that I do not judge the Germans of today because of where they were born. Let’s face it, only a small percentage of Germans today were around during the Holocaust. While the culture and camps remain, the minds, bodies, and souls are totally different. How can I hold a grudge? Today’s Germany is one of the most tolerant and truly free places on the planet.

I spend most of my time here thinking about things I would normally think about. Yet every so often the most inane, trivial things remind me of the Holocaust and where I am in the world. I think about it every time I get on a train here. Once the air conditioning on a train didn’t work and I stood up to quickly make sure the window opened. Yesterday, the trains did a marvelously efficient job of taking people to the stadium but were not nearly as efficient on the way back. Hmmm. Today I went to eat at Subway and I had to eat stale bread because the ovens were broken. “If only that could have happened to the ovens 60 years ago” is the absurdly comical thought that came to my mind.

Besides for these obvious psychological triggers, most of my moments in Germany are spent very much in the present. I went to the World Cup match between the US and Czech Republic with two Elvis impersonators from the US for a piece I did for Current. Walking around filming these Soccer Elvi, as they’re known in plural, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to these bizarre creatures in the Holocaust. “Would Hitler have killed Soccer Elvis?” As we were riding in the car, our Arian taxi driver smiled all the way to the game. He began talking politics without me even prodding him. He remarked that Germany’s president today, Horst Koehler, is different from any German president of the past. As part of his ceremonial duties, Koehler was in attendance for Germany’s World Cup opener against Costa Rica. He also visited Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem last year. The cab driver said that for the first time since the war, the German president is telling the German people to hold their heads up and be proud to be Germans. That just because you are proud to be German doesn’t mean you are a Nazi anymore.

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Soccer Elvis, Captain America, Indian Soccer Elvis, and Evil Kneivel

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Indian Elvis and Policeman

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Soccer Elvis doing coochy coochy coo

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Me in Gelsenkirchen just before kick off