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Tuesday, a cold front

I was in Munich during the European Championship soccer final in which Spain beat Germany 1-0. Televisions showed Berlin’s Brandenburg gate, where 600,000 fans watched their national team lose and trudged home afterward, weeping, still wrapped in their flags. Living in Italy, I expected such a response would prevail throughout Germany, but that’s not what I saw in Munich. There, fans rode the subway, wearing black, red and gold wigs and holding beer bottles. They slouched, yawned and mumbled. Their chants subsided before catching on.

That evening, in a restaurant, Italian waiters set up a TV and turned tables and chairs so that everyone could see. Perhaps they thought Germany was like Italy, where people watch a game as though their lives depend upon the outcome. During the 2006 World Cup final, which Italy won, the electricity went out in the apartment where my daughter and friends were watching, because all of TVs in the building were turned on at once. Repairmen refused to leave their own sets until the game ended. Milan came to a halt. Streets emptied. Silence ruled except for the city-wide cheers, shouts and groans which accompanied the game.

These Munich restaurant patrons, Germans of all ages, never stopped talking during the game! They only glanced at the screen now and then. What’s worse, no technical expert explained tactics and evaluated players. No celebrities debated team merits. For long stretches of time, the announcer didn’t even talk. And when Spain shook off the German defense to nearly score the announcer hardly changed his voice. He could have been saying, “Tomorrow rain, Tuesday a cold front moving in from the north.”

The first soccer game I ever watched was the World Championship final of 1982. I understood neither the Italian language nor the game but announcer Bruno Pizzul turned the play into thrilling narrative. Talk about creating suspense! He had the whole country hanging on the verge of despair or euphoria and he did it with his voice. Germans don’t seem to understand that commenting on a game is an art, fundamental for spectator involvement. Not just anyone can do it.

There was only one person in the restaurant who moved his chair close to the TV screen, avoided chat and got down to the serious business of game watching: a nine-year-old boy, holding a small German flag near to his heart. One man started to heat up when a German player was clearly fouled. He let fly an angry sentence, berating the referee. But, when his dinner companions frowned at him, did he defend himself? Did he counterattack? No. He hung his head and quit talking.

When German captain Michael Ballack shot slightly wide, it was the only time that Germany came close to scoring. There were a few Neins! from the crowd but no one stopped eating.

When, in the 33rd minute, German keeper Jens Lehmann dashed out too soon, allowing Fernando Torres to score the decisive goal, disappointment erupted in a brief ooooh that descended in pitch. One woman threw up her hands.

During the last minutes of the game, conversation finally stopped and everyone watched.

When the game finished with a German defeat, the crowd gave six or seven neat, little, sportsmanlike claps and resumed eating.

The boy, still watching, saw the woe on Lehmann’s face. If this had been Italy, that expression would have been mirrored on nearly every face across the country.

Perhaps Germans don’t need soccer, the way Italians do, to demonstrate their capacity for united and effective devotion to a cause. In Munich the air is clean, buildings are in good repair. There’s no trash, no graffiti. Streets and subways are safe, even for women, even at night. In Munich they don’t even lock their bicycles.

In Italy, which is being slowly strangled by ineffectual government and organized crime, the desperation that surfaces during soccer games expresses a fear deeper than that of losing a game. It resembles a fear of being losers in general, something devastating. Their delirious joy at victory, with horns blaring, flags waving, cars pouring into the city, fireworks thrown from balconies and people singing in the streets is momentary relief that this isn’t true. It feels like renewal of hope in themselves, in their country, in life, whatever. And participation exhilarates.

This common knowledge became personal in Munich.

At two in the morning, I was awakened in my hotel room by drunken singing and laughing in the street. Never mind that Germany lost. For these fans, the game was only an excuse to carouse.