Image via EnStarz.com.
Image via EnStarz.com.
In truth, I would rather not be holding a two-foot-by-three-foot piece of black construction paper above my head as "Das Deutschlandlied" echoes around me. A couple hundred other people standing in my general vicinity adopt poses similar to mine. I realize that the millions watching on television across the world can't see my face—instead, they'll see the rendition of the German flag our pieces of paper collectively create. But still, it feels vaguely wrong and more than a little creepy to be joining in this display. For starters, this is because I'm not German. I don't know the words for this song, for another. I'm happy to root for the team and don't harbor any ill will towards modern Germany, but I have no reason to take pride in it as a country. The nationalistic display feels off. It's not mine.
But as the first notes of the national anthem start playing, I unroll the black sheet behind my seat and raise it skyward. I do so because I'm standing in the German supporter section as they take on the Netherlands in Kharkiv's Metalist Stadium during group play of the 2012 European Championship, and because at some level I just don't want to be rude. My friend Andrew and I are surrounded by German fans wearing the black and white jerseys of their beloved squad. I, intentionally, am not; neither am I sporting anything orange, the primary color of Germany's opponent. We scalped our tickets while we were back in the United States and although they were sent from Germany, we weren't sure which, if any, supporter section we would be sitting in for the match. We figured neutral colors were the only safe way to go.
But there's a difference between neutral colors and being the people in the section who create a hole in the construction paper German flag. The former is excusable; the latter, not so much. So up go my arms and the black rectangle. I get over any moral qualms and hold it aloft despite because that's what German fans do at the beginning of matches. At the conclusion of "Das Deutschlandlied," however, I drop my hands down just as quickly.
As the game begins, I find myself free to focus on cheering for the team on the field. This new version of the German squad, revamped by Jurgen Klinsmann and refined by current manager Joachim Low, plays fun, fast, furious football. Clapping for them comes easily. Even some chanting feels okay. Yelling "Deutch-land, Deutch-land" along with the rest of the section is innocent and fun enough, but I draw the line at the one that sounds angry and ended with "Nederland!" When it's over, I ask someone to translate. He refuses. I keep my mouth closed when they yell that one again.
What's strange about the European Championships—and other tournaments in which one might have little vested interested but which others feel is massively, world-historically important—is that it's easy to bounce from fan-base to fan-base. The Germans one night, the Dutch the next, Swedes the third. These temporary allegiances develop through a series of coincidences and active decisions: where you're sitting, who's around you, which teams are exciting to watch, which fans are fun to hang out with. Sometimes you end up in uncomfortable situations—read: holding a black piece of paper while another nation's national anthem booms—but mostly it's all fun; a little bit of high-intensity cultural exchange. Generally, adopting a team and becoming even a temporary fan is worth the effort. It's more fun to give a damn than to not.
Spend enough time pretending to be from one country or another, and you learn to fit in. If you can chant the country's name, you can find your place. "Deutch-land!" becomes "Ne-der-lands!" morphs into "Oo-cray-EE-nah," which rings out repeatedly in the Kiev Fan Zone the night Ukraine defeats Sweden at what amounts to a home game. Or a slightly less terrifying than usual home game—supporters of FC Metalist Kharkiv, the club that plays in Metalist Stadium, featured prominently in the BBC documentary "Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate," which highlighted concerns about racism in Ukraine and Poland. I learned, at that game, that scarves made by Adidas that read "Ukraine" in English will not help you blend into this particular fan section. Neither did buying a cardboard case that held five Carlsberg beers, but the latter did slowly help me not care about sticking out like a sore American.
Chants from different countries have different words (obviously) but the rhythms frequently repeat. So many are sung to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" that there is a website devoted to collecting them. Probably more than one such site, actually. The soccer world adopted The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" as a universal chant, inspired by Club Brugge's victory over Milan in the 2003-2004 Champions League. "Dum dee dum dum dee dum dum" rings out around stadiums across Ukraine and beyond. (Jack White on the phenomenon: "I love that most people who are chanting it have no idea where it came from. That's folk music." Jack White is maybe kind of an asshat.)
The language barrier makes things difficult, but less than you might expect. Cadence, enthusiasm, and additional helpings of enthusiasm trump accuracy. Of course, you could be spewing some awful phrases—soccer chants are not diplomatic, and a lot less quaintly folkloric when translated—so it's best to stick with the basics when chanting in a language you don't know. Then again, you have to be careful even when you do know what you're saying. English fans are generally the worst, but "Stand up, if you won the war," which they sing when they play Germany, is as inspired as it is insulting. For Americans, it (perhaps) earns point for also being applicable if the United States ever battles Die Mannschaft on the field again.
Which brings us back to our seats in Kharkiv. After the Germans finished off a performance that was more dominating than the 2-1 score indicates, the team walked over to applaud their supporter section. I quickly slipped out of Metalist Stadium and joined the droves of departing Dutchmen and women. I was happy to applaud the German squad during the game, but I didn't want, nor did I deserve, any applause of my own when the players returned the favor.
More importantly, Ireland was playing the next day. I figured maybe the Netherlands crew could spare some orange facepaint.