All through the World Cup, the word Berlin has had a special symbolic resonance. “Berlin! Berlin! Wir fahren nach Berlin!” chanted the German fans constantly. Well, the ultimate truth – “We’re on our way to the third-place match in Stuttgart!” – wouldn’t hit the spot as a rallying cry, would it?
However much one tries to erase extraneous items of history, the notion of marching towards Berlin, for purposes of conquest and capture, cannot be separated from the past. Seventeen years ago I visited the unreconstructed Olympic Stadium in Berlin on a misty autumn morning, just as East Germany and its wretched wall were finally being reduced to rubble.
Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the portentousness of the times, but I thought it was the most ghostly place I had ever seen. Now the stadium has been rebuilt, and on Sunday it stages the World Cup final. I returned there last month for a dire qualifying match between Ukraine and Tunisia, and it seemed a functional modern stadium: not even a particularly atmospheric one.
The architects have been sensitive enough in retaining historic features, such as the marathon runners’ gate. But somehow the memories of Hitler and Jesse Owens and all the saluting and goose-stepping seem to have been carted away in the skips. To my mind, the ghosts had fled.
Much else has been exorcised in the past month. And the Germans are likely to begin clearing up after their guests in a mood mixing satisfaction and melancholy. It will be hard for them to face the fact that, except for the very young, they can never expect to see such times again. The Germans were awarded this World Cup only 32 years after their last one, an unusually rapid turnaround, and almost certainly unrepeatable given the increasing readiness of non-traditional nations to take their turn, and the eagerness of Fifa to let them do so. Despite Athens-style alarms about South Africa’s level of preparedness for their turn in 2010, there is no chance this show will be given an early re-run.
So Germany will have to turn in a different direction. As the world focuses on the Olympiastadion on Sunday, it may become obvious what they should be. The words “Berlin Olympics” have not yet been cleansed and purified. Perhaps it is time they were. The stadium will be used for the 2009 World Athletics Championship. And if that goes well, then by 2020 the past will probably be distant enough to make an Olympic bid realistic. (A centenary version in 2036 can, I think, be ruled out.)
The Germans tried, half-heartedly, to get the 2012 Games for Leipzig, which was a non-starter. Nonetheless, a Berlin Olympic bid could address one of the most serious failings of this World Cup: it has not reached out properly to the old East Germany. One of the striking features of the tournament has been how genteel and middle-class most German spectators have been. Beyond the glitz of central Berlin, where the residue of communism is fading more slowly, there is a sense that this has not been the east’s party.
Germany’s own most recent Olympic experience proved little happier than 1936. The 1972 Munich Games ended amid the horror, and attendant official ineptitude, of the Black September massacre. West Germany’s World Cup two years later took place in this shadow. Security was understandably heavy-handed, the weather rotten and the Germans made themselves unpopular by winning and thwarting the Dutch, whose brilliance had lit up the event.
This time, presuming nothing goes wrong this weekend, the bad memories will be very minor. But the French and Italians will have to excuse the rest of us if we are already looking beyond Sunday towards more distant horizons.