x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

This tournament tears down many walls

After Sunday's final, our writer will leave Germany impressed by how the women's World Cup has changed many perceptions about the female version of the sport.

Thousands of people in Germany, such as the ones seen here in Frankfurt, caught the bug as the competition wore on.
Thousands of people in Germany, such as the ones seen here in Frankfurt, caught the bug as the competition wore on.

Even in the exalted category of summer evenings in northern climes, the summer evening of June 30 in Frankfurt fairly soared.

Light stayed skyward until late, befitting the latitude. The temperature was some number that doubles as perfection. The city skyline shone behind the Main River even if those were mostly banking towers.

A bridge crossing the river teemed with padlocks on which couples had written their names before locking them in symbolism, and for a second not even a cynic could wonder whether they could find the keys upon break-ups.

And just beyond the bridge, along the river's edge, people gathered gently to watch a sporting event of uncommon pleasantry.

They did not seem to mind craning their necks and shifting their stances in the crowds to view one of the big screens showing the host nation play in the women's World Cup. They flinched not when the television commentator noted, in German, that the defending champions' first half against Nigeria had been their poorest of the summer.

Bratwurst sizzled upon grills. Tents harboured social groups. Concession stands sold drinks in real glasses for which you could retrieve your deposit upon return. Face paint in German flag colours - red, black, gold - had found its way to cheeks here and there. Those same colours turned up in flower necklaces. Some fans sat in - the leisure of it! - folding chairs.

About the 70th minute of Germany's eventual 1-0 win over Nigeria that night, a visiting ear might have picked up a telltale murmur. While people did keep an eye on the match, and they did chafe somewhat at the aggression of the Nigerian players, and they did practise the mandatory human art of appealing to a referee who could not possibly hear them, they also chatted.

Amid a World Cup, they chatted with each other in an everyday way you could discern even if you could not speak a syllable of German. Here has thrived a sporting event ideal in several ways, among them its dearth of any hint of fan aggression and the absence of the kind of total compulsion that forestalls socialising.

"When it's the women, it's like, have a drink, go to the bathroom, eat, do something else," a student named Diana Gollnest said from behind the counter at a bagel shop the next morning. When it's the men, as during the 2006 World Cup in Germany: "Oh, they're just staring. They can't do anything, can't go anywhere. They're totally focused."

The women's World Cup that will conclude tomorrow night with a final lacking Germany, but including Japan and the United States, has resonated with positive signals.

For anyone who would look, it has lent further disintegration to the myth of the uptight Germany and has bolstered the notion of a 21st-century, forward-thinking, cosmopolitan Germany.

It has wrought almost certain advancement for the women's game and women's sport in Germany. It has been, by most considerations, the best women's World Cup of the six to date.

It has been predominantly pleasant - well, at least until that bit about the quarter-final loss by Germany and the mandatory human art of hurling barbs at the local manager, yet in its own curious way, even that unpleasantry signified progress.

Unlike a men's World Cup, a women's World Cup circa 2011 does not flood the senses upon arrival. It sort of half-floods them, or quarter-floods them.

A gigantic football sat quietly and hugely outside Frankfurt's main train station. A giant likeness of Birgit Prinz, the German captain, graced the pedestrian mall on the boulevard called Zeil.

When Germany defeated Nigeria, you could hear a few horns honking, and you might need reminding those horns did apply to the outcome.

From the big screens at the riverside, the smattering of fans with Nigerian flags walked chirpily amid the droves of German fans bound for parking lots or train stations.

In a pub in gorgeous Wiesbaden during the Colombia-US match, three American soldiers calmly analysed the match even if they thought the referees in general had been too stingy doling out the yellow cards.

Unconfirmed but highly reliable reports told of at least one German woman with her hair done in flag colours.

Stadiums sold out, trading cards of the players sold millions and the news of the German team dominated sport sections, but mostly it hummed along sanguinely, this event, following upon the still cherished 2006 men's version.

Marianne Kohler, a German citizen who likes football but does not believe it should spawn feuds or wars, summarised while walking in a Frankfurt park the day of the Nigeria match, and reiterated later by e-mail: "The summer dream of 2006 was so wonderful because of hosting nations from all over the world in a very peaceful way here in Germany.

"It was like a big party, people meeting each other in the name of football and the World Cup. New friendships were born. Despite of just some little 'hooligan-like' events, the whole weeks had been lovely, a good and everlasting memory."

Yet with this World Cup, she said, a fresh dimension joined the positive others: "I think the fans are just more quiet and not as wild, loud and drunk as many male fans are at men's football. The joy and the match are in the first place."

Where for decades, according to several conversations, it had been socially verboten to hang the German flag from the windows of cars or apartments, that stigma faded with 2006, and clearly had faded further by 2011, with flags dangling from sills and visible here and there and there.

Beyond that came another boon.

From his station as a sales adviser in a sporting-goods store, Markus Scholz had noted an event beyond worthwhile.

"It's a big step, for the women," he began, later adding, "I wish it should be more" like the men's in the intensity of interest, "yet the step for the women is really big. Really important for them."

At the outset of the three-week event, he said, "We had a problem selling shirts, but as it starts I think it has exploded. Really good. Yeah. Really good." Increasingly, he said, people came in asking for various merchandise.

Of course, playing host meant playing marketer, more than in the two previous World Cups, which Germany won over Sweden in California in 2003 and over Brazil in Shanghai in 2007.

Sometimes with those, Gollnest said in the bagel shop, the curious had to go hunting through the channels to find the matches.

With this one, the women's World Cup had moved to the two main channels, replete with analysis from knowledgeable sorts at long desks, a la male football. Said Holger Preuss, a professor of sport economics and sport sociology at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, responding by e-mail, "My guess is that many more girls will get interested in football and will try the sport.

"Therefore I expect first a great raise in participation in clubs, but after three months, a drop. At the end, there will be a higher level of clubs. Therefore the World Cup is a great advertisement for the sport." Then, of course, came a jolt. It came last Saturday evening. A toothless German team suffered Japan's extra-time goal and lost.

A certain grouchiness ensued, even considering a side that had not lost in a World Cup since a 3-2 quarter-final bow to the US near Washington last century, in 1999.

Angela Merkel, the country's chancellor, called the 47-year-old, 2007 World Cup-winning manager Silvia Neid to "thank her and the team for all the joy they have given us", the newspaper Bild quoted Merkel as saying, but others publicly admonished Neid or recommended her ouster, with the prominent women's Bundesliga manager Bernd Schroeder claiming that Neid gave up too soon on Prinz, the 33-year-old striker.

Wrote Michael Horeni in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "The triumph was already scripted into the production, and was constituent to the success of the whole plan. And this plan contained no scenario for excluding Germany from the final."

From the vein of progress-in-demise, though, Markus Volker wrote in Tageszeitung, "We're watching the best women's World Cup ever. That is, above all, football. At last! Because football is also about not knowing how the game will end. Women's football has become more unpredictable."

The German federation quickly decided to keep Neid, but a good old fire-the-manager discussion marked some quirky headway.

"What goes for Joachim Loew, coach of Germany's men's national team, also goes for women's coach Silvia Neid," wrote Robert Ide in Der Tagesspiegel. In the eternal puzzle of these matters, the lack of the urgency of men's football fans makes for a lingering pleasantry, while doses of the urgency make for advancement, opportunity and improved health for girls.

Ide saluted "a massive boost for the sport, and it will continue to be that the coming week", even as in the delightful Germany of 2011, it already enhanced some fine summer evenings.