It’s hard for some of us, who grew up in rural Iowa many decades ago, to imagine how the whole world could be caught up on a bunch of people from around the world who have gathered to kick a ball.
But, that’s exactly what has happened over the past several weeks as the world watched the "World Cup" soccer finals in Brazil.
Growing up in small town Iowa in the 1950s, the nearest any of us ever came to participating in anything even resembling soccer was when we played "kick ball" in gym class. It was something we did for our PE classes. I don’t really remember any rules for the game; I just remember that all the boys would try to kick the ball as hard as possible and hit one of the girls.
The first time I’d even heard of soccer was in 1964 when Pete Gogolak first used the "soccer-style" place kick in a National Football League game. We snickered then. It was just a fad, we thought. But, NFL owners and coaches were a lot smarter than we were and in 1966, Charlie Gogolak, Pete’s brother became a first round draft pick when the Washington Redskins picked him sixth overall in the draft.
When I was sent to Nuremberg, West Germany, in 1966, however, I got to watch some soccer up close and personal.
Having made some German friends, we began sharing our likes. They taught my Army friend John and I how to kick a soccer ball. We brought them to our Army base and showed them all about baseball and basketball.
In 1967, though, I got to witness soccer fever up close and personal. It was an eye-opening experience.
The stadium in Nuremberg was built more than 80 years ago. It was used as a site for rallies by the Hitler Youth Movement in the 1930s. By 1967, though, it was used almost exclusively for German "national" league soccer matches. It was the home of "Football Club Nurnberg," better known as "1FCN." One afternoon, our German friends took an Army friend and I to witness a game.
It didn’t take long for us to get caught up in the excitement of the day. A crowd of 50,000 people jammed into the big stadium and all but about 10,000, or so, stood; most of the stadium’s capacity came from nothing more than standing spots on tiered cement slabs.
If you watch shows on ESPN during soccer season, you’ll see soccer scores scrolling along the bottom of the television screen. Most often, when you see a German team there, it will be listed as "Bayern Munich," which I find amusing. "Bayern" has been translated to Bavaria in English, while Munich is what we in America call "Munchen." In reality, the team is "Bayern Munchen."
The team has always been a power in German, indeed European, soccer. It was no different on that day in 1967 when my buddy John and I attended our first German National League soccer match between Nuremberg and Munich. Bayern Munich was heavily favored; few gave the Nuremberg bunch any chance at all.
But, things were wild that day. Nuremberg scored … goal after goal. The crowd of 50,000, initially stunned, became every bit as raucous as an American football crowd. Each time the home team scored, 50,000 fans screamed "Tor, tor," (the German word for "goal") in unison. Germans are known for their love of beer (where we have pop machines in American work places, Germans have beer machines) and they gulped their Bavarian beverages in big amounts on that day. Seven times we stood and yelled and by game’s end the home team had won 7-3 – an amazing outcome against a formidable opponent.
The seven goals scored by "FC Nurnberg" on that day left a lasting impression, almost as great an impression as the thousands and thousands of empty German beer bottles left in the stadium by game’s end.
Never in my life had I seen such a spectacle. I’d never seen so many people become so swept away in a moment of sports euphoria. The closest I’d ever seen to it was in 1960 when I saw the Iowa Hawkeyes for the first-ever time on a late-autumn day when the Hawks pulled out a last-minute win over the University of Wisconsin.
Even that was nothing like what I’d seen that fall day in West Germany.
Almost immediately, I thought, I have to learn to kick the ball with the instep of my foot; if I could become proficient, maybe I could one day kick for my beloved Green Bay Packers. Such are the unrealistic dreams of youth, especially for a young man who, before that day in Germany, had never, ever seen a real soccer match.
I still have a memento of that day. For mere pennies, I purchased a pennant. On it reads "1FCN." It’s a memento not only of my time spent in West Germany, but of a beautiful afternoon spent in a stadium among 50,000 screaming Germans.