“In Iraq, this would be completely impossible, the danger of a bombing is too great” said Zaid Al-Ahmed, a 22-year-old Iraqi, as he stood among the black, red and gold-clad mass — the colours of the German flag — during Thursday’s semi-final against France that saw the nation’s hopes of a World Cup-Euro championship double dashed.
“It’s not uncommon for there to be brawls among fans of opposing teams. In Germany, people are there to celebrate, it isn’t violent,” the young man from the city of Al-Hillah adds.
Ahmed followed the first few games of the tournament on a donated flat-screen TV in the refugee hostel where he lives. But he could not have imagined the fervent support for the side — known universally as “Die Mannschaft”, the team — that he would encounter at the public screening in the centre of the German capital.
It’s just one more thing to get used to about the strange country where he arrived to apply for asylum shortly before winter, after an arduous trek across Europe.
The young Iraqi hasn’t restricted himself to cheering for the white-clad Mannschaft, and now plays himself in a local club in Berlin.
“I believe football is a pillar of German culture,” explains Ines Burckhadt, pointing out that the country’s stadiums are packed to the last seat for games even in deepest, chilliest winter.
Since the beginning of Euro 2016, Burckhardt has been organising “Soccer Dinners” for refugees to join Germans at home, sharing a pizza and a sofa in front of the game and getting to know their new neighbours. “This lets refugees hang out with Germans,” she explains, rather than being hermetically sealed away in hostels.
“This way, they see that we aren’t just cold people, that we can get excited,” she adds with a chuckle. And for many of the new arrivals, German footballing heroes and the smouldering rivalries of the national league are nothing new.
“I used to follow the Bundesliga on pay TV in Iraq, especially when Bayern Munich were facing Borussia Dortmund,” Ahmed said.
In the Middle East, the Bundesliga is one of the most popular championships, says Syrian refugee Idrees Khrbotli —himself a long-time supporter of the country’s best-known club.