I didn’t have anything against public transportation until I moved to Los Angeles. It took me two and a half years to save up for a car, and using the transit system was an exercise in frustration. The buses are filthy, overcrowded and unreliable. The Red Line subway is great, but it doesn’t cover much ground. There’s a reason why there are so many cars in L.A. If you need reliable transportation, there’s no real alternative.
Not so in Germany, host nation of the 2006 World Cup. I traveled there in June with three of my sports friends to an event that would put German engineering to the ultimate test: How do you transport millions of visiting soccer fans, players and journalists to 64 games in nine cities? Furthermore, how do you do it in an ecologically friendly way?
The Green Goal mission
Minimizing the environmental impact of the tournament was the objective of Green Goal, a venture developed by FIFA, international soccer’s organizing body, and its German hosts.
By promoting and streamlining public transportation and using recyclable and reusable materials in the stadiums’ concession stands, the Green Goal team was determined to make this year’s World Cup an environmentally friendly one.
Our own mission was far simpler: Take two subways, a high-speed train and a light rail from our hotel in Munich to Nuremberg’s Frankenstadion, where the U.S. would play the west African nation of Ghana for the right to advance to the second round of competition. Total distance: 90 miles.
The subway was the easy part. We had ridden Munich’s U-Bahn back and forth to the city center several times in the days leading up to the game. It was an impressive system. Digital signs over the platforms displayed the route numbers and the arrival times of the next three trains. The stations were modern and very clean. The ticket machines were easy to use — until we realized that nobody was checking tickets and we could dodge the fare!
It was a 10-minute ride on two trains to reach Munich’s central train station, or Hauptbahnhopf. Emerging from the U-Bahn tunnels was like walking into a crowded shopping mall. A sea of tourists, business commuters, teenagers and the occasional contingent of singing, dancing, horn-blowing England fans flowed through concourses packed with stores and restaurants.
We found the ticket counter and presented our game tickets, having heard that one of the benefits of Green Goal was free rail travel on game day. The attendant was friendly and, like most of the Germans we met, spoke good English, but the best she could offer us was a 3% discount. We paid 41 Euros (about $57) apiece for our round-trip tickets to Nuremberg. Our disappointment at having to pay for the tickets was forgotten when we saw the train itself, a brand-new silver bullet on an ICE (InterCity Express) line, the newest of five high-speed rails connecting Germany’s biggest cities.
The one-hour ride was very comfortable and surprisingly quiet. We wondered why sound barriers lined much of the route. The corrugated steel blocked our view of the country villages that sped by. But the rolling green hills and bright blue skies of the Bavarian countryside were scenery enough for us. We had a game to get to!
Chaos at rail station
We pulled into an underground platform in Nuremberg’s Hauptbahnhopf and followed the World Cup signs to find a crowd gathered at the bottom of an escalator. There was daylight at the top, but two German Polizei officers were holding back the crowd. They let us up after a few minutes, and it became clear why we’d had to wait. The platform was a scene of utter chaos. It was packed to the edges with American and Ghanese fans. The noise was incredible. The Ghanese fans chanted tribal songs, answered by shouts of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” There were red, white and blue, and green, yellow and black jerseys, clown wigs and face paint all around us. An empty, four-car light rail train pulled up and the doors hissed open. The fans at the edge of the platform poured into the carriages and the rest of us pushed closer. The Polizei kept order, yanking stragglers out of the closing doors and sending the train off.
We worked our way to the warning stripe and managed to catch the next train. This was the free ride our game tickets had bought us. Packed in like sardines, we made it to the stadium station in less than 10 minutes. Happy to be breathing fresh air again, we made our way out of the station. The organizers had put up directional signs everywhere, coded with the four colors of the seating sections. We followed the red squares all the way to the security line, where stadium officials quickly scanned our tickets, patted us down, and sent us on our way.
Oh yeah, the game
The 37,000-seat Frankenstadion was as clean a sports venue as I’d ever seen. In place of overflowing garbage cans were four-canister recycling bins (glass, paper, plastic and waste). We bought beer (Budweiser in Germany? We were almost as disappointed as the natives.) and bratwurst at the concession stands. The beer was in reusable plastic cups and the brats were wrapped in napkins — no cardboard sleeves or trays.
The game itself was everything we’d hoped for, almost. In the second half, Ghana went ahead 2-1 on a penalty kick after a questionable foul in front of the U.S. goal. But even a loss couldn’t dampen our spirits. Watching our boys compete on the world stage was victory enough for us.
We were looking forward to food and street revelry in Nuremberg, but there was a huge crowd at the train station. Luckily for us, a friendly police officer pointed us to a local bus stop just down the road. When the bus pulled up, we were stunned to see that it was made by Mercedes. Only in Germany!
Like every other bus we rode on our visit, it was new, clean and articulated.
After a few hours spent enjoying the bars and the crowd in Nuremberg, it was time to catch our 11 p.m. ICE back to Munich. Sardine-can light rail aside, we had made it to and from the game in relative comfort and with surprising efficiency.
The 2010 World Cup is in South Africa, and, if the U.S. qualifies, my friends and I will be there to support the team — and to see if South Africa can score a Green Goal of its own.