This day in my history: The 1974 World Cup Final as seen from Beirut, Lebanon

Today exactly 40 years ago, on May 7, 1974, my family and I watched the Football World Cup Final between Netherlands and West Germany on a tiny TV in Beirut, Lebanon.  1974 was the last year before the civil war broke out, and Beirut was still a wonderful post-colonial middle-east city with clear Western (and mostly French) influence; it also was a major tourist destination for Westeners.  I remember Beirut as chic, white and golden, the Beeqaa Valley as green and incredibly fertile, and the Roman temples of Baalbek as white and green – it was about the first time my then nine-year old self fully realized the beauty of landscapes and architecture.  All the charms and beauty of Beirut would get lost in the 16 years of civil war that would ignite only a few months later, and well-armed soldiers on every major crossing were a sign of things to come.

How would we get to Beirut, you may ask?  At the time, my father was a German teacher in Bangui, Central African Republic, and we lived there in a nice house with a lavish garden; every Summer, we would return to Europe, though, and on some of these return trips, we would include stopovers in locations on the way.  At the time, the Western and Eastern blocks were still fighting for dominance in Africa, and consequently, the Central African Republic was well-connected – both by Western Airlines (UTA and Air Afrique), as well by Soviet Airlines (Aeroflot).  With Aeroflot being cheaper than the others, we would use the saved money for stopovers, which is how we ended up for short trips to Moscow, Russia; Cairo, Egypt; and, in 1974, Beirut, Lebanon.

The flight crew and us were in the same hotel, and my father and the crew had already made acquaintances during the trip from Africa.  It turned out that this very day was the finals of the 1974 Soccer World Cup in Munich, with the Netherlands playing against West Germany.  The crew also knew that we were Germans – and one of their rooms had a TV!  So at breakfast in the restaurant, they approached us and told us that they wanted to watch the finals later today.  Would we like to join them?  Of course, my parents gladly accepted.

So my sister and I found ourselves in a stuffy Beirut hotel room with our parents and a Russian flight crew, in front of a tiny, blurry, black and white TV screen with the audio in a language I did not understand (Arabic? Russian?).  It was even hard to distinguish the teams, although the light grey team seemed to be the Germans, and the darker grey team seemed to be the Dutch.  And I occasionally got the words "Beckenbauer" and "Cruyff", whom I identified as the main protagonists of their respective teams.  On every goal shot, vodka bottles were passed, and the crew's eyes got more and more watery.  The game lasted for 90 minutes, and at the end, the Germans won.

At this time, I was a nine-year old boy, and you might think I would have been super enthusiastic about watching the World Cup Final, captured by the game, and knowing each single player in the team.  Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.  Having spent the past year in Africa, I knew nothing about German football, its teams, or its players; nor did I know how the world cup went so far.  All the news we had were a weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, which normally would arrive one to three weeks late; occasional short-wave radio news; and French Newsreels, to be shown in the local cinemas.

Still, I was glued to the screen, like my parents, like the crew with their wide open, bright blue eyes.  But in this moment, what I found thrilling was not so much that Germany was just about to win the World Cup.  It also wasn't that I was in a hotel room in Beirut with a bunch of Russians on my way back from Africa.  It was that I was looking at real live TV.


if you plan to invite me for your upcoming event, please avoid nightmares like this one

I frequently get invitations to give talks at conferences, summer schools, and other events.  Normally, it is an easy thing: I check my availability, agree, book travel and hotel, prepare and give a talk, have fun, get reimbursed.  Not so with this recent summer school in France, though.

January.  I get an invitation to lecture at a summer school in France.  Sounds fun and exciting, but it is in our exam week.  I go for a compromise: I accept, but will be able to join only for one day.  As usual, I don't get paid for such events, but the trip will be taken care of.

February.  The organizers ask all speakers for a flight connection, such that they can book a flight for us.  I spend an hour looking up possible flight connections on Expedia, only to find that the plane will be cumbersome and expensive.  I send the quote, adding that going by train will be cheaper and faster, an assessment shared by the organizer.

February.  The summer school asks me for a quote of the train ticket.  This is not possible yet, as the ticket can only be booked three months in advance.  I give an approximate price based on next month's connections.

March.  I send title and abstract and state my availability for the lecture (Tuesday or Thursday).  Everything is fine.

April 17.  The summer school produces a flight itinerary and asks me to confirm the booking.  Flight?  I reply stating that we already agreed to have me travel by train; I again retrieve and provide a quote for the train ticket.  As the flight itinerary assumes that the talk be on Wednesday (which does not fit me), I ask that my talk be moved according to my availability.  The organizers agree.

April 17.  In return, the summer school produces a train itinerary, again asking for confirmation.  The itinerary also assumes my talk is on Wednesday.  I cannot confirm the itinerary, repeating that the date does not suit me and that my talk date will be moved to either Tuesday or Thursday.

April 22.  I get a tentative program, where my talk is scheduled on Wednesday morning.  This is the day on which I am not available, and I curse between my teeth.  I again ask for the talk to be rescheduled.  The organizers apologize for their mistake and schedule my talk for Thursday.

April 29.  I get an electronic train ticket.  This booking is still the same itinerary as on April 17, assuming my talk would be on Wednesday.  I am pretty upset and state that the ticket neither fits my schedule nor the revised schedule of the summer school.  Rather than exchanging more mails, I suggest I book the ticket myself, saving time and money.

April 30.  The organizers apologize for their confusion, and ask me to please book a ticket myself.

April 30.  I book a train ticket on the SNCF site.  This takes me 10 minutes.  I send the itinerary to the organizer, who again apologizes.  All seems to be set.

May.  The administration asks all speakers for bank account information, address, and passport copy, which I all provide.

June 5.  I get a hotel voucher for my stay.

June 27.  The organizers ask all speakers for rechecking the information on their Web site.  I am busy in a PC meeting and postpone the check for a few days.

July 1.  The organizers urgently ask me if it would be okay for me to chair a session on Wednesday morning.  Wednesday?  I will be traveling on Wednesday morning, so no.  I remember the earlier message to recheck all information.  It turns out that on the Web site, my talk is still scheduled on Wednesday, and my hotel is booked wrongly, too.  As I realize this, I jump up and scream, literally banging my head against the wall; my secretary comes in and asks whether everything is okay.

July 1.  As I cool down,  I write to the organizers. I repeat my travel details and for the last time, ask the organizers to reschedule my talk as confirmed multiple times.  The organizers again deeply apologize for the confusion and promise that the schedule will be fixed.

July 2. [Update]  I cancel my participation, wishing all the best to the summer school, and bearing the ticket expenses myself.  I feel relieved and relaxed.  All is well that ends well.

Lesson learned #1: While this trip has easily caused me more trouble than all my other trips combined, let me state that almost all of my business trips are painless, including all my trips to France so far.  Also, other lecturers at the same event report that their booking all went well, so I guess I just had a long series of unfortunate events which is not typical for France at all.

Lesson learned #2: If you organize an event, make sure you have a single point of contact – there should be precisely one person to talk to the invitees, who keeps track of all information and (possibly) interacts with the administration.  Do not have your administration interact with the invitees directly, bypassing you; likewise, keep the administration updated at all times.