Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup Fever

I have World Cup Fever (a.k.a., FIFA Fever), and I am conducting a relationship with a Panasonic flat screen.

I once played soccer/football/futbol as a kid, so I'm not an adult newbie to the game. As a soccer player I sucked. I didn't even look cute in my uniform. My parents did spawn one kid that played well: my sister. And yet she has never contracted FIFA Fever. She's too consumed by baseball (yawn), and planning her wedding (I'm not allowed to yawn at this).

During the 2002 World Cup I watched games unfold in bars in Europe. Perhaps this is where and why I learned not to be so constrained about my emotions during a game. During the 2006 World Cup I lived in San Francisco, which boasted an inordinate amount of Americans interested in soccer. My friends and I had no problem finding places to watch games with other enthusiasts. These soccer venues had names like O'Malley's, O'Reilly's, and O'Neill's. My favorite was Martin Macks in the Lower Haight. They even served beans on toast. During those days I drank more pints than normal while the sun still hung in the sky, and I often found that after games my voice was oddly hoarse.

During the World Cup, in a pub, sitting on a stool, in a soccer jersey, or other patriotic accoutrement (I favor headbands) no one sits still or stays silent. Everyone is editorializing, scowling, exuberantly jumping up and down, screaming, and during the more emotional moments, shedding a tear or two. Maybe that's just my behavior.

But, seriously, who didn't well up when North Korea's Jong Tae-Se sobbed as his country's national anthem resoundingly filled Ellis Stadium in Johannesburg before the match with Brazil? (I thought all North Koreans had learned as good proletariat children how to block their lacrimal glands when moments of human emotion pierce their propaganda-blazed armor.) This is just one example.

A soccer game is a 90-minute narrative in motion (with added time). It's the only game that from the opening kickoff to the final whistle blow includes a colorful cast of characters (on and off the field), a conflict of highs and lows across the pitch, climactic goal attempts and blocks, and a resolution that can still end in a draw. Critics like to point to a conclusionary tie as nonsensical and a reason to hate the game. I pity those fools.

A soccer game is not predictable. Even if a team has the best individual player (or a few) in its lineup it has to work cohesively in order to set a rhythm that allows for the end perfection of a goal, or a human shield-in-motion that stymies the other team's assault on the penalty box.

A soccer game during the World cup is not just another soccer game. National pride is at stake, and it all takes place on a global stage. I'd even argue that soccer, more than any other sport, is unifying. It connects people whose love of the game transcends individual circumstances across continents, from favelas, pubs, living rooms, standing-room-only storefronts, to high-brow lounges. It knows no economic class, skin color, age, or favors a particular political ideology. Differences, for around 90 minutes, are swept aside.

Individual ego also has to be swept aside or it can blow up a team's chance to advance (mon dieu, Les Bleus!); it's the collective that matters. And we, through the teams we cheer for, see ourselves in that collective as it plays and pushes itself to physical and mental limits -- and possibly beyond to soar to greatness.

The World Cup will end on July 11, 2010. Afterward, normalcy will prevail. Until then it's me and the flat screen, or O'Hara's down the street, and my sequined patriotic headband. And, my equally fevered roommate (with matching headband). My days are scheduled around ESPN, and my quest for the perfect American flag bandana continues. Viva World Cup 2010, the first World Cup in Africa, and may the best team prevail in hoisting the golden orb, the FIFA trophy, and may it not be Brazil. OK, fine. If Brazil is the best team.