FINALLY. We’ve been waiting for this day since last fall – of course, by ‘we’ I mainly mean ‘Diederik’ and by ‘since last fall’ I pretty much mean the day I met him. You should know what I’m talking about, but since you’re my compatriots I know you don’t. Here’s a hint: It’s the WORLD CUP!
I know what you’re thinking: “The World Cup? Is that tennis?” But I’m here to tell you, it’s about football – soccer football, not football football – and it’s a big deal to every other nation on Earth except for the US.
I’m neither as knowledgeable or as funny as Dave Barry or The Onion, so if you want to know more about the World Cup, you should check out their definitive articles (The Onion Introduction to World Cup Soccer, 2010 World Cup Teams to Watch, and Strongside/Weakside: Landon Donovan). I’m still not an expert or anything, but I’m certainly learning a lot by hanging out with my international friends here. For instance, did you know that Maradona is a famous footballer? I did not. My friends are continually astounded by my complete ignorance.
But really, the more I hear them talk about soccer, the more I’m intrigued. Unlike many Americans, I have no special dislike for soccer; when it comes to sports I don’t discriminate, I just don’t really like any of them. I like the exciting, replay-and-slow-motion-worthy moments but am not usually willing to wait through an entire game to see them if/when they happen. This is why I generally prefer sports movies – they only show highlights, often feature relationships, and usually have good music. Also, I find it absolutely impossible to get passionate about professional sports. It’s essentially a modern day mercenary army, with athletes playing for the highest bidder. I can see no logic to convince me to cheer for the Minnesota Vikings or Timberwolves, just because rich owners (often not from the state) happen to shell out enough money to get good players (usually not from the state) to wear their jerseys and play for them. The absurdity becomes even more clear when these etched-in-stone boundaries are crossed, and the inherent contradictions become apparent – like when Brett Favre switched teams.
The Olympics, however, has everything that professional sports lack – meaningful teams, relationships and personal stories, and a higher ratio of excitement to boredom. They’re everything I love, and from what I hear the World Cup is much the same. Everyone comes home to play for their country, nations unite behind their teams, and every moment of every game matters.
So, I’m going to give it a chance. China probably isn’t the best place to watch the World Cup but it’s certainly better than the States and the company here is impossible to beat. The condition for me watching any game is having a friend by my side willing to a) share their passion and b) explain what the heck is going on. I know someone from half of the 32 participating countries, so there should be no problem finding the passion!
And this is how I found myself perched on a bar stool in a coffee shop by West Gate last night, shoulder-to-shoulder with 50 or so fellow foreigners, awaiting the opening of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The first game featured the host country taking on Mexico, and despite only having one Mexican in our midst, the turnout was quite impressive. Most everyone picked sides, dividing the globe roughly between the Americas rooting for Mexico and the Africans supporting their continent. I guess there was technically a Mexican and a half, as I was also there to cheer for the motherland (grandmotherland?).
This was my very first World Cup game ever, and only the second soccer game I ever watched on TV (the first being the 2007 Copamerica, Mexico contra Argentina, which I watched in Mexico City). I knew the game was relatively simple so I followed pretty well until Mexico scored, half of the room got really excited, and then they got sad while the other half got really excited. Over the dull roar of the room, Carlos explained to me the “only complicated rule in football”: offsides. It turns out that when you kick the ball into the goal to score, there needs to be at least two players between you and the goal – generally the goalkeeper and another guy. Isn’t that the dumbest rule ever? I mean, I’m no sports expert, but I find it weird that they have a rule that requires participation from the opposing team to score a point. If I were a coach, I would forbid my players to cross the midfield line; then our opponents could only score from halfway across the field. There are probably downsides to this strategy, but I can’t see any.
I thought I understood the rule when Carlos explained it, but my record of 0-4 on calling the rest of the goals throughout the rest of the game indicates that I might not have. At any rate, there were two goals that counted – South Africa scored once and Mexico scored at the very end to tie it.
I was happy with a draw. I was cheering for Mexico, but I have a soft spot for underdog countries and am a total sucker for underdog continents, so I really didn’t want South Africa to lose the opener on their home soil. Draws are good; there will time for devastation and despair later.
Everyone asked me what I thought of my first World Cup game, and I told them that I really enjoyed it. It’s weird, though. I come from a country where the word ‘soccer’ is only heard in three contexts:
- followed by the word ‘mom’
- followed by ridicule, nationalist sentiments, or
- in the Mike Ditka quote: “If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms.”
But the World Cup is like a party that everyone in the world is invited to, and only the Americans said no. Somehow I ended up at the party anyway, and I just don’t understand why my friends didn’t want to come. (I’ve been reading anything the NYT writes about soccer recently, and this article helped explain why we’re not a soccer superpower, but I still have questions – and judging from recent conversations everyone else in the world does, too.)
The other analogy I can make is to Harry Potter. I feel like Harry, discovering this whole other world that I never knew about – a world obsessed with a sport that I’ve never heard of. I wonder now – can the rest of the world teleport, and they just aren’t telling us?