What’s the deal with soccer? Can someone please explain it to me? Why is the entire world (minus the USA) gaga about The Beautiful Game? I just don’t get it. And now it’s World Cup time—again. Didn’t we just have one of those like a week ago Thursday?
Don’t get me wrong. I like a good party whatever the reason, and I don’t mind tagging along for football shenanigans at the local sports bar. (I’ll be using the internationally correct terminology “football” hereinafter. Also because I loathe the NFL.) It’s just the game itself is so utterly boring 90% of the time. It’s like watching paint dry, albeit on an immaculately tended lawn.
I’ve had a running debate—sometimes highly acrimonious because The Other Guy is German—for more than 25 years with a smart lawyer from the Saarland who first came into our lives as a high school exchange student in 1993. In Cheyenne, Wyoming. Kind of cultural electro-convulsive treatment for the poor kid, to be sure, but Fritz fit in immediately with the family. After the first night when our dachshund got into the Many Bars of Chocolate Fritz’s oma had sent along, correctly assuming there was no decent chocolate in America. The dog spent the entire night wired on caffeine, jumping around like a spider monkey, then the next morning pooped all the gold foil inner wrappings he’d consumed with the chocolate.
But I digress. Because that’s what I do.
Fritz spent a year trying to proselytize our household—and me in particular—into the Church of Football. Honestly, a German is the wrong one to do this because, having won four World Cups, they can be just a teensy insufferable, shall we say, about their football. The Brazilians have won five, but they also samba and start a conga line at the drop of a hat, so I don’t mind their football boasting nearly as much. And Germans should not samba. Ever.
I’ve actually been in Europe for three World Cups and, admittedly, it shows Europeans at their best. They even stop sniffing haughtily at American tourists and welcome you into their cafés and piazzas with big screens. It seems, however, that there’s some European Union rule that any American at one of these festivities must have a Euro aficionado seated next to him. Seriously, it never fails, so it must be some European Commission directive or something. This can range from mildly informative to, by the end of 90 minutes (plus “stoppage time”), utterly annoying. But there you go.
My first Euro-experience of World Cup was kind of cool. In 1994, the World Cup was held in the United States. I was in the Air Force and had orders to move to Italy, but I had to go alone until I could find a place to live, then Kay-Kay and the kids could follow. I flew out of Chicago and we flew over Soldier Field while a World Cup match was underway. I thought that was mighty auspicious.
When I got to Italy, I was put up in a hotel in the middle of town without air conditioning. This matters, because every three or four days—the interval between matches for a team—I was awakened in the wee hours (don’t forget the time difference) by a screaming street celebration after Italy won another match. Forza Azzurri! That was rather fun, and everyone at work was tired, too, because it was All The Rage to stay up late and watch Italy. I did not, being Not a Football Fan, but the street party was fun.
And the Italian team—gli Azzurri—went all the way to the championship game against, of course, those sambaing Brazilians. The owner of our hotel put together a special watch party for all the Americans staying in his place, which was exceedingly kind, and invited his family and friends to sit next to us so as not to violate the EU Football Expert Seating Directive, and laid on a great spread.
Italy played Brazil to a 0-0 tie—after 90 MINUTES of running around, kicking every which way, falling down and faking stuff, and generally looking marvelous. Really, like watching paint dry, I swear. However, this actually brought the match to the only time football is ever exciting—a penalty shoot-out. Now we’re talking. Roll the dice, all on a kicker and the goalie, one on one, mano a mano. Predictably, Italy lost the shoot out. Tristissismo. I went up to bed and was just settling in when an American in a room above me leaned out his window and yelled into the deathly silent street, “Hey! Why’s everyone so quiet? What happened? Why no street party?” We were lucky not to be burned in our beds.
I was back in Europe in 2010 teaching a summer law program in Rome during the World Cup, so that was like old times. The city put a huge screen in Villa Borghese Gardens and we went to watch Italy v. Paraguay there with 15,000 ecstatic Romans. The game ended in a 1-1 tie, non c’e male. We also saw a few matches in one of the piazzas. The Italians are football-crazed at even the most mundane times of the year—they call it Santo Calcio, Saint Football—but they go over-the-top crazy during World Cup. It’s rather endearing.
Italy was eliminated in the first round, which was embarrassing, especially since the USA advanced to the knock-out round that year. Although the Italians took it stoically since they see themselves as an admirably long-suffering people, all the cafés cancelled their satellite channels. That seemed kind of like fair-weather football friends to me, truth be told. We finally found an Irish pub next to the Vatican to watch the Americans get beaten by Ghana.
In 2014, I was teaching yet another summer law program, this time in Paris. Kay-Kay and I rented an apartment above a Chinese take-out in the 15th Arrondissement and were really living large, I have to admit. There were plenty of bistros and cafés showing World Cup matches. The French were much more cerebral about the whole thing, as one would expect, sitting around smoking clove cigarettes and discussing the existential significance of the crossing corner kick. But then again, my French isn’t all that good. France advanced, won their first match in the knock-out round, but then were eliminated by the despised les Allemands. Now there are substantial historical reasons for the French to hate the Germans—Franco-Prussian War, First World War, Second World War—but they REALLY hate the German national football team. Really, really hate them. So this was an especially cruel loss. That Germany then went on to win their fourth World Cup didn’t really help.
Although I don’t much like watching the games—rugby is so much more exciting, since they actually score with regularity and there’s no tradition of falling down and play acting—I love the vibe of the World Cup. In Europe, it’s a continent-wide simultaneous party that goes on for like six weeks. They couldn’t do it more often than once every four years, otherwise it would seriously impact GDP. Assuming they even go to work, all anyone talks about is yesterday’s results and tonight’s match-ups. Everyone has an opinion. And everyone is betting.
We see Fritz from time to time still, and we Skype now and again. He still hasn’t converted me into a football fan, but he has a young son he’s indoctrinating. When we were visiting a few years back, his son was just a year old, not even walking yet, and at breakfast, Fritz had all the bubble gum cards of the German national team lined up by the kid’s cereal bowl, making the poor boy learn all the players’ names.
Still, maybe it’s not such a bad thing for the whole world—OK, even the USA—to have a six-week party together. Maybe World Cup football is an admirable way to express something common to everyone. We all love to root for the home team, after all. And in the end, football is all about playing together, like kids in a sandbox.