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06.12.14

Why Americans Should Love the World Cup

Knowing that your country doesn’t stand much chance in the World Cup is strangely liberating for one American writer who, unburdened by national allegiance, lives for a month every four years in something like paradise.

Written in 2006, reprinted here in its entirety, this essay appears under the title “The World I Want To Live In” in Sean Wilsey’s forthcoming essay collection, More Curious. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and the publisher, McSweeney’s.

There are many beautiful things about being an American fan of World Cup soccer—foremost among them is ignorance. The community in which you were raised does not gather around the television set every four years for a solid, breathless month. The U.S. has never won. You have not been indoctrinated into unwanted-yet-inescapable tribal allegiances by your soccer-crazed countrymen. You are an amateur, in the purest sense of the word. So when the World Cup comes around, you can pick whatever team you like best and root for them without shame or fear of reprisal—you can spend the month in paradise.

That’s what I do. The world of the World Cup is the world I want to live in. I cannot resist the pageantry and high-mindedness, the apolitical display of national characteristics, the revelation of deep human flaws and unexpected greatnesses, the fact that entire nations walk off the job or wake up at 3 a.m. to watch men kick a ball. There are countries that have truly multiracial squads—France, England and the United States—while other teams are entirely blond or Asian or Latin American. There are irritating fans: “USA! USA! USA!” (Blessedly few.) There are children who hold hands with each player as he walks onto the field. National anthems play. Men paint themselves their national colors and cry openly at opposing victories. An announcer shouts “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL LLLL! GOL GOL GOL!” on the Spanish-language channel you’re watching (it’s the only way you can see the game live). A Slovakian tire salesman, an Italian cop, or a German concert pianist—having passed the official fitness test and psychological examinations—will moonlight as referee. There are two back-to-back forty-five-minute segments without commercials. To quote the book every traveling athlete finds in his hotel room: “Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven.” Or, as my copy of Soccer and Its Rules says: “Are you ready? Ready to cheer the players to victory, marvel at their fitness, speed, and skills, urging them to win every tackle for the ball, ready to explode at a powerful shot? Ready for the excitement of flying wingers, overlapping backs, curling corners, slick one-two passing and goals scored with panache? Ready for another moment in a fantasy world?”

I am ready.

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Argentina's Diego Maradona scores 1st goal with his Hand of God, past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton. (Getty)

***

I mark the passage of time in World Cups. I started watching when I was old enough to be a young player, and still imagine myself as the unlikely substitute who comes in and scores.

My first Cup was in 1990, and I rooted for Cameroon. Cameroon had Roger Milla, who was an old man (38, that year) and ran only when it mattered. He did not need to run. He was wily and stylish enough to walk around the field scoring off defenders young enough to be his children. When Cameroon went out I switched allegiance to Italy. I was in Venice, and Italy was the host nation. I got swept up. When the Azzurri made it to the final four, young men jumped into the canals, risking death by infection in order to express their triumph. Then Argentina kicked them out in the semis, despite allegations of cheating. (Ever since Argentina’s star, Diego Maradona, punched a ball into the goal to win a match against England, then claimed it was won “a little bit by the Hand of God, another bit by the head of Maradona” Argentina has been the cheater’s favorite team.) Finally West Germany—with seemingly immortal attackers like Lothar Matthäus (veteran of five World Cups), and clinical defenders like Olaf Thon (nickname: the Professor)—shut down all Argentine forays and won the whole thing. Tragic but inevitable.

The next World Cup was in America. The world looked to the United States and the United States did not notice. The only part of the tournament to get much attention stateside came when a Colombian defender scored a goal against his own team, flew home in disgrace, and was shot dead in the street by a fan who shouted “Gol! Gol! Gol! ” as he pumped bullets into the body. So far as I know, no one has ever done this to an Olympic discus thrower.

Italy was still my team, despite the Italians’ boring soccer. Italian soccer watchers, I discovered, make better watching than Italian soccer, which entails getting a single goal and then locking into defense for the rest of the game. The Italians even have a word for it: catenaccio, which means “door bolt,” or, if you’re a more literal translator, “ugly chain.” That year they ugly-chained it all the way to the final, lost on penalties to Brazil, and I decided to abandon them. Seeing your team go out on penalties is particularly demoralizing when you’ve watched them make it there without any flying wingers, curling corners, slick one-two passing, or goals scored with panache. The Azzurri had chintzed their way into the final. I’d supported them through a string of draws and one-point victories, watched them shut down Brazil for two hours, and then watched them lose. Even the misery was tepid.

The team with the biggest payroll is almost always going to win in league games. Not so in international soccer. GDP is meaningless. China is a nonentity. America has always lost.

Next Cup I switched to England. I was converted by watching a young David Beckham score an impossible-looking goal from a direct free kick, then get ejected from a game for kicking an Argentine player after the whistle was blown. There was something irresistible about a player whose talents were undermined by the fact that he was foolish enough to do this right in front of the ref, against a team as good as Argentina. I was hooked: Beckham was a brilliant imbecile, and England was my squad. Of course it was the Argentines who continued to the next round.

So I switched to France. France was the host, and their team was a mélange of skin tones and shaved heads the likes of which had never been seen before. Les Bleus came up against Gli Azzurri in the quarter-finals, won heroically in a penalty shoot-out, then went on to win the whole thing, using their home-team advantage to beat psyched-out world champion Brazil. Bliss!

But it was the 2002 World Cup, held jointly by South Korea and Japan, where it all came together for me. I watched the games in New York, on Telemundo, the Spanish-language channel (“GOOOOOOLLLLLL!”), and split my allegiance between Japan, England, South Korea, and Turkey. Japan had great hair, a player who wore goggles, and another who taunted the opposing side in Italian. England—with grown-up Beckham (now captain) and my new favorite striker, Michael Owen—was dangerous and disciplined and incredibly unlucky. South Korea humiliated Italy with great determination and well-deserved good fortune. The Turks were ruffians: egregious foulers who made for the best watching of the tournament. Inevitably, Brazil won. The final was against Germany, but the best game of the tournament was the one when Brazil knocked out England with a gorgeous goal by Ronaldinho (“little Ronaldo”) scored on a direct free kick—from midfield. Deus ex machina. A beautiful way to lose.

***

When the Cup was over I wasn’t ready to stop watching. I needed more international soccer. I tried Mexican and European league games on the weekends, but it just wasn’t the same. What was at stake? Soccer only mattered when you knew an entire country sat rigid with anxiety in front of its television sets, national hopes and paranoias on full display, yearning for release; when players were playing out of love of country, not money. The team with the biggest payroll is almost always going to win in league games. Not so in international soccer. GDP is meaningless. China is a nonentity. America has always lost.

So I took advantage of my American ignorance. I went on eBay in search of a historical World Cup and was soon deep in discussion with a fan whose screen name hearkened back to the victorious West German team of 1990: “Olafthon1” (the Professor must have got there before him). Olaf1, a sort of monastic scholar of soccer, wrote me a number of emails that read like doctrinal encyclicals, and advised me on which World Cup I should retroactively attend. After settling on 1970—the first one to be televised in color—he warned me that there were two missing games, UruguaySweden and West Germany—Morocco. The former was no great loss, but the latter, he said yearningly, was not only magnificent, but no longer existed, and “nobody can get it.” West Germany—Morocco, I thought, lost for all time. And it’s a measure of my zealotry that I later found myself daydreaming about a world space agency that could send out a probe to overtake and intercept the original broadcast and bring it home to Earth. Traveling at light speed, West Germany—Morocco passed beyond the etheric magnetic sphere of our solar system in just over four hours, placing it, at the time of my imagining, thirty-six years, three hundred and sixty-four and one quarter days and twenty hours later, 3.40586297e+17 miles from Earth.

***

The 1970 World Cup was held in Mexico, beginning the same month and year that I was born. I had no idea who would win. When it arrived I slipped the first of 25 VHS tapes into the VCR I for some reason still owned—MexicoSoviet Union, 5/31/70— and proceeded to watch the entire tournament, drawing it out over a couple months. The great games (CzechoslovakiaBrazil), the boring games (UruguayIsrael), and the weird games (MoroccoBulgaria). I watched the whole thing alone, like West GermanyMorocco, deep in nostalgic space.

I resisted rooting for Brazil. Rooting for Brazil in soccer is like rooting for America in war.

The quality was surprisingly good. The fans all looked like farmers. The ads at the edges of the fields were for alcohol, tires, and cigarettes. The players wore short shorts and short haircuts. Though not Brazil’s Rivelino, who sported a shag and a mustache, and, from my amateur’s perspective, played better than Pelé. Despite what history remembers as a legendary performance, Pelé looked to me like a man who spent most of the tournament hobbling to his feet after being preemptively fouled, while Rivelino and Jairzinho got the goals. Some of the players on the Swedish team worked day jobs. And then there was the commentary: innocent, avuncular, genteel:

“My word, he’s got a kick like a mule!”


“Rubiños was left like a foundering whale.”


“No danger to this big, handsome Belgian goalkeeper. This boy last year was only eight stone. Now he’s nine stone. Look what football’s done for him.”

“The little men from the tiny republic—they’re not beaten yet!”

***

Friends who turned down invitations to watch got into the habit of asking me how the 1970 World Cup was going, who was doing well, if I wanted to place a small bet on the outcome. I detected some mockery, the mockery of infidels, but I did not care. I turned to SwedenItaly for solace, as others might turn to the Bible—which itself, if you looked, had some apropos passages: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And: “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet.” Watching the 1970 World Cup by myself, in a dark TV room, doors shut at my wife ’s request, was like living in a closet, in heaven. It was lonely. But knowing the politics and history that surrounded these countries in 1970 made for the best cultural/historical/sociological—yea, sacramental—experience of my life.

I resisted rooting for Brazil. Rooting for Brazil in soccer is like rooting for America in war. I went for the underdogs, the teams from countries that no longer exist: Czechoslovakia, West Germany, the Soviet Union. Brazil won, of course, providing me, in my own private 1970, with several of the most rapturous moments I’ve ever had in front of a television screen. They won me over. But they weren’t the only great team. England was almost as good, if mostly in the elegance of their defense. The West Germans were heroic in their determination. Franz Beckenbauer, the original sweeper, or attacking defender, played in the semifinal with a dislocated shoulder, his arm strapped to his side. And Italy, when sufficiently pressed, and pressed they were, proved capable of inspiring soccer, beating Germany 4-3 in an epic, two hour semifinal—a task that left them sapped for the final, which Brazil won easily, deservedly. They’ve taken home the trophy in three of the five World Cups I’ve seen. After 1970 I finally understood why. As Nick Hornby has written about the champions of 1970: “In a way Brazil ruined it for all of us. They had revealed a kind of Platonic ideal that nobody, not even the Brazilians, would ever be able to find again… 1970 was a half-remembered dream they had once had of themselves.”

***

Soccer’s worldwide popularity isn’t surprising when you look at what has always motivated humanity: money and God. There’s lots of money in soccer, of course. League soccer (like capitalism or war) is basically the childlike desire to make dreams come true, no matter what the cost, played by men with enough money to combine commodities like the best Brazilian attacker, Dutch midfielder, British defender, and German goalie and turn them loose on whatever the other billionaires can put together—an unfair situation that describes much of the world these days. But God’s there, too.

What is soccer if not everything that religion should be? Universal yet particular, the source of an infinitely renewable supply of hope, occasionally miraculous, and governed by simple, uncontradictory rules (“Laws,” officially) that everyone can follow. In fact, if only for this last reason, soccer’s got it over on religion. Unlike God’s Laws or Allah’s Shari’a, soccer’s Laws are all laws of equality and non-violence and restraint, and all free to be delayed in their application or even reinterpreted at the discretion of a reasonable arbiter. What the ref says goes, no matter how flagrantly in violation of dogma his decisions may be, and despite the fact that he earns his living as a concert pianist, a middle school math teacher, a tire salesman, or commissioner of penitentiary police—to name the professions of four men who reffed in the ’06 World Cup. My official rulebook, after presenting a detailed, Olafthon1-style enumeration of soccer’s 17 Laws, concludes that the ref can throw out any of them in order to apply what it rather mystically calls “the spirit of fair play.” Spirit is the only real Law within the boundaries of the soccer field (boundaries that themselves are allowed to vary according to the realities of any given playing situation—unlike, say, the earth’s location at the time of Galileo).

The religious undercurrent in soccer runs especially deep in World Cup years. Teams from across the globe converge on the host nation in something of an unarmed, athletic Crusade. As in the Crusades, the host nation tends to repel them. There’s a weird power in home-team advantage. Hosts always find a level of success disproportionate to their talents on paper, triumphing over stronger sides, as if exerting a gravitational pull on the game, causing it to be played the way they want to play it, as if, to carry this metaphor to its inevitable conclusion, God were on their side. These unexpected heroics can make for great watching—especially for the impartial amateur. One of the best contests I’ve ever seen was 2002’s second-round matchup between cohost South Korea and three-time world champion Italy. This was farther than Korea had ever advanced, and nobody expected them to do any better. But with the stadium in Daejeon, near the geographic center of South Korea, filled with more than 40,000 people, seemingly all wearing red shirts and banging kettle drums, the national team played with such vehemence that they took Italy into overtime. Christian Vieri, the Azzurri striker who usually spent quarterfinals just a quarter step off offside, was actually playing defensively, and sweating. Ahn Jung-Hwan, the Korean midfielder who eventually won the game with a golden goal, was also sweating, more than I’d ever seen an athlete sweat: great silvery explosions kept flying out of his hair every time he headed the ball. The Italian players were running as hard as children—all after him. The whole game felt possessed. It was David and Goliath—for two hours. The Italians, a team of dour and disciplined professionals, rather than breaking the opposition’s flow, as they’d been trained to do, were being forced to play the game like the South Koreans: running, running, running, running, and—when Jung-Hwan rose up and headed the ball with neck-jerking, spray-showering force in over tired old Paolo Maldini’s head—losing.

I turned off my TV and was surprised I couldn’t still hear the celebrating.

South Korea kept on going, through the quarterfinals, all the way to the semi, which they barely lost to Germany. For a while they were the world’s team. We all wanted to play soccer like South Korea. But it only took one loss for them to collapse, as if the spirit had abandoned them. They gave up the first of three goals in the third-place game against Turkey in a record 11 seconds—the fastest score in World Cup history. They’d been propelled as far as they could go, by belief alone, and then they were done.

***

America advanced past the group stage when the tournament was in the U.S. An epic rout will surely occur when the Cup is hosted by Brazil, whose dominant style of play, for some mysterious reason, is less like the chaos and Catholicism of Brazilian culture than the force and resourcefulness of American capitalism: opportunistic, well defended (Brazil has appeared in more tournaments and conceded fewer goals than any other nation), ready to avail itself of all loop-holes, overwhelming in its force and originality. If American life is geared to profit, Brazilian life is geared to goals. Seeing the Brazilian national team on the field is to see a country’s very soul distilled into 11 guys with no last names.

But, demographically, how deep can the pool of talent in Brazil really be, when compared to India or China? Shouldn’t countries with bigger populations inevitably produce a higher percentage of great athletes? Shouldn’t India, as the populous former colony of the nation that invented soccer, be the dominant practitioner? (Instead they play cricket.) Or isn’t athletic talent directly correlated to nutrition—shouldn’t the best-fed country win? Japan then!

No. Though the fact that the World Cup could even take place in Japan and South Korea was a victory. In less than half a century South Korea went from barring the Japanese national team from passing its borders for a World Cup qualifier to cohosting the tournament with its former occupier. We might live to see the Cup cohosted by Israel and Palestine.

I mean this. Soccer’s universality is its simplicity—the fact that the game can be played anywhere with anything. Urban children kick a can on concrete and rural kids kick a rag wrapped around a rag wrapped around a rag, barefoot, on dirt. Soccer is something to believe in now, perhaps, like its central piece of equipment, empty at its core, but not a stand-in for anything else.

***

In 1990, Pelé predicted that an African country would soon win the World Cup. Shortly after the 1990 tournament I visited Africa with an Italian tour group that used me as an English translator. This was Zambia, where the main industry is copper mining and every copper mine has a soccer team. I tried ridiculously hard to become Zambian. I memorized the difference between a Hyena print (oval, with a heart at the bottom) and a lion print (round, with a squashed nose at the bottom). I learned the lion call. I found out how to call someone a liar in the local dialect (“Boza!”). I ate dinner, with my hands, out of a shared plastic bucket with half a dozen villagers.

Hands in our food, we talked about soccer. Zambia was about to play Zaire in the neighbors’ first post—World Cup match, an early African Nations Cup qualifier, and the Zambians were full of optimism. The future of soccer was going to be in Africa.

A few days later I was in the capital, Lusaka. Having missed the big match by a day (Zaire won), I decided to watch a league game between a mining-town team, the Konkola Blades of Chililabombwe, and the Red Arrows, the Ministry of Finance squad. These were the young players who had a chance to make the next Zambian national team and win the World Cup in 1994. Or that’s what Pelé and I thought.

I took a cab to a stadium outside the city, bought a ticket, and sat in the concrete bleachers. After carefully scanning the crowd it seemed fair to conclude that I was the only white person interested in Zambian league soccer. Then, as the bleachers filled up, the space around me remained empty, in a zone some 20 feet across, like a penalty box. I felt like a goalie. But I didn’t really think much about it. When the game started I got caught up in the fever of it and stopped wondering why nobody would sit with me.

The Arrows wore red and the Blades wore blue. It was attacking soccer, running soccer, the sort of soccer you see when both teams want to win but neither has an advantage of age or experience or talent or fan support. The players were exuberant and serious. No score at the half. I went to the bathroom, figuring I might lose my seat, and not caring: I could squeeze in somewhere. When I came back, the empty space was still there, so I sat in its center again.

A few minutes after the restart, at around the 50-minute mark, I noticed a shift in the crowd’s attention, a collective wavering that amplified into a change in focus. Suddenly everyone on the other side of the field was looking in my direction, and the rows in front of me started turning around, too. Soon even the closest spectators, right at the edge of my empty radius, turned and looked at me. Then they started moving away. The whole stadium was looking at me, and I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I started to feel very, very uncomfortable.

I had missed some cue. Was I wearing the wrong color shirt? Did I look like a fan from some hated place? Was it simply that I was the only Caucasian in the stadium? The space continued dilating around me. I thought I was about to be a casualty of soccer violence.

I mumbled “hello”—boza, my only vocabulary word, seemed like a bad idea—to a man who was looking straight at me but for some reason wouldn’t quite focus his eyes on mine. He didn’t answer.

Then I saw something in my peripheral vision, close to my back. I turned around. A tall man in a yellow track suit was looking over my head at the game. The peripheral object was his knee. I was virtually in his lap. Where had he come from? On either side of him sat several other men in identical track suits, their knees equally impressive. I’d been so engrossed in the game that I hadn’t noticed their arrival. More began to sit beside me.

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‘More Curious’ by Sean Wilsey. 300 p. McSweeney's. $16.72 ()

This was the victorious Zairian national soccer team. They had stuck around Lusaka, come to see the local league game, and now sat remarkably still, with no tension in their bodies; a stillness that seemed to come of spending their lives running. I stared. They didn’t care. Everybody else was staring, too. When they’d all sat down around me—the space had apparently been reserved for this purpose—the crowd applauded. We all watched the game together.

When the Arrows and the Blades ended the game in a scoreless tie, the crowd jumped onto the field. The Zairians got up to go. I stayed for a while. I have never been in better company. I was on a national team. A boy in shorts kicked the game ball into the goal, then leaped in celebration.

***

FIFA, which stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association (founded in Paris on May 21—my birthday!—1904), soccer’s governing body, is the most powerful international authority on earth. It oversees all of global soccer, setting tournament dates, choosing host nations, and ranking countries. These rankings are much touted, constantly fluctuating, and meaningless. In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, the U.S. beat Mexico and England lost to Northern Ireland, a team ranked near the bottom in the world, just above Hong Kong—but it’s a telling fact that one of the terms of the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong was the nonabolition of the Special Administrative Region’s own national soccer team.

***

What makes the World Cup most beautiful is the world; all of us together. Watching the 1970 tournament, leaping up at goals, shouting in solitude, I wished more than anything that I’d actually been there in the stands, knowing what I could only know about those countries with 32 years’ hindsight. It’s the rare sport (let alone religion) that allows for both knowledge and wonder.

Every four years the joy of being one of the couple billion people watching 32 countries abide by 17 rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite the world.

From More Curious © 2014 Sean Wilsey, to be published in July by McSweeney’s.