Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Watching the World Cup with the World

It is the world’s biggest sports event - viewed by hundreds of millions around the world every four years. The Super Bowl doesn’t come close. World Cup play means the Dallas Morning News has real soccer coverage. It’s also the best opportunity to meet other soccer lovers in bars around the world.

The World Cup only began in 1930 when Jules Rimet, president of the French Football League, pushed for an international event that would not discriminate on the grounds of professional or amateur status. He even went so far as to hope that “football (our soccer) could reinforce the ideals of a permanent and real peace.” Only 13 teams participated in the first tournament held in Uruguay and, surprisingly, the United States was one of them. Because of a heavily weighted Scottish roster, we made it to the semi-finals. Host Uruguay beat neighbor Argentina 4-2 for the first championship.

The series took a break for the war years between 1938 and 1950. After a 40 year drought, the USA finally made an appearance in 1994. Each year more teams have vied to qualify - 53 teams in 1966, 113 teams in 1986 and 204 teams in 2010. But even as the competition has become harder, the American team has been able to qualify except for 1998. It helps that half of our players now belong to the more competitive teams outside the U.S.

I love the World Cup and have since our children started playing Kiwanas soccer. I was up at 4 a.m several mornings in 1990 to watch the USA lose all three of their matches in Italy. America hosted in 1994 and we had tickets to three games in Dallas. The Nigeria vs. Bulgaria game had no favorites but the constant pounding of drums by the Nigerian fans was a welcome relief from the usual air horns.

By winning a lottery, we got to watch a quarter-final game with Brazil and the Netherlands - largely considered the true world cup final game between the two strongest teams that year. It was a high scoring (3-2) event in which Brazil pulled out the win at the end. Fans were painted head to toe as the very international crowd took hold.. We cheered every time either team scored. Later that day, in the Galleria shopping center, we heard fans singing “Ole, Ole, Ole, Brazil, Brazil’ to be answered by other fans “Ole, Ole, Ole, USA, USA”.

For the final game in 1994, we were traveling in Yellowstone National Park. Unbelievably, there were no televisions in our room or hotel that carried the game. After many inquiries, the hotel staff directed us to a bar in the far northern part of the park that had satellite television service. We joined an international crowd evenly divided between supporters of the Brazilian and Italian teams as was our family. No particular language is required to watch a soccer game and all were cheering at appropriate times for their team.

France hosted 1998 and the USA didn’t quality. A twelve year plan was put into place to make America competitive by 2010. In the 2002 games hosted by Japan and Korea, the USA actually made it to the quarterfinals before losing to Germany 1-0. Those games also required early rising to view.

2006 games were another disappointment for American fans. I was studying Spanish in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala that summer and searched for a bar to watch the USA play. It was a morning game and I drank coffee and grimaced as Ghana beat the Americans. The other Guatemalan fans just shook their heads.

This year has been more promising. 2010's first game was between Mexico and South Africa. The play began as some friends and I were taking a cooking lesson in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Like Christmas morning, the entire town was shut down - no cars on the streets and few pedestrians. Our instructor couldn’t remember a time of such quietness on the streets. Through the open windows, we heard the familiar “gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal” when South Africa scored and later rousing cheers as Mexico evened the score.

The next day, we gathered in Guanajuato, Mexico, at La Botalleta bar with other tourists, ex-pats, and students to watch the U.S. challenge England. The crowd was heavily pro-American but a few cheered on the Brits. As one Mexican cab drive told me, Mexico will cheer for any country in the Americas - North or South - as long as they’re not playing Mexico. We tied and were happy for it.

As I write this, USA is playing Algeria and it’s been a frustrating game with lots of shots on goal, a goal called back, and no score by either team. I can hardly watch. Whoa, excuse me, Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal by USA at the 91st minute! Now, how can that not be exciting? But watching a game in the privacy of you own home is just not the same as in a foreign bar surrounded by like-minded fans. America’s fans still have some catching up to do. As the American team progresses and improves, maybe we can convince Buffalo Joe’s to open up on July 11th for the finals. It’s really the only way to do it.

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