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                                       politics + culture

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Copa do Mundo

I've been catching World Cup noontime matches at my current favorite place to watch a soccer game...a little Ethiopian restaurant here in North Oakland called the 'Red Sea.'

There's a cafe/bar to one side of the building with a TV high up in one corner. The sun comes blazing in off Claremont Avenue. The door opens and closes with new arrivals and the patrons inside welcome the occasional curious passerby. For some games the scene is packed with people (games with Brazil or the Netherlands tend to draw a crowd.) For others, it's a quieter affair...and I might be the only one present who is not a 'regular.'

There's something about a soccer match...a specific aural quality. Crowd noise, the constant chatter of the announcers, the free flowing commentary that soccer fans offer up in parallel to the match. Horns. Cheers. Chants. Groans. In soccer anything can happen at any time, hence the need to orient oneself with one's ears to the developing action. Soccer is, more than any sport, propelled by waves of sound.

It's almost as if a soccer match is something that happens 'to you.' Nothing might happen. Anything might happen. There are long periods of stasis broken by moments of sudden decisiveness. Goals, and, in particular, spectacular goals have a kind of affront, a kind of shock. The constant flow of play generates an intense level of attentiveness and fascination. To steal a quote from Danny Blanchflower, courtesy of Ronnie Wolman, a Toronto Textile Man:

"Football is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom."

And at the Red Sea, wedged into positions where we can view that corner TV, there's a kind of loose fraternity in support of the beautiful game. We applaud goals by either team. We offer knowing smiles when a particular act of cunning or cowardice determines the outcome of events. And in this, we are like so many millions....hundreds of millions...who are doing the same thing on every continent on Earth. We are part of a simultaneous multitude...a tremendous coincidence of focus and wonderment.

Long after the national teams of most of the world have been left behind, people the world over still watch the World Cup. At the Red Sea it is no different. At times, there is a broader meaning to the match. When Patrick Vieira, a French player of Senegalese birth, faced down the racist Spanish coach, Luis Aragones...and then produced the winning goal for France...it was a gesture heard round the world. Those who saw that moment and understood its import will never forget the look on Vieira's face. Here was a man who was willing to put his dignity on the line and then, of course, he delivered. That match that will get talked about for decades.

There's a reason so much of the world roots for Brazil...propels them, almost, into the finals of successive World Cups. It's not simply that Brazil plays the beautiful game in the most beautiful manner. It's also that Brazil, like the racially diverse French side, represents "the world" in its make up. Brazil represents the dream, the aspiration of how the game should be played: with joy and passion. Of course, there are, aside from aberrations like Aragones, truly no "good guys" and "bad guys" at the World Cup. Soccer fans in general, despite their intense affiliations, love the game more than they love a particular outcome.

As the tournament inexorably narrows its focus to teams from fewer and fewer nations, world-wide interest in the matches only increases. Fans from nations left behind find a way to root for one team or the other. And, at the end of the draw when it comes down to the final two nations, there is no place to watch the World Cup final like someplace surrounded by other life-long fans caught up in the action. Love of the game, the desire to see a truly great match, to see a drama played out live before the world, creates a kind of unity and fellow feeling. Quite literally, the whole world is watching.

Sitting in my seat along the back wall at the Red Sea, I feel priveleged to take in the spectacle with so many neighbors, most of them East African, who have come so far to make their homes, like me, under the California sun. There's something human about the World Cup, something that strikes a common chord. Soccer may be just a game with fans like any other, but watching the World Cup does not feel like any other sporting event. For ninety minutes, in giving ourselves to the match at hand, we share something simple with so many around the globe. We make a memory, we share a spectacle. For one brief moment, we are quite simply 'in this together'.

There's a lesson there somewhere, and a reason for hope.

{Btw, Roger Cohen has a great little blog going on this World Cup at the International Herald Tribune. Cohen is a fine writer, but his commenters....from all over the world, are the real find. Check it out.}


  • beautiful post!

    and I love the Red Sea! I never thought of watching soccer there. what a great idea. I went over to Barclay's. eh. not the same atmosphere at all.

    By Anonymous Kathleen, at 10:45 AM  

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