World Cup Redux: Innocence Abroad

Seen from afar, the World Cup looks, to put it mildly, like a very big deal. And, like anything else of tremendous size, the event threatens to overwhelm you as you draw nearer. At least, this was the general impression that emerged for me over these past few weeks. Though nowhere near the heart of the action in the host nation Germany, I was fortunate enough to spend time in Croatia, Hungary, and England while the tournament was underway. Like a scuba diver approaching a blue whale, I felt at once alien to, and dwarfed by, the goings-on around me. Still, I was able to sense in each country something of the immensity of the tournament, and the potential of sports to send millions into the depths of despair, or deliver them to heights of ecstasy. With my big and painfully obvious American mug pressed up to the glass of (a good many) European drinking establishments, I took out a pen and paper and tried to sketch some of what unfolded before me.

I began in Split, Croatia, where Mickey, the wizened proprietor of my guesthouse, took special care to point out to me in his broken German the main thoroughfare in town, where all the bars would be showing the matches. That night, Croatia would begin its World Cup bid against a heavily-favored Brazil team. Mickey, undaunted, winked and gave me a thumbs-up. Off to our right, a group of teenagers ran past, wearing floppy Dr. Seuss-style hats colored in red and white checkerboard (the national colors, or pattern, or both) and singing at the top of their lungs. I glanced at my watch: 11am. The game wouldn’t start for another 10 hours.

By the time I made it back to the square for the start of the match, fans, bedecked in that red and white checkerboard, were everywhere. Every available seat seemed taken; the ones with good views of the television sets were treated like solid-gold real estate. The sets themselves were notable in that they appeared specially brought in for the game. Extension cords snaked over the cobblestone toward TVs of all descriptions as they reflected identical broadcasts for the throng in attendance. Those watching the satellite feeds, though, experienced a split-second delay. As a result, the groans and cheering were staggered throughout the square, with those watching the direct feed TVs sending up the first wave of sound and the satellite viewers chiming in just after.

In the midst of all of this, the match unfolded to riotous enthusiasm. Chanting and clapping, the Croatian fans cheered their team to a 1-0 loss at the hands of Brazil — by all accounts a disappointment for the traditionally dominant Brazilians and a heartening effort for the home team. I had never seen fans applaud a loss before, but the singing and cheering (as well, of course, as the drinking) intensified even after the score was made official. Vince Lombardi, I mused over a mug of Karlovacko beer, must be spinning in his grave. Winning is the only thing? Not tonight night, at least.

In truth, Croatia had a lot to celebrate, despite the loss. With the recent memory of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent sectarian strife (whose legacy ensures that parts of the country are still off-limits due to landmines), the national team’s inclusion in the Cup provided both a welcome distraction and a way for Croatians to express a sense of national pride. While Serbia and Montenegro’s team dealt with the unusual problem of seeing their country vote for a political divorce despite already having entered the World Cup as a joint team, I saw many combining their football enthusiasm with nationalism via t-shirts that exclaimed (in English no less), “Proud to be a Croat”.

As I made my way down the Croatian coast to Dubrovnik, I expected more of these displays of national passion. One of the most animated crowds, however, turned out for the Italy-USA game. With Italy just across the Adriatic from Croatia, the crowd was understandably enthusiastic for the “Azzuri” (as the club is known to its fans). Still, the secret of Dubrovnik (a beautiful, walled city surrounded by pristine islands) is out, which meant that a good many Americans and other tourists were there to support the flagging US club. Projected onto the stone wall of an ancient church, the game unfolded with groups of fans cheering (some jeering) back and forth. The most intense animosity, however, was reserved for those who dared to pass in front of the screen and block the view of the hundreds packing the square. Another groan went up later as, nearby, a smaller TV lost its picture. Frantically, several fans raced up to fiddle with what looked like a rebuilt hibachi grill perched on top of the set until the picture, and general calm, was restored.

Still, a 1-1 tie settled no disputes, and the arguments remained heated long after the final whistle. What struck me most, heading home after another night of patronizing local beers, was that a good many of these debates were among locals. Rather than coming out just for the home team, the fans were just as intently following the entirety of the tournament, and with comparable enthusiasm. This impression was only heightened as, the next day, a group of Croatians passed by draped in Australian flags. Though there were a good many Australian travelers in town gearing up for their big contest against Brazil that night, the locals had clearly adopted their enthusiasm. For some, it wasn’t just about rooting for the home team; simply rooting was enough.

Somewhat reluctantly, I left Croatia’s cobblestones and winding alleys for the surging metropolis of Budapest, convinced that, since Hungary had failed to qualify for the tournament, my match-watching adventures would be coming to a close. That assumption was happily dashed, however, when I stepped into the arrival terminal at Ferihegy airport and was greeted by a wall-sized projection of England’s 2-2 draw with Sweden. Once in the city, it was obvious that the Cup was just as much a fixture in Budapest as it had been in Croatia. Ubiquitous televisions, some slightly out of synch, were prominently displayed in the city’s many sidewalk cafes, bars, and restaurants. During a match, the normally busy streets and sidewalks grew empty, as the city rushed indoors to follow the action. Not even a visit by President Bush was enough to cause the city to turn its head from the television. But perhaps the most telling indication of the Cup’s importance, even to a non-participant like Hungary, came during a visit to a restaurant near the city’s famous Chain Bridge. Seating, we learned after entering, was determined by whether or not you wanted to watch the matches. Instead of “smoking or non-?”, the hostess’s question was, “World Cup or no?”

Despite the enthusiasm on display in both Croatia and Hungary, nothing could prepare me for the flight from Budapest to London, where England’s team had qualified for the second round of the tournament and now stood poised to advance to the championship. We arrived in Cambridge, ordinarily a sleepy little college town that plays host to international tourists during the summer, to find the place transformed. The red and white cross of St. George that makes up the English flag was everywhere, staring back from store windows, car bumpers, even baby strollers. Though England struggled to beat Ecuador 1-0 in their first elimination game, the pub we had found to watch the match was no less excited by the result. The crowd’s cheering (at last intelligible to me in English) exceeded the enthusiasm we saw the previous night, when Mexico was cheered on against perennial English rivals Argentina.

The second round saw England bow-out to Portugal on penalty kicks, a result that was reflected in the silent streets of town, deserted for the game and then filled with dampened conversations after the disappointing result. The locals I met with were unanimous in their opinions about the loss, whenever I dared broach the subject, “Let’s not talk about it”. As such, I was expecting to see fewer bodies out for the tournament’s conclusion, which featured two traditional favorites, Italy and France. As I made my way into town, however, I could see that every pub in Cambridge was overflowing with fans. Crowds gaped through windows as the game began, and I soon found myself in a pub that was a converted movie theater, offering standing room only to the hundreds of fans in attendance. Clearly, the bitterness of the English defeat didn’t lesson the attraction of the World Cup final. When Italy put through the winning penalty kick after two periods of overtime, the streets flooded with revelers donning Italian flags, singing, shouting, and honking their car horns.

I took in the spectacle and imagined similar scenes playing out in towns like Cambridge all over England. I thought back to Split, to Budapest, to London, and then to Milan, Florence, and Rome. How many millions cheered? How many millions more had turned their eyes toward this single game for that one night? In my travels, I saw that the World Cup, for a countless number of the planet’s citizens, consistently superseded rooting interests, favorite players, questions of salary, and any of the other drawbacks and criticisms that invariably dog organized sports. Naturally, the World Cup is a good excuse to argue with friends, wager with bookies, and drink beer (as if one needed an excuse for that). But the tournament is much more. It embodies our athletic enthusiasm at its most innocent and showcases how sports can be a transcendent focal point for our common experiences as fans. The tournament cuts across linguistic and political borders and draws us out into the night together, draped in our ecstasy and howling like mad.