I am not what you would call a sports guy, by which I mean that I have active disinterest in playing or watching any game that requires legs. Is your favorite team playing somewhere? I don’t care, and am probably unaware, even if that game is taking place in my own city. This is because sports are boring. Also: sports fans are annoying. You know that guy who’s always taunting you because your college’s football team is blah blah whatever? Cocking your head to the side and saying “oh, was there a game?” tends to shut him down pretty solidly.
Every four years, under the light of a full moon, I become a raging sports fan. And by “full moon” I of course mean “World Cup soccer ball.” Yes, I am a soccer fan, though I don’t really have the time or patience to be a soccer fan full time; we have a major league soccer team right here in Utah, for crying out loud–a really good one, too–and I’ve only seen one of their games. But World Cup soccer is different. It has the same international vibe as the Olympics, for one thing, except that the coverage involves actual games instead of just newscasters. There’s also the fact that the games are attended by massive crowds of rabid fans instead of just, well, newscasters. There’s something very iconic about rooting for a country, instead of just a team.
I was exposed to World Cup mania twelve years ago (ie, three World Cups ago) when I lived in Mexico. Growing up in the US, of course, nobody cared about soccer (though I was on some local kiddie teams for a few years), but in Mexico everybody cared. I had several people tell me that Mexico’s economic viability was tied to their World Cup performance, and that as soon as they won the World Cup they would rise up as a major world superpower. I can certainly believe that their national self-esteem is tied to the World Cup, because the games were literally national parties: business would halt, traffic would stop, and everyone would watch the games wherever they were and however they could. It was electric and exciting and contagious. I caught one game while sitting in the airport: Mexico vs. Germany. Even if you weren’t near a TV you could tell when Mexico was close to the goal, because the entire airport would start to murmur and chant and pray, and the noise would get louder and louder until they were cheering and screaming in a single, unified roar. When Mexico scored a goal, I swear the entire airport became instantly and magically drunk, via some kind of cultural osmosis. And when Germany ended up winning, the airport was quiet and sad for a solid hour.
Living in the US, or as some people call it “the only country in the world that doesn’t care about soccer,” we have no frame of reference for just how much the rest of the world does care about soccer. We have football fans, and basketball fans, and baseball fans, but no single game, not even the superbowl, gets the kind of all-encompassing attention that a big soccer game will get anywhere else in the world. Watch a soccer game in Mexico, or Germany, or England, or anywhere else, and you are part of a massive collective consciousness; a nationwide–or worldwide–entity that is wholly embedded in a single event, sometimes a single moment. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we don’t love soccer here: we’re too devoutly individualist, too aggressively non-conformist, to appreciate something on that same, unified level.
As I type this, I’m watching the first game of the 2010 World Cup with my children: South Africa, the host nation, vs. Mexico, which I consider to be my second home. I’ll feel bad if South Africa loses, but of course I’m rooting for Mexico anyway. My son is with me, because he does everything I do without question, and my daughter is against me, because that is apparently what my daughter does. The score is tied at 1 and 1. The game is tense and thrilling; the players are some of the best in the world. How can anyone not like this game? I have no idea.