15 July 2010

how i learned to love world cup soccer

The story goes that when I was a little sprout, my parents brought me down to the playing fields near my future high school on the opening day of the local youth soccer league to see if I wanted to play. I'm told that I watched the proceedings for a couple of minutes, turned to Mom and Dad and said, "no thanks."

My feelings about soccer changed little over the two decades and change that followed. I confess that before this summer's tournament started, I learned that the Philippines did not even try out for the Cup and took that as further proof that the Philippines and I were made for each other. I watched the Team USA's opening match, against England, with a rowdy group of Americans on a big outdoor screen here in expat-land. I could barely pay attention during the game, and I expressed incredulity when it ended in a draw and everyone went home. What kind of game is fine with not even having a winner?

Yet being in Africa for the first World Cup ever on African soil made a convert even out of me, as I secretly hoped it might. Tanzanians are passionate about The Beautiful Game, and even though the national team did not make the Cup, it was still the talk of the country for the last month. Since watching soccer was the only way to have a social life here for most of June and the first part of July, I resolved to make the most of it. I watched Cameroon play Denmark - two disparate countries I visited a span of 19 days last year - from a roadside dive bar packed with Tanzanians. The atmosphere was raucous, the Konyagi (a gin-like Tanzanian liquor) freely flowing. A smattering of vuvuzelas, uhhhh, enlivened the festivities. (You think they're annoying on TV?) In spite of myself, I started enjoying it. I also had the honor of providing real-time updates by text message to a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers in Cameroon, who were stuck without electricity when the demands of all those TVs blew out the grid in the extreme north province. Sadly, after Cameroon's opening goal I had no further good news to share with them.

I was on safari in Mikumi for the U.S. team's elimination at the hands of Ghana. I watched that match the way I imagine the majority of people on this continent watched it: standing, huddled around a 22" screen. The only TV at our resort was in the staff quarters, and they graciously accommodated our group of Americans. By that point, the continent's hopes for World Cup glory were pinned on Ghana, and the pan-African solidarity was palpable here. When the Ghanaians scored, the place erupted in jubilation while the Americans fretted. Well, all but one of the Americans. The prettier half of "Elawn" was rooting for Ghana, owing to her two years working there after college. Traitor.

After Team USA's elimination I pivoted quickly to rooting for Ghana as the sole remaining represenative of Africa. I witnessed their heartbreaking loss to Uruguay in a quieter setting: at home with my American host dad. It's hard to sustain the claim that soccer is not an exciting game after such a match. When Asamoah Gyan's late-game penalty shot deflected off the crossbar, my heart hit the floor. Somehow, in the span of just a few weeks, I'd come to care about soccer.

My conversion hasn't just been about the game itself, of course. Shakira's "Waka Waka" and K'naan's "Waving Flag" are now indelibly etched as part of the soundtrack of my Tanzanian summer. (Funny that it took Coca-Cola to bring forward a World Cup anthem that features, you know, an actual African.) I have also had the pleasure of reading How Soccer Explains the World, which certainly doesn't live up to the promise implied by its title but still offers a lot of great storytelling. Most of all, I have appreciated the way the World Cup has enabled me to interact with Tanzanians on - pardon the expression - a more level field than almost any other topic. There are a lot of things that can get in the way of mutual understanding across cultures, but not many of them apply to soccer. Nelson Mandela, whose country hosted the Cup so well, grasped the power of sport to unite and reconcile. I am starting to see what he was getting at.

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