Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"the ball is round, the game lasts ninety minutes, everything else - is pure theory."

we were fortunate enough to live in germany in 2006, when they hosted the men's world cup.

the first time germany won, i admit, i had already gone to bed. we lived on the middle floor of an old building, right on a very busy street, in a small, unknown town. suddenly, there was noise everywhere. yells and cars honking. i ran out to the front windows - long picture windows that overlooked the street - and the street was flooded with cars, cars with people hanging all over them, all of them waving flags, cheering, blowing horns, celebrating.

you might remember the 2006 world cup - or maybe not. regardless, germany made a little bit of a cinderella run deep into the tournament that no one was expecting. except they weren't a cinderella team at all, because they are one of the top most successful national football teams in FIFA. but that year, at least, no one expected them to do very well - not even the most loyal german.  in fact in 2006, their FIFA ranking was an abysmal 22nd.

they won their group. they won their game in the round of 16. they won in the quarter-finals, defeating no less an opponent than argentina. and these were the games when, post-match, the entire country went nuts. we were coming back from the train station one day in a cab, carrying friends who had just arrived for a visit, when suddenly everything in town - including our taxi - came to a screeching halt. people began mobbing the streets, cars honking, beer bottles in hands everywhere, songs and chants ringing. "what happened?" and our friends, completely bewildered.

"germany must have won again", i said, grinning. you have to enjoy it at that point in time, because you're not going to get anywhere very fast.

sometime in there i realized that there's no comparison to any event in the united states. there is no one sporting event, no one team, that galvanizes the entire country behind it. the most popular sports in the US - [american] football, basketball, and baseball - are sports where the pinnacle of the sport is, in fact, basically an intra-national competition (for the most part - claims of world champions notwithstanding). loyalties are at the state or region or, occasionally, sub-state level. if it's not your state, you may not even care about the outcome, unless there's some super villain (yankees or lakers, say) to root against.

the olympics are a time for rallying behind the american team to some extent - but there are so many events and so many athletes that there's not really one thing to follow.

there's no one sport - the most popular sport - where the title win is at the national level.

my friends and i went to frankfurt for later games in the series. because the country is so soccer crazed, and the tickets were so hard to get, fan viewing sites had been set up all over the country. the nearest one to us was a giant screen - bigger than anything i've ever seen - plopped right in the middle of the Main river. people lined both banks, drinking, partying, laughing, cheering.

in frankfurt, the town was turned out to welcome internationals from all over the world. even ghana, who also made a surprise run in the tournament, advancing out of the group round with a victory over the hapless united states, was represented by fans on the street.

in germany, everything else is theory. in the united states, we're still just some kind of amateur sports fans.

and p.s.: why on god's green earth, for all our stubborn continued usage of the word soccer, did we retain the name fussball when referring to a plastic table game played in bars?

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