Sunday, November 12, 2006

World Cup Flashback

From the archive...

I watched World Cup 2002 in a flurry of jetlag while home between a year in Mainland China and a summer in Taiwan. I watched Spain beat Slovenia on my first night back. For the next weeks I did not sleep. At first I watched alone:Ireland 1, Cameroon 1 ( I love African soccer, but I missed Senegal’s stunner in the first game) Brazil 2 Turkey 1 (in the one truly cowardly performance I’ve ever seen from Brazil);Spain 3 Paraguay 1 (the Paraguay keeper was the fattest and most arrogant man I’ve ever seen at World Cup)(except Sepp Blatter).I tried to stay awake during the day, but my mind was all strikers and keepers.

Then I found a group. One Canadian, two New Zealanders, one Englishman, and myself. With repeated viewings we set up a routine and rules. Sometimes we taped late games, but one had to be in a media blackout, no knowing results in advance. Pot luck; best if one brings alcohol from one of the countries playing. No home-teamers. We kept nationalism at bay. When the South Koreans they pulled their speed-skating stunt (they imitated speed skaters after scoring a goal against the U.S., in retribution for a Salt Lake gold medal taken from one of their own), we scorned because a. they weren’t winning and b. speed skating was a insult to our fine, beautiful game. So, by the way, was the play of the South Koreans, who lived off the fifty/fifty ball (kick it ahead blindly and hope you get to it before the other team) and never, never scored off a set play. I could only join the group when I swore I wouldn’t root for the U.S.

I had learned to play in Germany. I lived there for a year in high school, and of course everybody played football (always the same joke: “Not your kind of football”). I was better than anybody at basketball, so they stopped playing basketball, stuck me in goal, and fired shorts at me with Teutonic power and accuracy. They loved to practice, several firing at once so soccer balls (sorry, footballs) rained in like the damn Valkyrie. I learned to live with a lot of tension, and grew new appreciation for the Wim Wenders film The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. I was like Woody Allen, contemplating my own mortality.

So I supported Germany. But my favorites were really Spain. I brought the Rioja to Spain’s games, and as play moved out of the group stages I, enchanted with the sound and skill of names like Totti and Morientes, predicted a Spain Italy semifinal for the ages. Not to be, sadly. Both lost in a series of piss-poor calls made by referees chosen by the inept and obese Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, nemesis of right-thinking soccer fans worldwide.

In the middle of all this sleeplessness, I met mrs. august. I had gone to New York for a couple of days. The night before I watched Brazil beat England in an Irish Pub. Everybody of course wanted Brazil, and we savored the improbably arch of Ronaldinho’s free kick as it curled over the unfortunately-named and positioned David Seamen. The English players called it a stroke of luck, a miskick. Nobody had heard of Ronaldinho (current player of the year, I believe. Now nobody thinks it was mere luck). At any rate, sleeplessness and passion put fire in my eyes, and when I met my future wife I embarked on some wild, burned-out conversation in the hopes of keeping her talking to me, and not somebody else, a little longer. I mostly even managed to avoid the topic of soccer.

The remaining games were mostly anticlimax. Ronaldo’s shot passed Oliver Kahn’s hand, and he was inconsolable. I missed the best game (best because I missed it): Turkey finally giving South Korea their comeuppance.

I can’t wait for World Cup next month. Like the Olympics, like any sport, at its worst it is blind nationalism and parochialism. But at its best, soccer gives me faith that anything is possible, that humans can transcend themselves, that my life can trace miraculous trajectories. Brazil could lose, the Czechs could win (and I hope they do, and I watching with a pilsner in one hand and pretzel in the other). God I love football.

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