The World Cup, a world away

In Northeast Michigan, the World Cup isn’t a big deal.

In fact, the World Cup, which is held every four years after a long series of regional qualifying tournaments, doesn’t cause much of a stir in most of America. Geographically.

But demographically, soccer is another indicator of our national cultural divide.

The sport — and, by extension, the World Cup — is popular in cities. Urban populations have a high percentage of people with foreign roots recently planted in U.S. soil who brought soccermania from their home countries and native-born, college-educated people who have experience abroad, where they contracted the condition.

In short, places that vote blue pay attention to the World Cup, while red areas could not care less.

No other nation on Earth ignores the World Cup as much as we do.

But everywhere else in the world, the World Cup is HUGE! In most countries, it eclipses all other sports events. The World Cup is much more important than the Olympics, with its esoteric events, the existence of which we must be reminded of every four years, like rhythmic gymnastics and Greco-Roman wrestling.

It’s difficult for most Americans to fathom the depths of passionate attention and devotion that the World Cup inspires across the globe.

A few snapshots from my memory will illustrate the point.

In 1990, the World Cup was played in Italy. I was living in China when it kicked off, teaching at Nanjing University, one of 14 universities in that city, which then had a population of about 3 million (it’s closer to 9 million now). Every one of those universities hosted a colony of male students from Africa, specifically from the 17 countries that had close ties with Communist China, who came for a seven-year period of study. They lived in crowded, segregated dorms, four to a room. They came from very different nations, but they all worshiped soccer.

That year, the defending World Cup champion was Argentina, which had the honor of playing the first game, against the underdog team from Cameroon.

Because Italy is literally a world away from China, the game came on in the wee hours. I went to the African students’ dorm on the Nanjing U campus to watch it with my Zambian friends. The building throbbed with excitement and drumbeats. There were very few TVs among the many rooms, and those rooms were packed into the corridors. There were a few dozen guys from Cameroon living in the dorm, but, on that night, all of the residents cheered like native Cameroonians because Cameroon was representing all of Africa against the best team in the world.

When the first half ended in a scoreless tie, they were ecstatic, as if Cameroon had won.

And then they did! In one of the most astounding upsets in the history of the sport, Cameroon overcame mighty Argentina, 1 to 0. As dawn broke in China, the African students began celebrating like there was no tomorrow, and they kept partying until tomorrow came again, a solid 24 hours of jubilation.

The African students’ dorm was typical of China in 1990, in that televisions were scarce. Walking across campus once in the middle of the night during a World Cup game, I came across a courtyard between dormitories, where a crowd of several hundred Chinese students had gathered. They were watching the action on a single, small, black-and-white TV set up on a pillar. It illuminated a sea of upturned faces.

As the 1990 World Cup went on, I finished my job in China and traveled around Thailand and Malaysia. I watched matches in the early morning hours in all kinds of places: in Bangkok bars crowded with international travelers, with a Thai family on a deserted, off-season beach near Krabi, in a jam-packed restaurant in Penang where everyone else was Malay.

When a large rat came down the hall from the kitchen and ran right over my foot, I yelled and jumped up, making the regulars laugh. They paid no attention to the rat as it scurried around their feet for a spell before returning to the kitchen (maybe it was a Malaysian cousin of the Parisian Ratatouille, but I doubt it).

Fast-forward to 2002, the only time that China ever qualified for the World Cup, and I happened to be back in China again. It was held in Japan and South Korea, so the games were televised during the day. By then, the Chinese economy had boomed. Cars had replaced bicycles and TVs were everywhere, with at least one in every apartment and eatery.

One snapshot from that experience captures the atmosphere. I was in Kunming, a city of some 3 million souls, on an afternoon when China was playing. The streets were utterly deserted, like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie, but the dull roar of voices cheering filled the air, coming from the towering ranks of apartment buildings and from every bar and noodle shop.

If you want a tiny taste of World Cup excitement, try heading to Pompeyo’s, the unofficial HQ of Alpena’s Mexican community, on Wednesday at 2 p.m., when Mexico plays Saudi Arabia. (By the way, Saudi Arabia pulled a Cameroon 1990 on Argentina, beating them 2-1 in this year’s first match). There will probably be a crowd there to support the team they call “El Tri” (tree), a reference to the tri-color flag of Mexico. “El Tri” is second only to Our Lady of Guadeloupe in the hearts of the Mexican people.

Maybe I’ll see you there …


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