Every four years I undergo a transformation. Overnight my routine and personality completely change. I wake up and sleep at odd hours, glued to my TV and computer screen for 45 minute chunks of time. Chores, cooking, grocery shopping, even my poor husband – all fade from my focus. I never hear the phone ring and forget to return messages. If you become concerned and happen to look in on me, you will see a rather bizarre sight. Me in front of the screen, muttering to myself, bent forward and hands clasped above my knees, unwavering lock of my gaze on the flickering screen, occasional and violent outbursts as I flail my arms wildly. If I happen to have a companion, we might occasionally high-five or slap each other on the backs.
At this point you may be guessing that I am watching a sports event. You would be accurate. Knowing that I am an American currently living in Northeast Wisconsin, you would normally guess with 100% confidence in your accuracy that I am watching Packers football. However, the timing of this sports-induced frenzy is puzzling – mid-June, you think, cannot possibly be football. So your next guess might be baseball. Very logical – the Brewers and Cubs are practically in my backyard. If you are a Midwestern American, all these deductions make sense.
And yet you would be wrong.
This native Portlander is mesmerized by the seductiveness of a world party centered on the game she grew up playing on cold, damp Saturday mornings as she dove for the checkered ball into a massive pool of muddy goodness. I am watching football, or soccer if you like.
I will steer clear of all the debates over whether soccer is an American sport or not, the self-righteous platitudes about the beauty of the world’s most democratic game or how such a low-scoring sport is boring and un-American. I’ve learned since I was old enough to kick a ball that for Americans soccer is a love-hate relationship, much like eating cilantro or cheering for the Yankees. Adding my two-cents in to this conversation just makes more noise.
Instead, I see this as an opportunity to travel the world without ever leaving my house. There is something intoxicating about a month-long, world-wide party. My international friends regale me with stories of entire cities shutting down, breathless. A collective moment of hope, despair, frustration, anticipation – a plethora of emotions shared with the momentary family of strangers at the local pub. The sudden outburst of euphoria in the streets as your nation triumphs. The gasps of horror when your team falters, almost a collective heaving sigh escaping from the inanimate concrete and steel.
I experienced for myself the world’s obsession with soccer when I was 16 and spent the summer at an orphanage in a village outside Kathmandu, Nepal. It was the 1998 World Cup and the entire village would get up in the wee morning hours before dawn to watch the world’s game, even though Nepal’s national team wasn’t even playing. After dinner, we would congregate with the rest of the village around a cow field to watch the local village soccer team practice. A few of us Americans scrimmaged with the team, discovering we spoke a common language of soccer, even though we couldn’t understand each other’s spoken communication. It was a moment of transcendence beyond our cultural differences.
I may not be in South Africa at the matches, or live in a country where everyone watches religiously, but I am wrapped up in the World Cup experience. I feel connected to the larger world through our shared passion for the game. I marvel at the crisp, smooth geometry of Germany’s passing, the heart of the plucky Slovenes, the speed and fluidity of Brazil. I find myself favoring the underdogs, even as I savor the mastery of the favorites. And yes, I even find my heart swelling with patriotic pride as my own USA ties England in their opening match.
So clear my calendar for the next three weeks – I have a date with the world.