Like an unopened suitcase left to lie on the closet floor after coming home from a cooling beach, a stamp of denial about vacation being truly over, I have put off finishing this blog, unwilling to bid farewell to World Cup 2010, now entering the second week following its finale.
But since much of what I read and saw in media and heard among friends this time around bore an unmistakeable air of translating-between-cultures, a sort of this-is-our-ritual-and-this-is-what-it-means, I wanted to leave off with a note about why millions bear what one Facebook page called “Post-World Cup Depression.”
The thing is — and the idea is a sort of cliché perhaps — the World Cup is more than a sporting event, and the 20 percent or so foreign-born residents of Las Vegas, plus their family members who may have been born here, and many others, follow the monthlong marathon with a series of emotions more varied and complex than a simple interest in who wins or loses.
Doug Unger, UNLV English professor, fine writer and sharp observer of culture helped crystallize these ideas for me a few days after the dramatic July 11 final match. Unger was born in the U.S. but destiny led him to spend part of his youth with a family that adopted him in Argentina, one of the most fútbol-mad countries in the world, its Buenos Aires home to 24 professional teams.
Unger’s house was not much different from tens of thousands in the valley from June 11 to July 11 in the way its inhabitants were transformed during the once-every-four-years event. As he noted, it was the one time he spoke frequently with his family in Buenos Aires and old friends, burning the long distance wires with match highlights as well as personal news. And so it was with many of the 1-in-4 heads of household in Las Vegas who are foreign-born. And with me as well; during the World Cup my e-mails and texts bore the same mix of sport and love.
I remember a young Brazilian woman I interviewed in a club on Flamingo Road at half-time during the Brazil-Ivory Coast match. She had just finished recalling the painful isolation of her first two years in the U.S., more than a decade ago, still a teenager. Now she feels a part of life here and embraces English and the “colder, less friendly culture” — as she put it — that comes with the tongue. But during the World Cup, with every match that Brazil plays, she waits for her cellphone to ring; it’s her father and sister in Rio calling before and after gametime, and they trade news, and send good luck to their selecao.
That sort of connection to loved ones fades, of course, with the event’s end, and lies dormant for four more years, like a bulb in the ground waiting for rain.
The other thing Doug mentioned that rung true: nearly every one of the billion or so adults who follow the World Cup played football through childhood and perhaps beyond. Or, their brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins kicked a ball every day while growing up, even within the four walls of the house, drawing the inevitable yells of Mother. Many of those people, as children, dreamed of being on the fields broadcast from different time zones every four years.
“I remember what it was like to make a good, clean sliding tackle,” Unger said to me. “And that comes back to me when I’m watching the games.” That’s different from American football, basketball, or baseball, where it’s not necessarily true that the overwhelming majority of the people watching a championship also have played the sport for thousands of hours.
So in some ways the World Cup also takes people of the world back to their childhoods.
And then there’s the getting-together, the association with strangers, sometimes not even linked by country, but perhaps only solidarity with one or another country whose team is on the pitch.
Say, for example, Ghana. Being the only African team to advance to the round of 16, they found themselves representing all of Africa, during the first World Cup to be played in Africa. So their matches were an excuse for perfect strangers to come together, united by being African, as seen in an Ethiopian restaurant in the Strip’s shadow called Meskerem.
As Ghana’s last match ended in tragic disorder, the African team eliminated by penalty kicks, a lanky, round-faced Sudanese named Chuol stared at the screen in Meskerem while the camera panned the crowd, full of African faces. He exhaled deeply. “I wish I was there,” he said.
Of course, Argentinians also filled Rincon de Buenos Aires on Spring Mountain Blvd. to standing-room-only during every one of their beloved team’s matches, even the one that began at 4:30 AM, and so rekindled their culture for a few hours, assisted by steaming-hot empanadas, cold Quilmes beers or frothy cappucinos.
So the World Cup is a chance to eat, drink, sing and maybe dance, with strangers, united by connections to a place, and memories of that place, or even solidarity with someone else’s connections and memories.
This is the mystical part of soccer as a sport, then — that it can carry the weight of all these emotions in a global tournament, and much of the world takes part.
I’m glad my two sons have lived this and will continue to do so, I’m sure; I hope their children do the same.
And now I’ve unpacked the suitcase, and it’s back to work, and to life between World Cups.