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Saturday, July 10, 2010

An American Woman's Conversion to Football Fandom/Part II

NOTE: I'd like to extend a special welcome to followers of Pond Parleys, which published a version of this 2-part post on 7/11/10 (or 11/7/10). Pond Parleys explores the allegedly special relationship between the UK and USA. 

Am I looking forward to the World Cup championship game between the Netherlands and Spain? And how! Did I ever think I'd be writing this? Not in a million years! Herewith, the second part of the unlikely tale of how I came to join the ranks of football fans the world over. As explained in Part I, Why I Never Liked Football Whilst Living in England, I never paid much attention to the sport despite nearly a decade of exposure; on the contrary, I developed an abhorrence for it.

In Part II of my tale, I have settled back in the United States, the 2010 World Cup is upon us, and I find myself uncharacteristically drawn to this high-profile game, like never before.

PART II: How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup

I can't pinpoint the precise moment when it happened — or the precise reason, for that matter, especially as football still has all the same drawbacks I noted before: goals are few and far between, the fans are predominantly male, and jingoism reigns, particularly between the English and the Germans.

All I know is that my conversion took place as a result of my no longer seeing the elephant. Ironically, even though the UK is considered the cradle of the game (the English have been kicking balls competitively since at least 1314), it wasn't until I returned to living in the States that I felt comfortable giving the sport a chance. Though I have yet to make any fellow converts among my compatriots, I've got my pitch prepared (no pun intended). My top three reasons for fanning football are:

1) It's the World Cup, stupid. Living in England, I couldn't see the World Cup forest from the local English football club trees. But once you see the forest, there can be no turning back. Watching the very best players in the world compete, even a hardened skeptic like me begins to see why they call it The Beautiful Game. All that talk about poetry and magic, Spain's choreography and the marvels the Dutch team — it's not just drivel. (Of course, following the World Cup also represents a minimal commitment to the sport, since it happens just once in four years. It has yet to be seen whether I maintain my dedication to the sport during the interval.)

2) It's a much-needed distraction. Where do I start: the economy, the oil spill, the war in Afghanistan, the heat wave plaguing the East Coast. When the news is consistently rotten, there's nothing like a soaring soccer ball to lift the spirits, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of seeing a team, and a nation, carry off the trophy. And how thrilling for a European team to win outside Europe (a first!) and for that team to be taking its very first drink from the cup. Cheers and more cheers!

3) It's way better than the Olympics. If you are the kind of person who has been there and done that and seen the elephant, then chances are you are a hybrid of nationalities, which makes you an ideal supporter of international sporting events. You're game to throw your support behind almost any athlete or team as long as they're the world's best (and aren't cheaters). The Olympics provides many such events, but that's the problem: there's too much choice. There are mainstream sports like soccer (men's and women's), but then there are also strangely compelling fringe sports like curling and synchronized swimming.

The FIFA World Cup, by contrast, is a singular occasion. There can be no bigger stage, literally as well as figuratively, than the vast pitch on which this ultimate sporting drama takes place.

*  *  *

The other day when I was watching one of the semifinal matches, and the TV cameras were taking an aerial shot of the pitch, I suddenly thought to myself, that's what it must be like to be an alien surveying the Planet Earth. (Thanks to the buzzing of the vuvuzela, it's not so far-fetched to imagine cruising along inside a flying saucer.)

And do you know, I believe that if I were an alien, I would find the World Cup more riveting than anything else than the planet has to offer — certainly more than the spectacle surrounding the basketball player LeBron James (my goodness, how parochial!) or the vision of Roger Federer bombing out of Wimbledon (tennis, now that's an acquired taste!). But this sport, it's something else: on the one hand, it's simple and basic (hey, anyone can kick a ball); on the other, it's extremely diverting. Did that bald guy just make a goal with his head? And how is it that some of these earthlings have developed the talent of using their feet as though they were hands — now that's something worth beaming home about!

Stay tuned for Part III, to appear in time for Brazil 2014, in which I will attempt to bend the case for football still more, stressing its potential for opening up intergalactic communication and fostering truly universal harmony.


Do I sound like a true convert?

Are there any more reasons I should have in my arsenal? (Hahaha, couldn't resist!)

Last but not least, Spain or Holland? The writer of this blog is pleased to join arms, as it were, with a distant cousin of the pachyderm, a cephalopod who goes by the name of Pulpo Paul, in declaring: Viva España! (If you don't believe me about the cousin thing, then I urge you to take a close look at the proboscis pictured above, which for all the world looks like an octopus's tentacle — it functions like one, too.)


A blog about me, an Aussie girl who came to the UK and stayed... said...

Oh I can't believe you are not supporting Germany against Uruguay in the 3rd place playoff match it because you feel closer (aka living in a similar timezone) to Uruguay than Germany?

Please explain???

ps...Go Holland! Or if you prefer:
Ga je goed - Holland om te winnen!

ML Awanohara said...

Yes, I do think it's because I live closer, timezone-wise, to Uruguay, and a number of the doormen in my building, who are Puerto Ricans, wanted Uruguay to win.

Apparently, Pulpo Paul picked Germany, so his record remains unsullied. That does not bode well for you tomorrow!!! Say extra prayers...

Amber said...

Like you, I'm not sure precisely when I caught "football" fever but, in my case, I think living in France is the reason. With all the drama of the French team dominating the screens, it was hard to ignore the action. Following the disgraceful retreat of les Bleus, I was thrilled by all the compliments paid to the US team by French sports commentators (before they were disqualified of course). Anyway, this Cup seemed to strike a spark with me.

I'm also cheering for Spain! Though I live in France, my love of the Spanish language/ culture has never waived. Viva España!

ML Awanohara said...

Amber, I think most of New York City agrees with you. I was walking around the East Village this morning chatting with people in shops and at the Tompkins Square greenmarket about this afternoon's game. Every single said they were for Spain. Not surprising, I guess, given that Hispanics and Latinos make up nearly a third of the city's population.

Not surprising but a bit ironic, given Henry Hudson's efforts to claim the city for the Dutch. My cousin married into one of NYC's old Dutch families. I haven't asked but I assume her hubby will be getting out his orange shirt today. (He once told her, "If you're not Dutch, you're not much!")

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. While on the theme of cultural ironies: Front page of today's New York Times carries an article reporting that despite the Dutch being former colonial masters and their descendants having instigated the harsh racial policies of apartheid, many black South Africans will be supporting the Dutch today. They see it as confirmation of Nelson Mandela's belief in the healing power of sports. And can it also be taken as corroboration of football's transcendent quality, which I've belatedly discovered?

Amber said...

I saw that article as well and was a little surprised - who'd a thunk. This morning, I read another article (also in the NY Times) about the short-term harmony the Cup has brought to South Africa, hopefully, it's just a sign of better things to come. Hey, it never hurts to be optimistic.

Earl said...

It does bring people together but only for a short while. In Seoul, EVERYONE rallies around the South Korea team, it's crazy. People thought I was committing treason for wanting to go to the movies during South Korea games. Not that I could, all the movie theaters showed only the game on their screens.

ML Awanohara said...

Earl, your comment reveals your youth. As you get older, it becomes more exciting to see EVERYONE rallying around something, esp when it's something as innocent as kicking a ball w/ one's foot. It's a rare occasion for us adults to display passion--particularly when we're up against forces such as those described in my Point #2 above.

And what were you hoping to be doing instead--watching a movie? That must have been one heck of a flick to compete with a quadrennial sporting event, one that has even dragged people like me--who have little innate understanding of sports--out of our slumber.

Furthermore, while I commend you for trying out life in Seoul, my sense is, you haven't seen enough of the elephant there or elsewhere to realize that football takes things up to another level (Point #3). As one of the commentators put it at yesterday's final, it's the "most massive shared human experience there is."

And have you heard the old adage: Soccer is the sport of the future ... and always will be.

Well, enough words of wisdom from The Elder. While you didn't argue this, I would concede that yesterday's final had a bit of a "much ado about nothing" quality: I would almost have preferred one of my Netflix.

This is not imply, of course, that I'd didn't appreciate the result. I am overjoyed that Spain won. But the actual watching of the match--that's a different story. It brought back to mind the reasons why my football fandom has been so long in coming, and remains a little tentative: a 116-minute wait for a single goal, not to mention all the nasty behavior (a finals-record 14 yellow cards were handed out). Still, at least it didn't end in penalty kicks. That's saying a lot...

Peter said...

This is off-topic, but this was in one of blogs on the Atlantic website. I immediately thought it was in your zone. I would be interested to know if you think it is right.

Executive Compensation, Continued
Business Jul 6 2010, 12:46 PM ET Comments (70)
Two interesting comments from the post on CEO pay:

I think the defense of American salaries can be even more robust than that.

Ezra Klein is right on this point - the Japanese have cultural sensibilities that prevent American-level salaries. But Japanese executives are more than compensated for this in other ways - primarily social status. Japanese corporate hierarchies extend their power deep into the private domain. The wives of Japanese businessmen will define the seniority of their relationship with respect to the relative status of their husbands. A personal request from the boss cannot be easily refused. It is fairly common for a boss to have an honored position and make a toast at a subordinate's wedding. Does this sound like a leftist paradise to you?

Because much of the value of the CEO position is in the social status, it is not transferable - the innumerable favors given and debts owed to others in the company cannot come with you after you change jobs. This makes labor movement difficult. In the American style, the bulk of the compensation comes in money, with only the perfunctory social respect needed for an efficient workplace. This gives the US workplace a much more mercenary outlook. For good or bad.

Ezra Klein, be careful what you wish for.

Anonymous said...

Football- ‘the beautiful game’.

Beautiful? I can see that there are certain footballers that one might describe as beautiful. By this, I mean that when I see them (usually in adverts for razors or aftershave – and that is if I realise who they are) I think, ‘He is a bit of allright! A tasty piece of eye candy.’ (Forgive me, but I am lady of a certain age who takes her pleasures where she may.) A good example is David Beckham (I choose this example because I struggle to identify any other footballer). I consider him to be a strikingly good looking man, which is no doubt why he appears in lots of adverts. However, as soon as he opens his mouth to speak, the image crumbles, which is presumably why he hasn't been offered any speaking parts in adverts. I’m sure he can’t help it but he has a very nasal, whiny voice and appears to be, how shall I put this, not the sharpest knife in the box?

I guess that generally footballers are not renowned for their ability to engage in intellectual debate, and why should they? The futile efforts made by commentators (often ex footballers) to analyse and discuss football matches is achingly embarrassing and can result in, ‘It was a game of two halves,’ and ‘If they had only got the ball in the back of the net they would have won.’ I am a long way from being a football pundit but I reckon I could have offered either of those observations. Play it, don’t discuss it.

Back to beauty …well, beauty is only skin deep. Football skills seem to include gobbing phlegm onto the field; elbowing, kicking, punching your opponent if at all possible - and this is what is acceptable for public view. If we move into the reported behaviour of players in private...what comes to my mind (please forgive me, American allies) is the phrase applied to the GIs based in Britain during World War II: “oversexed, overpaid and (modification of the original) over indulged”.

Oddly, the second part of the phrase – ‘game’ - is absolutely right but not accepted by players and supporters. Football is a game, something that is done for entertainment, amusement, fun but is not important. It is not a religion. It is not a way of defining the nobility, honour or international influence of a country. (However brilliant a football team Iran had, it would not make me feel any less disgusted by their continued use of stoning as a punishment.) How I feel about being British is not influenced one jot by how well the England team plays. In fact, I don’t care about their performance.

There I have come out with it. I don’t care because it does not matter. Lots of things do matter in the world – climate change, poverty, cruelty, war – there is a long list but football isn’t on it. It is a game. It is a way of running about and having a bit of fun. It does not matter. Let me paraphrase the report of yesterday's (could have been any) World Cup final:
“There were two teams and they both wanted to win. One got a goal and the other didn’t so the team that got a goal won. The team that lost was sad. The team that won was happy.”
That’s it. Nothing of any significance in the world will be any better or worse because of this game.

Just one thing I did enjoy. After the BBC presenter delivered an extensive report of the World Cup final on yesterday's news, we were, as usual, passed over to the local news service – Yorkshire News. How could a game between Spain and Holland include any local interest? But here we had an interview with Sylvia, a cheery Yorkshire lady who had obviously been to the hairdressers’ especially for her few minutes of fame. Sylvia was bursting with pride and lively comments because her son had been the referee.

Ah, Yorkshire – God’s own county!

ML Awanohara said...

To the anonymous Yorkshirewoman of a certain age:

I can completely relate to your comments, but only if I'm sitting on the other side of the pond. Now that I'm back here, on the East Coast of the U.S., I'm inclined to think the opposite:

1) The players don't esp attract me, but the game does. It can have a transcendent quality, hence its beauty. (I'll admit that this year's final lacked that quality--what a bore! But the tournament certainly had its moments...)

2) What I like most about the World Cup is that it's only a game, not a religion. It would worry me more if the world rallied around a set of ideas vs something as basic as kicking a ball. Also, to return to point #1, there's a certain beauty in simplicity...

ML Awanohara said...

Peter: No problem with going off topic. I'm glad you highlighted Megan McArdle's post highlighting Ezra Klein's post re: executive pay in Japan being so much lower than in this country. (My word, this blogging trail does get convoluted at times!) I'd be happy to get up on my soapbox about that at some point, esp as I note that neither McArdle nor Klein wants to admit that they admire the Japanese for this. Well, I do.

It's one of the more striking features of the Japanese system that the bosses put a high priority on remaining relatively close to their workers, not only salary-wise but also physically--they don't even like sitting in separate offices. If you're a good boss, you're part of the team, not floating above them in some separate, exclusive, highly privileged realm.

American management would do well to take a page or two from the Japanese book, but I fear we've lost the ability to see the wisdom of such an approach. Greed has taken over...

p.s. I sense there may have been a message inside your message, which is that it's time to move on from football. Not to worry, I'll be doing so soon...

Anonymous said...

I must say that I prefer playing soccer (I play on a Sunday league here in California) to watching it ... it is so much fun to play. However, both soccer and hockey (very similar in many ways) are the best sports to watch because of many of the reasons you mention … and also because they are fast moving and require a lot of skill.

Of course, the whole nationality thing really gives you an incentive to want one team win over another…which isn't present when you're watching the NFL, etc. I was definitely hoping for Spain to win as I have good Spanish friends and was with them in Spain watching the Euro Cup on TV two years ago.

However, with my Brazilian family all around me (my son is half-Brazilian), there was the hope that the Netherlands would win ... since the Netherlands beat Brazil and Brazilians only want to be beaten by the best!

Carrie said...

We're very impressed (and even a little obsessed) with Pulpo Paul in our household. While I respect his decision to retire while still riding high, the world is a little less rich without his psychic tentacles. The feel good story of the summer...laced with melancholy, for Pulpo Paul is reaching the end of the life cycle for his species.

At least he will never be reduced to calamari!

Great blog; I am enjoying reading it!

ML Awanohara said...

Nor will he be reduced to sashimi, I'm happy to report! People in Japan were obsessed with him, too.

I'm further glad to see that, unlike the World Cup, this Pulpo Story has legs (hahahahahahahaha).

While on the Asian theme (which has taken a backseat during these football posts), it may be interesting to note that Hawaiians believe that the octopus is the lone survivor of the previous, alien universe. Could that be why I identify so closely with the Pulpo perspective on football? As I've tried to show with this post, I still have something of the alien's perspective...

p.s. Thanks for the kind words on the blog!

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