Germany and Costa Rica will meet in a futuristic, translucent-skinned stadium
in Munich to kick off the monthlong mosh pit known as the World Cup. For soccer
fans the excitement level will be roughly equivalent to that of a few billion
five-year-olds on Christmas morning--if there were a few billion five-year-olds
who celebrated Christmas ... while consuming vast quantities of alcohol.
Think of the World Cup as a global version of March Madness--one that lasts a
week longer, takes almost no off days and lets you watch all 64 games live (and
this year, for the first time, on HD, which is to soccer what talkies were to
Hollywood). Think of Brazil as UCLA, the freewheeling naturals with the
championship trophies; of Germany as Kentucky, serious and stiff; and of the
U.S. as Gonzaga, the midmajor seeking its Final Four breakthrough. In the World
Cup, as in the NCAAs, the opening rounds are the best part, a chance to park in
front of the tube on a weekday morning and, eight hours and three games later,
still not worry about that PowerPoint presentation you were supposed to finish.
Knowing that you're blowing off work with guys on bar stools in London and
Kyoto and Rio de Janeiro only makes it better.
The World Cup
isn't exactly like the NCAA tournament, of course, which is a good thing.
Consider Brazil, the favorite to win its sixth Cup on July 9 in Berlin. Why
does the world's most gifted soccer nation bag title after title while its most
talented basketball country falls on its butt from Indianapolis to Athens?
Adriano, Brazil's Sherman tank of a striker--and an NBA fan--has a theory.
"There are great players in both the U.S. and Brazil," he says,
"but the Brazilians are more used to playing as a team."
Shaq, Adriano would never contemplate turning down a call from his national
side. It wouldn't just be unpatriotic but also a violation of global
brotherhood, an idea that's lost on World Baseball Classic grump George
Steinbrenner. Is it any wonder that the Boss's New York Yankees are known as
the Evil Empire, while the Brazilians--the Yankees of soccer, success-wise--are
so charismatic that they're every non-Brazilian's second-favorite team?
As the World Cup
shows, a healthy nationalism does have a place in an increasingly globalized
world. The Cup isn't just saves and tackles and goals. It's the scene at
Gecko's tavern in Seoul, where hundreds of South Koreans danced on tables to
Bon Jovi and spilled into the streets after their country's '02 victory over
Italy. It's two French grandmothers gleefully kicking crushed Coke cans on the
Champs-Elys�es in Paris, where three million revelers honked horns and sang La
Marseillaise after the host's World Cup '98 triumph. It's a thousand Nigerians
creating an impromptu dance floor at a train station in Nantes, France, so they
could boogie with their Super Eagles after they'd upset Spain in '98.
Nigeria and its
drum-beating partisans won't be in Germany this summer, nor will the Irish, the
world's most gregarious fans, who always make the Cup a more fun (and less
sober) experience. Looking for a cuddly underdog to support instead? Try
first-timer Togo. The Sparrowhawks have the seemingly random nickname of an
NCAA tourney giant-killer, and the nation's chief voodoo priest is predicting
"miracle" upsets of France and South Korea. But then, this is a
tournament that features a Portuguese star named for Ronald Reagan (forward
Cristiano Ronaldo), a German who credits Americans for his growth as a coach
( California-based J�rgen Klinsmann) and a lone Caucasian on Trinidad and
Tobago's roster (England-born Chris Birchall), whose 27-yard blast against
Bahrain sent his adopted nation into the ecstasy of its first Cup.
Indeed, the World
Cup is immigration turned upside down, with players moving from rich
countries--at least in a soccer sense--to poor. Over the next month native
Brazilians will play for Mexico (midfielder Zinha), Portugal (midfielder Deco),
Spain (midfielder Marcos Senna) and even Japan (defender Alessandro Santos).
These days it isn't the U.S. that's naturalizing foreign-born ringers; it's
archrival Mexico, which has sparked a national firestorm by rushing Zinha and
Argentina-born forward Guillermo Franco into service. That's right: Millions of
Mexicans are fretting about domestic jobs going to "foreigners," a
development that might make even Lou Dobbs smile.
The World Cup
reflects the planet we live on, for better and for worse. French striker
Thierry Henry is spearheading a campaign, Stand Up Speak Up, to fight the
racism prevalent in European stadiums, where fans have thrown bananas and made
monkey noises at black players. FIFA, soccer's governing body, promises stiff
penalties for players and fans caught making racist taunts. Skinheaded
hooliganism is in decline, but organizers have prepared for violent English
fans as well as the prospect of aggro between Polish and German hardcores
before the two countries meet on June 14. The police are promising to arrest
anyone who mimics Third Reich--style goose-stepping and to stymie scalpers by
matching names on tickets with government-issued IDs at the stadiums. (How do
you say gridlock in German?)
And it wouldn't
be soccer if there weren't a conspiracy to investigate or a potential calamity
to prepare for. Italy, the U.S.'s second-game foe, has been rocked by a
corruption and betting scandal in its professional league, distracting the
Azzurri and resulting in the resignation of the entire board of Italian
champion Juventus. Two Ecuador team officials were arrested recently for being
part of a smuggling ring that tried to pass off illegal immigrants as
visa-seeking soccer players. And, as always, there is a fear of terrorism, in
particular regarding the American team, the only delegation of the 32 in
Germany not to have its flag on the side of its bus.
For all of the
issues off the field, the games take precedence once the tournament kicks off,
the tension building from group play to the knockout rounds. On most fans' wish
lists for in Germany: