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THERE AND BACK AGAIN
Mark Bechtel
June 28, 2010
In far-off Bloemfontein, an unglamorous match showed the tournament at its best
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June 28, 2010

There And Back Again

In far-off Bloemfontein, an unglamorous match showed the tournament at its best

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This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours' respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

At the World Cup, we're often told, every game is an event. Some matchups feature time-honored rivalries with historical origins (U.S.-England). Some showcase traditional soccer powers (France-Mexico). Some include both of those elements (Portugal-Brazil). Some have a parade of ridiculously gifted players (Netherlands-Cameroon), others lovable underdogs (New Zealand, anyone?). They all, it seems, offer something special. And then there's this.

This is Paraguay versus Slovakia. Two countries that have nothing at all to do with each other. Paraguay is celebrating its soccer centennial but has never advanced past the second round of the World Cup; Slovakia has existed for only 17 years, and its fans are known for what must be one of the most optimistic cheers in sports: "We are still going to win this game!" Though the match will help determine which sides advance from Group F, it's arguably the least glamorous of the 64 to be held during the monthlong tournament.

And there's the location: Bloemfontein. Founded as a British fort in 1846, it's the judicial capital of South Africa and capital of the Free State Province. But some know it best as the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien, which is why the nicest digs in town are at a place called the Hobbit Hotel. (No, the ceilings aren't four feet high. No, the front desk doesn't speak Elvish. And no, you can't settle your minibar tab with mithril.) A hobbit-hole, as Tolkien noted, "means comfort"—and Middle Earthers will feel snug as they settle into rooms bearing the names of Tolkien characters: Frodo, Galadriel, Bilbo Baggins and the room I'm in: Elrond, named for a figure who, according to the sign on the door, is "mighty among man and elves."

America's best-known Slovak might be Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, who was born in the town of Komárno. The most renowned Paraguayan is probably the president, Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who, in the words of one Paraguay fan, "has a lot of baby mamas." (Three women filed paternity suits against him, though two of the suits were later withdrawn.) Neither Reitman nor Lugo was among the announced crowd of 26,643 at Sunday's game—second lowest for this World Cup—but 90 minutes before kickoff, fans of the two teams were getting acquainted outside the Free State Stadium, posing for pictures and striking up a friendly rivalry. A group of fifth- and sixth-graders from the Monokotswai school in Bloemfontein was there, courtesy of some unsold sponsor tickets. Paraguayans and Slovaks battled for their favor, and judging by the racket being made, the Slovaks won handily. Soon the kids were jumping up and down, chanting, "My smy tu doma! My smy tu doma!" I asked a 19-year-old Slovak student named Ivan what it meant. "We are home here," he told me.

Soon after, the scarf Ivan had been waving was draped around the neck of a 12-year-old named Nthabeleng. Why did he give it to her? "She asked," Ivan said. "I can buy that stuff in Slovakia any time."

Suddenly Nthabeleng was the most popular kid in her group. Friends tugged at the Slovakia scarf as the girl explained why her new favorite team would prevail. "They're strong," she said.

Not strong enough, as it turned out. Paraguay put on a show, slicing up the Slovak defense for an easy 2--0 win. After the game I stopped at a Cuban bar on the way back to the Hobbit Hotel to watch the lovable All Whites of New Zealand play—and stun—Italy. The crowd in the bar was mostly Slovak, but a handful of red-and-white-striped Paraguay jerseys dotted the room. One man in the crowd, named Tibor, was sporting contradictory colors: the Paraguay shirt and a Slovakia hat. After the game, he explained, he and several of his Slovak friends exchanged jerseys with Paraguayan fans, just as the players do. We talked for a while longer, and as I made my way out, I bought Tibor and his friends a round of beers. Before I made it to the door, he called me back and, with a beaming smile, handed me his Slovakia cap.

Walking back to the Hobbit Hotel with Tibor's hat on my head, I realized that in the end, I had, like Bilbo Baggins, gained something in my adventure, and it was this bit of knowledge about the World Cup: No matter who is playing, everyone is home here.

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