This is Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The picture was taken by yours truly in March 2011, on a rather hazy day from atop Corcovado Mountain. At that time, the stadium was closed for a three-year renovation in preparation for the mother lode of summertime sporting events: the 2016 Olympic Games and the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Those of you who know me well will agree that I’m not a big sports fan. About soccer – “football” or “fútbol” as it’s called everywhere else around the world except in the U.S. – I am particularly uninformed. I have attended just four professional soccer games in my life, and two of those were played when I was barely ten by the no-longer-in-existence Chicago Sting – one at the no-longer-in-existence Old Comiskey Park and the other at the no-longer-in-existence Chicago Stadium – and they hardly qualify as a result.
The international traveler in me, however, has frequently shared hostel dorms with rabid soccer fans from around the globe. I noticed World Cup fever being exhibited while traveling through South Africa in 2009, and I even passed by their (under construction at the time) FNB Stadium outside Johannesburg. Additionally, two of my Eurotrek.net friends are season ticket holders and sit in the supporters’ sections at professional games for teams in their own cities. As such, I began to wonder what all the fuss was about.
I was fortunate to attend a Boca Juniors match while in Buenos Aires in 2011. The beloved team faced off against the River Platte, their fierce cross-town rivals, and it was a lively display of sportsmanship. The stadium, La Bombonera, has certainly seen better days, but the game was fun and over in 90 fast-paced minutes. I bought a Boca Juniors jersey and wore it to Iguassu Falls two days later. Seemingly every Argentine visitor to the falls commented on my shirt – and most of those comments were positive. (I didn’t dare wear my new jersey when visiting the Brazilian side of the falls one day later.)
Later that same year, I was visiting friends outside New York City and one of them invited me to a New York Red Bulls game. One of my aforementioned supporters, he explained the rules: We stand, not sit. We proudly display the banner. We sing vulgar songs directed at the opposing team’s supporters’ section. It was a great time, and I finally saw what everyone else did: soccer is great fun! Fast-paced, low-scoring fun. I grew up in a baseball-loving home, but let’s be honest: a 0-0 or 1-0 soccer match is more fun than, say, a baseball game in which one team scores 13 runs.
Fútbol en México
My last week in Mexico was spent packing my belongings, saying goodbye to friends, and watching the World Cup. I remember the intense 0-0 game between Mexico and Brazil. No doubt billions of pesos in business revenue were lost that day as the entire country went to a standstill. I could hear an old lady in my apartment building screaming passionately from across the hall at every block by longtime goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. For a moment I thought my neighbor was in coitus! 🙂
I also noticed – and not for the first time – that pizzerias and bars do great business whenever a game is televised. In Mexico, fútbol is essentially the national religion, and residents here can’t help but stop whatever doing to watch the game even when Mexico itself isn’t playing! I regret having never seen a game in person while living in Mexico City.
By the time Mexico was eliminated from the competition – a frequent occurrence every four years despite the general prowess of the national team on the field – I was already back in the U.S. But many of my Facebook friends are Mexican, and I was greeted by their many fútbol-related status updates as soon as I logged into FB following the game’s end. Positive responses were of the “Nice try” vibe and negative responses were of the “You bums always make the same mistakes” variety. One of my favorite expressions unique to Mexico is “Ni modo,” which basically means “Too bad, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Soccer in the U.S.
One of my favorite bagel places is a small shop in Santa Monica. I spent several mornings/afternoons there over the last week, sipping my coffee and watching customers slowly file in to catch whatever game was being televised at that moment. Of course, the U.S.-Germany game this past Sunday attracted the largest crowd. Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” filled the air – not just of the stadium hosting the game, but of the bagel shop and, I’m sure, of bagel shops and coffee houses all across the country. Here in the U.S. soccer has finally earned the audience it deserves. Even though the U.S. lost this important game, as the 2014 FIFA World Cup enters its final week, I have little doubt that the remaining games will be Nielsen ratings champs.
As for me: I don’t know if the reigning country will be Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, or host country Brazil. However – and as is always the case – there were surprises along the way (Spain, anyone?) – and there may be surprises still to come.
I have decided to root for the host country. Viva Brasil!