I’ve been enjoying the World Cup for the last few weeks. I have enjoyed watching games at various venues in Sitka. (Football is better watched in community. The picture is at the Dock Shack in Sitka.) When I lived in Europe I followed the game and during the 2010 World Cup. I wrote about it (and past World Cup experiences) in four letters from Belgrade and Palic (Serbia), Istanbul and Winnipeg. I merged and shortened those letters. Here they are.
Sports events that don’t involve a bat and ball generally don’t interest me, but for the Football World Cup (real football, not what Europeans call “American armored football”) I make an exception. In Belgrade every café with more than 6 tables has a wide screen high definition TV to lure fans. The Supermarket, a complex in our neighborhood on the steep hill down to the Danube, has street level entrances on three floors. The lowest floor is an ever so trendy boutique, a level up has an even trendier restaurant and on the third level there is an actual supermarket. It’s one of those places with exposed beams, ducts and conduit with what look like randomly hanging lights. Marina says it is the only restaurant in Belgrade whose interior designer was a nuclear explosion. Supermarket has used the natural hillside to create a “fan zone” with bleachers and a huge projection TV. Even my friend Ljiljana, who is the LAST person in the world I would think would be interested in the World Cup, is following it avidly, and afterwards reading the New York Times descriptions of the games, which, I agree, are the best. The Times knows it’s writing for a nation of football illiterates (Americans) so it tries harder. It’s difficult not to be sucked in.
My history with the World Cup goes back two decades. On June 10, 1990 Suzi, the boys and I were in Prague awaiting the results of the first free election that would transform Czechoslovakia into a democracy, legitimize Vaclav Havel’s government, and play out the final act of the Velvet Revolution. Earlier in the day we watched at polling places and attended a Civic Forum press conference at the Magic Lantern Theater featuring Vaclav Havel, and Shirley Temple (the US Ambassador to Prague). Now we were at the press center for the penultimate event of the revolution, (the ultimate event was Frank Zappa later in the evening), the announcement of the official election results. But democracy had to wait. Czechoslovakia was playing the US in a World Cup match. We were sitting with our headphones on, for the simultaneous translation (that impressed the kids), my laminated press badge (#1039) hanging around my neck. The kids were excited. They were about to witness history, but why is history being delayed? Could a World Cup match be more important? Well, yes. European journalists understood perfectly but American journalists went crazy, “We have deadlines, the World is waiting, but but but…” It was a blowout, Czechoslovakia humiliating the US 0-5. Democracy waited for the final whistle. With the election results Czechoslovakia won twice.
In 1998 the US was again in the tournament. I was trying to get a Yugoslav visa to go to Belgrade. Suzi and I had been turned down in Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava. Someone suggested we try the consul in Gratz, Austria, who was Montenegrin and may just let us in. The consul made me a proposition. If Yugoslavia beat the US we would get our visas, if not… The US lost 1-0, I showed up at the consulate and, true to his word, I got my visa. A few days later we were in Belgrade. Yugoslavia played the Netherlands. If the Albanians had invaded no one would have noticed.
During the 2002 World Cup I was a roving consultant, doing odd jobs for IREX. I had a funky passport issued at the US Embassy in Bratislava. It was without a laminated photo (it had the photo glued on to the page with an embossed seal over it) and it lacked a hologram. In the days after 9/11 it looked suspicious. At airport security in Frankfort I was pulled out and questioned by police before my flight to London. Since I was male with a passport issued in Bratislava, with both Montenegrin and Serbian residence visas, they figured that I must be at least part European. They grilled me about the World Cup. I was able to utter something intelligent about the one-one draw between Ireland and Cameroon and sound convincing enough about a French striker that they let me on the planes. (As soon as I got home I applied for a new passport with lamination and holograms.) Arriving in London we found ourselves in the middle of both the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the quarter finals of the World Cup. On souvenir shelves plates and tea towels with the Queen’s face competed with Team England jerseys. In the tabloids the Queen didn’t have a chance. She was relegated to the centerfold while Team England hogged the front pages. (The broadsheets were more concerned with a possible nuclear war between two Commonwealth states, India and Pakistan; neither of which made the World Cup.) The Monarchy was saved when England lost to Brazil and the Queen restored to the Tabloid’s front pages.
But now it’s 2010. Listening to the BBC you would think the World Cup is the most important event in the world promoting peace, dialogue between nations, and racial harmony in South Africa. Perhaps — But I remember a shooting war between Honduras and El Salvador over the North American qualifying round for the 1970 World Cup (El Salvador made it to the tournament) and the violence several months ago over matches between Algeria and Egypt during the Africa Cup of Nations. I was in the Irish Pub in Bratislava in 1998 when the police raided because of rowdy England fans. Football mania has always been part of Serb nationalism. Serb football fan clubs were organized into paramilitary squads that conducted “ethnic cleansing.” The home office has actually asked me if I feel safe In Serbia because of football frenzy.
Suzi and I watched the first US game against England. When England took the lead there were a few cheers. When the US tied there was a bigger cheer. This surprised me because the USA is not popular here, but Serbs view England as the bigger threat. (The enemy of my enemy…) The café had the TV sound turned off because if the sound were turned on you would think the café was being invaded by swarms of angry insects. Vuvuzela horns are a South African football tradition and they make it sound like the invasion of the wasps. For the full 90 minutes the air would be filled with incessant buzzing. The café owners thought the sound was too annoying.
A week later, in Palic, where we conducted our journalism summer school, we thought we rented the training rooms complete with projectors. But the hotel needed projectors to fill screens with football in the bar and restaurant. Income from conferences is important but not as important as football. We had to schedule training around games. To everyone’s surprise Serbia beat Germany in its second match. “I love to win, but to beat Germany!” Masa cried. Most of the stations I work with are sponsoring fan contests. One station is advertising a Ford dealer. If you buy a new Ford for €8,999 you get a free Serbia football jersey worth €15. This does not add up to me.
After Summer School we had a business meeting in Istanbul. Normally Istanbul’s streets are filled with hawkers’ cries, the clang of monger’s bells and electric street babble. But Turkey is a football mad country and for 90 minute stretches the hawkers are hushed and we could walk anywhere and hear a buzz of Vuvuzuelas from TV sets. The muezzin didn’t have a prayer. Perhaps that is why one Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against the Vuvuzuela.
Now the vuvuzela is silent and Spain holds the World Cup. The last match of the Cup was played on the Sunday afternoon of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The festival put the game on jumbotrons at the main stage. It was a good business decision. People following the Cup for the month (including performers from football mad places like Scotland) could watch the game and hear music drifting from workshop stages in a mostly convivial atmosphere with fellow football folkies.
I say mostly convivial because vuvuzelas caused discord at the festival. Tanis, head of the Media Committee, waded out into the thousand football fans gathered at the main stage. “People, listen up. The Winnipeg Folk Festival is a vuvuzuela free zone. It is not an African Folk Instrument, it is a cheap plastic horn made in Taiwan.”