World Cups: Events that Define Life Phases
The 2010 FIFA World Cup was among the least spectacular international football tournaments in recent history. The cautionary approaches and uber-defensive strategies utilized by the majority of national teams, and the lack of individual flair resulted in a business-like competition without any well-played, end-to-end two-sided affairs. Players and coaches blamed the unpredictable Adidas “Jabulani” ball for the ugliness, and with the exception of the semi-final between the Netherlands and Uruguay and the third place game between Uruguay and Germany, fans were made to settle for low-scoring, underwhelming matches. From a neutral’s standpoint, it was an aesthetically disappointing World Cup that failed to live up to the typical pre-tournament hype. Yet reflecting on both its intrinsic meaning exactly one year from its inception, I have come to the conclusion that such non-annual sporting events frequently define periods in our lives.
I had the unique, and perhaps once in a lifetime pleasure of experiencing a World Cup in the victorious country. While I was not supporting “La Roja,” I was unavoidably captivated by the spirit and revelry of my Spanish friends and the witnessing crowds in the famed southern Andalucian city of Granada.
Despite their label as perennial World Cup “choke artists,” Spaniards were brimming with confidence following their national team’s glorious 2008 European Cup victory. Long had Spain been blessed with the world’s best footballers, but for some reason, they had never managed to win a World Cup. This time, however, the typical Spanish cynicism was replaced by a new optimism. Spaniards throughout Andalucia, Extremadura, Castilla, Galicia, La Rioja, Cantabria, Asturias, Navarra, Murcia, Aragon, and even parts of Catalunya and the Basque country displayed an infectious enthusiasm and support of their National Football Team, one of the few unifying entities in an otherwise culturally divided country.
On match days all around the city of Granada one could see red jerseys and painted faces, hear songs of support, and witness loud, thorough celebrations after each victory. Having committed to soaking up the true World Cup spirit, I watched each Spain match in the “zona roja de Cruzcampo,” an enormous air-conditioned tent sponsored by the Andalucian beer giants Cruzcampo, which included several giant screens and at least four full bars. Each successive match saw the several thousand onlookers became rowdier and more vocal as they nervously consumed sunflower seeds and “tinto de verano” (cheap red wine mixed with Fanta Soda). As “La Furia Roja” surpassed each hurdle-Portugal in the first knockout stage, Paraguay in the quarterfinals, and then Germany in the semifinals, the celebrations across the city intensified with bacchanalian activity reaching its zenith after the final. As the final whistle blew in Johannesburg, South Africa it felt like a collective weight had been lifted from the backs of all Spaniards. Years of disappointment and cynicism were extinguished in a matter of seconds.
In the minutes and hours following the victory, I witnessed events that I never thought possible. Firecrackers exploded in ornate lit fountains. Spaniards, both young and old, danced on car hoods chanting “yo soy Español, Español, Español!” or else “Campeones, Campeones, O Ey, E Ey, O Ey!” Amusingly, the police also took part in the celebrations, intervening only to prevent violence or substantial property damage. I stood by utterly captivated, as Spain, a veritably football mad country, thoroughly celebrated their glorious victory.
Because they occur every four years, World Cups are bound to coincide with periods of our lives, at least, for those of us who are football fans. They can also symbolize trends and common strategies in the game itself. The 10’ version, for example, exemplified the current excessively cautious tendencies of coaches and professional teams. One a more profound level, World Cups, not unlike the Olympics, have the capacity to act as personal points of reference or indicators of certain stages in our lives.
The World Cup always causes me to reflect on my own life and activities. Last summer’s competition marked a particular era in my life that included: an “early 20’s-I can do anything optimism”, pride in my linguistic abilities, loneliness at spending most of that hot summer without any friends in the city, and disappointment with my unsettled peripatetic existence. The 2006 World Cup coincided with my summer stay in San Francisco, a magical period of discovery, professional development, and self-satisfaction. I was a confused and identity-less sophomore in high school during the 2002 World Cup, which forced me to wake up during indecent hours to view matches. As an energetic 12 year old, I felt secure, oblivious, and unafraid of the future during France’s 1998 conquering. The 1994 World Cup was held in the United States and was my first exposure to world football. Roberto Baggio’s missed penalty during the final is forever burned into my mind, as is Romario’s hoisting of the golden trophy.
Perhaps four-year increments are logical life stage reference points, but as a football fan, I attach even greater significance to World Cups, and use them as objective demarcations of my own self-development. But what I am pondering then, is whether I do this because I love the “world’s game?”-Or rather that I have subconsciously attached critical significance to these global events that they become life-defining moments. I clearly remember, for instance, meeting up for lunch with my father and now stepmother, Leslie, at a Brueger’s Bagel shop in East Lansing Michigan in 1998, shortly after France’s final victory over Brazil. The lunch was significant because Leslie was in Paris during the competition and described in detail the celebrations and raucous activities of the French people. It may not have been a defining moment for her, but it was for me. Never could I have imagined the feeling of massive and unifying collective joy as the “Rainbow Nation” experience in 1998. What struck me most in light of Leslie’s experience was that such joy moved beyond the secular, ethnic, and age divisions that continue to plague French society.
It cannot be that I am the only human alive who believes that World Cups are definitive moments of existence, or that a sporting event can hold such significance. Discuss the World Cup final with any Spaniard, Frenchman, Italian, German, Argentine, or Brazilian with even a fleeting interest in the sport, and they will most likely be able to recall exactly where they were, and what they were doing at the time of their nation’s World Cup victories. As a fan, I am not an outlier when it comes to attaching emotional significance to the World Cup, but as a Finnish-American I am. With Finland never qualifying, and the US never having reached the quarterfinals, I am always left with a surrogate country to support. It is probable then, that for those of us whose nations are not likely to win, World Cups hold additional [non-sporting] meaning.
The pain of being a fan is two-fold-the feeling of despair, disappointment, or else sadness when one’s team loses, and the helplessness with which we watch, or what I would call the "third-party enigma." Though we may cheer on our squads-the players, the captains, and their managers, it is impossible that any individual fan can remotely affect the outcome of a competition. Yes being a fan means supporting one’s team, but it also means having the unreasonable belief that collective support can, in fact, will a team to victory. Try convincing the thousands of Uruguayans in Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia cheering on their beloved Celestes against Ghana in last year’s quarterfinals, when a last minute penalty stacked all of the odds in Ghana’s favor, that their collective support and prayers had no effect in willing Uruguay to the semi-finals. This belief in collective spiritual power borders on religiosity, but the very essence of being a fan is a belief that one’s team will be victorious. If nothing else, being a supporter of a team is an identity, often as meaningful and fervent as a religion or nationality. Indeed, international competitions frequently elicit fervent nationalist tendencies, almost to the point where rivalry matches become surrogate wars. Football fandom and appreciation for the beauty of the game, however, can supersede nationality. I may never be Cameroonian, but who is to say, for example, that I cannot support the Cameroonian National Football team? Or that my brother cannot support France? Collective identity via fandom then, is a principal feature of the World Cup’s life-defining qualities.
The moments and external events that define our lives are incredibly diverse. Weddings, deaths, births, graduations, job promotions, wars, financial collapses, etc can both be extremely personal and shared experiences. It may be rare to share such moments with another person, but is even rarer to share them with three billion people. Unfathomable though it may seem, more than three billion people watched last year’s tournament; on their home television sets, on pirated computer channels, in pubs, in town squares, or in royal palaces. Despite where they watched matches, the fact that nearly half of our planet engaged in a collective simultaneous activity is astounding and completely unprecedented. Maybe we should take solace from the fact that something as simple as a game involving 22 men chasing a ball on a pitch can distract us from the atrocities and struggles of daily life. Football will not resolve wars, feed the starving masses, find cures for diseases, or else solve our problems. World Cups, however, are unifying, epic events that contain rich collective memory and identity potential.
I almost forgot...World Cup Official Anthems are always entertaining...Here's 2010's "Waka Waka" by Colombian singer Shakira. Enjoy!