All around the world, people are full of football fever! It’s the first weekend of the month-long sports fans’ heaven known as the FIFA World Cup. Every four years FIFA, or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, hosts (in my opinion) the world’s greatest sporting event. Months ago while I was still in Paris, le Metro, the free daily paper I picked up every on my way to school on the Rive Gauche, contained sports pages filled with talk of Les Bleus, the moniker of the French national team. Throughout the spring, pre-tournament matches were greatly anticipated, with stories running in newspapers, magazines and on the nightly news. As my French improved, I heard more and more conversations about football, especially in local the café/tabacs where I recharged my French mobile, bought international calling cards, and drank cheap espresso. But I understand what the excitement is all about: for the next month, the best soccer players in the world are all gathered in the same place—South Africa—to compete for the sport’s greatest prize: the World Cup. What’s not to love?
Well, there are things not to love…events like the World Cup give the nascent urban planner in me panic attacks, at the same time that it sends the soccer-loving world traveler part of me into fits of envy. I try to imagine a country inundated by football fans from around the world, millions of people streaming into its cities, staying in its homes, hostels, and hotels, driving on the highways, and flooding public transit—the sheer number of visiting bodies is daunting, even before you add in the fact that World Cup goers aren’t just casual visitors: they’re crazy football fanatics!
I once went to a football match in Istanbul between two small local teams. I walked through metal detectors, had my bag searched, and then after the game was over (thankfully the home team won), I exited the stadium through a gauntlet of riot police. That was one game, in one stadium, and this year’s World Cup in South Africa will have games played in 10 stadiums in nine different cities. You can’t encircle a whole country in riot police, and even if you could, there’d still be more fans than law enforcement present. The whole thing is a logistical nightmare: a million possibilities for things to go wrong, all playing out in front the keyboards, eyes and cameras of the international media machine. Yikes. South African demand for antacids must have sky-rocketed in the past year. As I sat down Friday to watch the Cup’s opening match between host team South Africa and Mexico, I said a silent prayer for the tournament to go smoothly. The World Cup can be such a magical thing, especially when it’s happening in your own country.
I was in middle school when the FIFA Women’s World Cup was hosted by the United States in 1999, and I was thoroughly captivated by “The Girls of Summer,” as the US team came to be called along their journey toward becoming World Cup Champions. I remember thrilling from head to toe when Brandi Chastain knocked the ball past the Chinese goalkeeper into the right-hand corner of the goal and then ripped off her shirt in celebration as she was buried beneath a pile of ecstatic teammates. I remember the Natalie Merchant song (“These Are the Days”) the TV network used as background music for a quickly thrown together victory montage. I remember that I read memoirs by Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, and I saved newspaper clippings and magazine covers. Even though I wasn’t able to attend a single game, I felt the magic of the World Cup that summer.
When I got home from France, World Cup Fever seemed to have entirely died away. That’s why I was surprised when I tuned my car radio to a local sports station and heard a voice talking excitedly about football, and NOT American football. The World Cup, the voice said, was the world’s premiere sporting event, the most important tournament in the world’s most popular sport. “Wasn’t everyone excited?” the voice asked, its note of enthusiasm hovering across the air waves. There were a few moments (rare in sports radio) of silence, quickly followed by a stream of derision—soccer, the other commentators said, was the most boring sport in the world. It was like “watching a cross-country match played with a ball,” it was only “slightly more interesting than watching grass grow an empty field.”
I don’t know where you fall on the World Cup Spectrum: whether you’ve never heard of it, whether you think it’s the most amazing sports event ever, or whether you’d rather watch paint dry, but I hope you’ll tune into to the World Cup sometime in the next month.
No matter how you feel about soccer, the World Cup is one of those incredible international events that has a chance to bring people together all across the world. You don’t have to be in South Africa to feel the magic…tomorrow I’m headed to my local Irish pub to watch USA-England (ABC, 2:30 p.m. EST) and just like today, I know the bar will be filled with football fans from all across the world. And now that I’m stateside again, facing the reality of work, rent and graduate school applications, I’ve been trying to discover ways I can “travel” close to home. Soon I’ll strike further afield, but for now, I’m happy to live vicariously through the World Cup—at the very least, each match gives the traveler in me new dreams about where to travel next!