Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The World Cup through Canadian Eyes

Around this time four years ago, I was in Europe, which isn’t so remarkable in itself except that I was in Europe while the FIFA World Cup was taking place in Germany. Sarah and I were even fortunate enough to attend a first-round game in Germany—Germany vs. Poland. We got off the train in Dortmund a stop too early, and so we had to walk all the way across town to get to the stadium. I will never forget that walk through the downtown and the atmosphere all around. The German fans were partying through the streets, drinking, singing, and chanting. There were also some Poland fans about, getting pumped up for the game in their own way. We only witnessed some good-natured joking between the groups of fans. It was remarkable to see people so passionate about their countries mixing without much incident despite somewhat recent history of conflict between the two nations. The atmosphere in the stadium was so loud, and so energizing, and I was surprised to see Polish fans sitting amongst the German fans, and again, a lot of good-natured ribbing going on during the game which Germany eventually won.

I was also privileged enough to be in England during the 2002 World Cup, and I was in Italy just before the 1998 World Cup. If you can’t go to the actual games, the second best option is to travel to a country that is passionate about their team participating in the tournament. Even in 2002, I was at a packed out pub in England at 10 am buzzing from strong beer and watching on the big screen as the English team was playing their game in the Far East.

Unfortunately, at some point during each of these trips (which did not last the duration of the tournament), I had to head back to West Michigan where I lived at the time. Unless you’re in a really big city like New York or Los Angeles, the US is probably one of the worst places in the world to try to follow the world’s biggest sporting event. Even finding the games on TV can be difficult. While the games in the later stages of the tournament may make it to ESPN or other standard cable channels, for many of the first round games, I would have to make friends whose cable packages included Spanish-language channels.

When games were being played during my workday (due to time zone differences), I would find live score updates online and follow as closely as I could while working. I would see the score change and an upset in the making, and listen from my cubicle for gasps or comments from anyone else—certainly there had to be other people watching the scoreline. But, I never heard a sound that was soccer related, nor did I know of anyone in the vicinity who would care if I shared the news.

When games in the later stages were televised live on weekends, Sarah and I craved the fan atmosphere we had experienced in Europe. We wanted to find a sports bar where the game was being shown. We learned from several past disappointing experiences that we should call around first before just showing up somewhere. We’d start calling the biggest sports bars in Grand Rapids (a metropolitan area of about half a million people). We would ask if they were showing the soccer game. “What soccer game?” was often the reply. Eventually we’d work our way to calling the bars popular with the Italians or Mexicans, and we would make our way there. We’d try to round up as many of our friends as possible and try to get them excited. We’d all show up to half-empty sports bars with eight big screens, and they might have the World Cup game on one of those screens. Other screens would be showing golf, NASCAR, baseball highlights, or the NHL draft. If we were lucky, the sound feed would be from the soccer game—IF we were lucky.

Well, here I am in 2010, another World Cup year, but this time in Canada. I didn’t think that the World Cup experience in Canada would be any different from that in the US. Now less than a week away from the final, I know that there is no where in the world I’d rather be (other than the actual games at the stadiums) during this event.

I had my first clue that something was amiss back in mid-May when the car flags of various nations were everywhere on vehicles all around town. I soon deduced that the car flags coincidentally were the same as countries in the final 32 of the World Cup. At the mall, almost every store was selling soccer jerseys, country flags, scarves, or hats—even stores that don’t normally sell sporting goods. At the farmers’ market, stalls were set up selling similar types of soccer fan merchandise. On a main street corner in downtown Kitchener, a vendor had set up a tent in an empty parking lot and had flags, jerseys, banners, scarves, and balls of every team.

This year, I opted to cheer for the Ivory Coast, as one of my favorite players, Didier Drogba, is on that team. Obtaining an Ivorian car flag through any channel other than online shopping would normally be impossible. But, here in Canada, it was no problem.

About a week before the tournament started, there was no question as to where we could go to watch the games. All the bars and restaurants were advertising that they would be showing the games. As far back as January, CBC, the main television broadcaster in Canada, was advertising for the World Cup—they’d be showing every game.

At work, everyone talks about the World Cup all the time. Everyone knows what teams are playing, and everyone has a favorite. In the US, I would have had numerous tiresome debates by now with people who are certain that there is no value in watching soccer because it is so “boring” compared to other spectator sports. Not so in Canada—there is a genuine appreciation of the game, and a stark absence of any comparisons to football or hockey.

Part of the reason that Canada is such a great place to be during the World Cup is because of the diversity of the population. I could take the most obscure country in the tournament, probably Ivory Coast, and still find fans of this team who are have Ivorian heritage, right in downtown Toronto. Then when you consider some of the more dominant teams in the sport such as Germany or England, the supporters are everywhere. Canadians are generally accepting of individual displays of national pride, and since there are so many Canadians who are immigrants or first generation Canadians, these displays are varied and widespread. No one seems offended by anyone’s car flags or jerseys. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Canada is not in the World Cup itself, so no one feels any pressure or obligation to cheer for Canada. They are free to cheer for any country they choose, and usually these choices center around individuals’ heritages.

If I was in England right now, the fervor over the World Cup would be over because England is now out of the tournament. But here in Canada, when one country exits, the fans from the remaining countries become even more evident. My friends of Dutch heritage who don’t even like soccer are now following the tournament, and better yet, even wanting to talk about soccer with me! A few weeks ago, the Spanish team flags and jerseys were lost in the sea of Portuguese red and green. Now, I can see that there are fans of the Spanish team in my midst, as much as they are still outnumbered by the German fans in this heavily German area. And, once Ivory Coast was out and I switched my allegiance to Paraguay, no one cared or saw me as a traitor. The fan bases here are like rolling snowballs that increase in size as other teams are eliminated from the tournament.

Two weeks ago, Portugal and Brazil played each other in the first round. Several hours after the game, which ended in a 0-0 tie, I was driving through town and couldn’t believe how many Portuguese fans were on the streets shouting and waving large flags. The 0-0 tie was fairly unremarkable, but that was the game that had given Portugal enough points to go on to the second round. It was like being in Portugal without being in Portugal.

This Sunday, the Netherlands will be playing in the final game. This is a huge deal for the Dutch people, who have always fielded a strong team but never actually won the World Cup. The people in the Netherlands are going crazy. The whole country will most likely literally shut down for the day of the game, and probably the day before. The Dutch or Dutch descendents I know here in Kitchener-Waterloo are beside themselves with excitement.

Back in West Michigan, where Dutch and Dutch descendents are the largest ethnic group in many counties, there’s only a limited amount of attention being paid to the upcoming game. I would imagine that if Sarah and I were still living there, despite the Dutch influence in Grand Rapids, and despite the significance of this game, we would still be working hard to convince our friends to go out and watch the game with us, and we may or may not get any takers. Then again, we would likely have trouble even finding a bar willing to show the game!

1 comment:

MSEH said...

I was in the Netherlands during the 2006 WC and we had a blast watching at a local pub. Hup Holland!!