The Evocative Game
Tom Swick: On a traveler's divided loyalties during the World Cup
06.18.10 | 8:45 AM ET
Im more of a traveler than a soccer connoisseur, so the World Cup for me is always a reminder—and a kind of assessor—of past trips. I root for the countries that were the nicest to me.
In the opening match it was hard to go against host country South Africa. But I’ve never been to the land of Mandela, while I’ve traveled three times to Mexico, where I’ve always been treated graciously. So it was the Mexicans who won my support.
The second match was trickier, as it featured a country I’ve lived in (France) playing one I’ve merely visited (Uruguay). Though my most memorable night in Montevideo was spent at the famous Centenario Stadium where, six decades earlier, Uruguay upset Argentina for the 1930 World Cup. In the end, I went with Uruguay.
This is another feature of my fandom: In sports, as in travel, I tend to favor the unheralded.
Though this was not the only reason I was rooting for the U.S. over England on Saturday. I watched the match with a bunch of Europeans, one of whom—a Dutchman—said he hoped that Germany would take care of Australia. I thought: How can you not like a team called the Socceroos? While a Pole noted pointedly: “Only Germans root for Germany.”
The brief exchange inadvertently shed some light on why the World Cup doesn’t captivate Americans the way it does the rest of the world. It’s not just that we have less of a tradition of playing the game; with two large oceans and two non-expansionist neighbors, we have less of a history of fierce, cross-border rivalries. When our team scores a goal, it’s just a goal; it’s not payback for years of injustice.
Which is why the Americans left watching the greatest sporting event on Earth—especially after the U.S. has been eliminated—tend to be either soccer fans or world travelers. With the former, it’s love of the game; with the latter, love of the peoples for whom it’s a passion.
But, as I said, that love can get complicated. Two of my favorite countries to visit are Italy and Brazil, but neither of their teams can realistically be put in the camp of the unsung. Still, I like them to stay alive in part because a World Cup without Brazil, and to a large extent Italy, loses a lot of its allure.
With Portugal you also get the sound of Portuguese (though not as mellifluous as the Brazilian variety) and one of those small, out-of-the-way nationalities that have a remarkable ability to make tourists feel like guests. When on June 25 they meet big, sweet Brazil, I’m going to have divided loyalties.
But my favorite team this year, after the U.S., is probably the Netherlands, and, predictably, it has nothing to do with soccer. In the summer of 1982, the Dutch embassy in Warsaw sent my journals—two years’ worth of writings—out of martial law Poland through its diplomatic pouch. (An act of kindness my own embassy refused to perform.) A friend who worked as a secretary at the embassy mailed the two notebooks to her mother in Holland, who in turn sent them to my parents in New Jersey. Without those journals I would not have been able to write my first book.
Twenty-eight years later, I am still grateful. But I’m not going to paint my torso orange.