Living in Football (“Soccer”) Country: What I Love and Hate

Here’s what I know about the World Cup: It’s held every four years. I think Spain won the last one. It’s like thirty teams from around the world playing football (soccer) to decide who can play football the best.

If you’re living in the States, you might know that the World Cup will be starting in about a week. If you’re living in Peru, there is literally zero probability that you do NOT know the World Cup will be starting in EIGHT DAYS.

It is football season in football country. Like Christmas, but for a month, in the kind of eggnog-for-blood city that carpets its yards in lights that flicker to Carol of the Bells. But in South America, Santa is Lionel Messi, and every gift is a football. Also, the snow is footballs. If you turn on the TV, it looks a lot like the David Mitchell sketch above, only David Mitchell looks like every Peruvian newscaster and is speaking Spanish.

FOOTBALL. They breathe it. It’s in the air. And this year, it’s in Brazil. Imagine that your neighbors are holding the Super Bowl. That’s sort of what this is like. Yeah, your neighbors are doing a terrible job, and they are sort of jerks for hiking prices so tremendously, but it’s the WORLD CUP, and this year, it’s right next door.

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Last year in Peru some guy literally died of a heart attack when Peru scored a winning goal against Chile (their biggest rival); now this guy is viewed as a sort of cultural hero. When Peru played in Chile a year or two prior, Chileans flocked en masse to shout taunts and set off fireworks outside the Peruvian players’ hotel for over ten consecutive hours; needless to say, they effectively prevented the rival team from sleeping.

Yes, in short, some folks LOSE THEIR MINDS over football.

Unfortunately, my attitude toward watching sports has always been, even at its height, pretty much lukewarm. As a kid, I remember going to Super Bowl parties… my most poignant memories are of the bean dips. Regardless though, there are still a few things I love about football fever.

Things I love. It’s like their Disney World moment. Only it’s perpetual. Think about some of the most magical moments of your childhood. Usually those moments are fleeting. They leave with your innocence, and then you make do with the heartwarming memories. Not so with football.

Ask a Peruvian, “What’s the most brilliant football play you’ve ever seen live?” His face lights up like you asked a twelve-year-old from the ’90s to name their favorite pokémon. He can tell you the player, the match, the way everyone leapt off the couch and cheered.

But therein lies the glory of football. With every match, even in matches of teams that aren’t necessarily that great, there is a chance that they’ll win the lottery. There’s a possibility that they’ll get to leap off the couch again as some player pivots or dives and somehow knocks that ball into (or away from) the goal. In short, football fans get to get to re-live those glorious moments of sheer childhood ecstasy again and again… with beer.

That’s probably why the number one response from even the most football-crazed manly men about any upcoming football match is simply, “I just want to see a good match.” While the tagline “We’re going to win!” is added if the home team is playing, and if asked in public they’ll usually posture, mostly the Peruvians (and many fans generally, given the commercials) just seem to be questing after that childhood high.

 

The other great part of this is that they all choose to do this together. Whenever somebody asks if I’m a football fan, I try to offer consolation by saying, “Well, I love the atmosphere?” It’s true. A football match is maybe the best excuse for a party since birthdays. Everybody crowds in around the TV and holds their breath (hah, metaphorically, of course) for some magical head ball, for the goal that will tie the score, for the goal that will break the tie, for whatever will be the main topic of conversation after the game is over.

This kind of focus and hope can transcend age and race, old feuds and awkwardness; even the weird dude at the bar can blend in if there’s a game on. The history of this tradition blesses the whole thing: For decades, the families and friends here have been gathering for these games. Men remember watching with their fathers, who remember watching with their fathers, and so on. It all adds up to something that — with the right people — is a joy to take part in, even if I still don’t know what the heck it means to be “offside.”

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I cannot estimate how much energy people have put into trying to explain this concept to me.

Things I don’t love. Unfortunately, as with anything that picks up elements of military or religion, sometimes football can just get out of hand when people forget that it doesn’t actually matter. Crowds have stormed stadiums and hurled fireworks, they’ve had riots, fights, and perpetuated all forms of murder and mayhem. All this despite the fact that the only tangible thing football can win them is a trophy.

On that same note, the hero worship of men under 30 years old who have spent the vast majority of their lives as athletes is sometimes beyond disturbing. It seems to feed into gender issues too, reinforcing the most traditional (and at this point, grossly out-of-date) stereotypes of men and women. To this day, critiquing a player or team can draw profoundly offensive language from the mouths of otherwise kind and intelligent men.

All this, both pro and con, probably sounds fairly familiar to any US sports fan too. It just took me a trek into serious football territory to really pick up on it as a non-sports fan. The best part though, is that the negatives show some potential to dissolve in the next few decades, hopefully leaving behind only the very best of a very old tradition.

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