-by Brian Fobi, Armand Larive Junior High
My friend Lisa asked me why the World Cup was the best sporting event in the world. It being a very lazy afternoon, and I being in a mood for procrastination, decided to spend 15 minutes to do my best to explain it. That 15 turned into 25, and I realized that my rambling response was probably too long to stick in a comment box on Facebook. So, here it is. You’ll forgive the rough tone and approach of this diary entry, but something about the question is reminiscent of those “what did you do over summer break?” essays that we had to do in middle school. Somehow that influenced by approach to this little mini-essay.
My love of the World Cup has two components: the event itself as a sporting spectacle and my experience with it as a tourist. I’ll take the latter first (if you don’t need to be convinced to take a month off to watch soccer, feel free to jump to the end). To the uninitiated, in 2004, I decided that for the rest of my life I would go to every World Cup. My first Cup was Germany 2006. I honestly did not have high expectations because Germany is not really considered a tourist destination by most people, and renting a basement apartment in Dusseldorf for a month doesn’t really have the same ring as taking a yacht from Corsica to the Dalmatian Coast. But, it really was fantastic, and I fell in love with Germany. I’ve been back three times since, and every time it’s been great. During the 2006 World Cup, a lot my friends saw my pictures on a new website called “The Facebook,” and on the strength of that documented fun, I was able to convince 10 friends to come to South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014. Plans are already underway for our Russian Invasion 2018. I feel quite confident that my World Cup trip is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
Even if you only sort of like or tolerate soccer, you should carve it in stone that every four years you go to the World Cup. If you’re like me, you almost never take vacations. I used to go for stretches of five or sixth months where I didn’t take a day off. My rule for the World Cup is that for a month I just don’t work. Learning to relax and have confidence that everything will still be okay when I get back to the world has seeped into how I live during the other 47 months between Copas. I now have a dedicated day off every week, which can be a hard thing for an energetic person who is basically self-employed. I owe this to the fact that I recognize that taking a World Cup month every four years always fills my tank.
Second, the World Cup is a fantastic opportunity to meet people and also reconnect with friends. The motto of the 2006 World Cup was “A Time to Make Friends,” and while that is more than a bit cheesy, the fact is that I still email, text, Facebook, and talk to friends that I met in Germany, South Africa and Brazil. More importantly, I get to reconnect friends who now live far from me. Spending three weeks with college buddies is a really rare treat. Do it. Even if you have kids. Bribe grandma and get to the World Cup. They’ll be okay for a month without you.
Okay, this is the answer to the *real* question you asked. I begin by saying that, of course, the sport / sporting event that you think is the best is an entirely subjective thing. These are just my thoughts on why the World Cup is so magnificent.
For me, the first thing that you have to recognize is that soccer has the highest qualitative dynamic range of any sport. A really dreadful soccer match is about the worst thing in the world, but a fantastic one reaches highs that other games can’t match. In the World Cup, there are some real stinkers (Iran v. Bosnia zzzzz…), but the fact is that these crappy games don’t linger because you almost immediately are shown something that makes you forget. Watching Robin van Persie score a one-time header from outside the box more than pays off whatever deficit was incurred during the 0-0 snoozefest between Krapistan and West Afronesia that you watched that morning.
Then, as the tournament progresses, the knockout stage has the ability to magnify what is soccer’s greatest appeal: the power of the goal. Because goals are so rare, when they come, you get a much greater release of emotion and relief than, for example, you get when Lebron hits a late three-pointer to win. Late in the Germany-Argentina match, which was scoreless but still highly entertaining, I could see Argentine and German fans watching the game and looking like springs coiled far too tightly. There is an operatic sweep to moments like that, where every small encounter on the field can feel like it is building toward something in the same way that long stretches of Il Nozze di Figaro have lots of less majestic little songs that pull you towards the eventual emotional explosion that is the aria. In a great match, you don’t tolerate these moments as something to get through while you’re waiting for a goal; you watch them carefully because they give greater meaning, expression, detail, nuance and narrative to the (hopefully) eventual goal when it comes. This is always true in soccer, but a thousand-fold in the World Cup because the stakes are so high, the event to infrequent, and the fans’ passions so intense.
Finally, there is the matter of nationalism / patriotism. Other events, most obviously the Olympics, are also about nationalism and patriotism, but it’s also true that the USA is never going to leave an Olympic Games without a healthy haul of gold medals. The fact that some 300+ gold medals are handed out dilutes the emotional intensity of winning one (at least for the fans). There is no way that America would ever *lose* an Olympics, whatever that means, but we’ve lost every World Cup we’ve ever been in, so that when we do win it (not if, when), it’ll be a billion times more meaningful than watching Michael Phelps collect nineteen gold medals for doing the same thing in 7 different ways.
As an aside, this particular expression of nationalism isn’t really a bad thing in my view. We have our one-month hate where we curse our rivals, but for most sane people it doesn’t go much deeper than that. Brazil and Argentina, for example, have a very intense soccer rivalry, but I never saw or heard of a single Argentine who ran into any problems in Brazil or who had anything except a really fantastic time. And, I’ll talk tons of smack about the Mexican soccer team as well, but my antipathy does not extend beyond the loathsome El Tri to the people or nation of Mexico.
I have no witty conclusion, except to tell you to start saving your pennies and get yourself to Russia in four years. I am a master at getting tickets and figuring out how it’s done, so email me in two years if you want to go to the best, most fun, and coolest party on the planet. In the meantime, increase your tolerance for alcohol. You’ll need it.