Once every four years we remember what it is about other countries we so enjoy: beating them at something. People with no normally-visible national spirit suddenly wear flags and stay up all night hoping for the downfall of nations they know so very little about. Countries are categorized swiftly, and on the smallest of things, using words like “rubbish” and “gritty” that are either awkward or insightful. This is the World Cup, and it’s a wonderful time.
At seven am on a Saturday there is a man running the streets of North Beach. He is clad primarily in the English flag, St. George’s Cross, and a hat of the same colors. He leaps and yells, sprints and screams, and pauses occasionally to say “Hello” to passing strangers. He poses for pictures, or at least pretends to, before dashing away. He is mad, or happy, or madly happy, and he elevates the entire neighborhood. It is seven am on a Saturday morning, and they were sleeping. The England v. USA game begins, in this time zone, at eleven, by which time he will be sweaty and flushed, and ready for the throng that greets his triumphant entrance into the pub.
“That’s not a flag he’s wearing, it’s a proper cape!” says one of the onlookers, having caught quite a glimpse on the sidewalk. Indeed it is a cape, perhaps custom-made, and the construction earns him street cred from those wearing store-bought jerseys.
Inside the bar, waiting for pints and waiting for the match, their jerseys do draw comment, a display of camaraderie and knowledge.
“Altidore, nice,” we say on seeing Jozy’s 17, or “Dempsey, looking for a goal from him today.” The US white jersey dominates, this being San Francisco and the US blue featuring a hideous bandolier-style white diagonal. The English supporters wear hats and homemade gear, though Rooney’s top-selling shirt floats around, worn by men who will be strangely quiet once the game begins. Yet in some way they will win this meeting, their language and descriptions dominating, their accents percolating through announcers to the mouths of the American fans. In the United States football may be the rest of the world’s sport, a minor thing, but the language of football is not global, it is English, in the same sense of the word as the man’s cape as he streaks by the window shouting unintelligible enthusiasm.
This is a funny time to be American, to be at home in America, for the oft-repeated notion that “Americans are starting to pay attention to football.” By “this is a funny time” I mean not this month bridging June and July in the northern hemisphere’s summer, but the World Cup. Similar statements were made in 2006, in 2002, in 1998, and in 1994, which is as far back as my memories stretch with accuracy. It is World Cup season, and we Americans are suddenly awake to the globe’s furor.
Yet we are not. In Berlin a friend tells me how as he sat watching the game last Saturday in an outdoor cafe every passer-by would stop to check the score, to ask who’d scored, or to comment on the quality of play. Grandparents, children, women with babies, people on bicycles, young friends, all wanted to know what was happening at that moment in South Africa where Australia was playing Ghana.
“It’s amazing,” he says, of being in Europe for the World Cup, “everyone cares.”
In Japan in 2002 I lived less than five miles from the stadium in Saitama, and remember most the feeling of being there. Matches were not just things to watch, but events, and the easiest way to understand was to go outside, to find a huge display, to find a crowd of cheering supporters. The streets of Tokyo were filled with crowds of cheering people sporting colors of nations they may or may not have been born in, a rare combination of accepted nationalism that fit so perfectly into the first dual-hosted World Cup.
Four years later, awake at odd hours to watch matches in Germany, a friend and I lamented our lack of foresight in being so distant. We should move every four years, even if only for the summer. It was absurd talk and a wonderful notion, forgotten in our planning after the tournament’s end.
Yet here we are, four years later, amid the greatest sporting event on the planet, he in Germany and I in San Francisco, only one of us in the proper time zone and neither of us in the correct country. With internet broadcasting, with bars that open early and fans that flash their colors regardless of their current city, we can still be caught up though, and run the streets in our flag. The crazed energy that comes from being on the streets outside the stadium, let alone at the matches themselves, can remain a goal for the future, about four years from now.