Every four years the World Cup interrupts business as usual for a month in countries that have nothing else in common. From Accra to Osaka to Ljubljana, sport’s most international event hits 90 percent of the globe with the unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament and the force of an international conflict.
You can barely feel the shockwave here in Western North Carolina, but look close and you will notice a co-worker showing up late to work or a group of Mexican guys in their green jerseys on a Saturday or the fearful gleam in the eye of a schoolboy striker.
For me, this year’s tournament is more engulfing than it’s ever been before.
For the first time, the coverage is complete. Every game live on television and the Web, wrap-up shows featuring European greats like Ruud Gullit and astute coaches like Roberto Martinez, a separate network running evening highlights and commentary.
This is the first time I have gotten to experience the event like everyone else around the world has since they were kids. Everywhere else, the games and scores and reports punctuate the day, as much for a student as a fishmonger.
I have one better on most viewers this time. My college soccer coach, Bob Bradley, is at the helm of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, quite possibly the best entry our country has ever had in the world’s biggest sports tournament.
When you have a coach like that at the age of 18, he is bound to make an impression, but Bob’s intensity was both problematic and inspiring to many of his players, myself included.
This year the World Cup takes place in South Africa, the first nation on that continent to ever host it, and a country so recently divided to its core. Add that to my personal connection to the U.S. team, and you have a recipe for fascination.
The South African people have gone to great lengths and great expense to make it a recognizably expensive tournament, but you can’t be in Africa without tasting Africa. The most superficial evidence is the ubiquitous vuvuzela, a three-foot stadium horn that the locals blow incessantly throughout games, creating an insect-like drone of deafening proportions.
There have been complaints about the vuvuzela from those who worry it will drown out Brazil’s samba crowd or the songs of the Europeans, but ultimately it’s just more evidence that when the world comes together for a party, it’s hard to control.
Brazil and Spain are the outright favorites, and the Germans and Dutch looking like contenders; then there are the tough nuts like Italy and Serbia.
In its first game the U.S. tied England in a riveting but nervy replay of the American Revolution. This time it was a draw. A good result for Bob and the boys, a group that includes his son Michael.
It could be I’m already succumbing to the optimism of the first part of the event, but maybe this year on the African continent something new will happen. Ghana will emerge from the shadows or ... or ... the United States will win and get to the last four in a game it’s still learning to play.
One thing missing here is the communal experience of watching the World Cup in a working city, where you can argue with a cabbie from Cameroon or get details of a goal from a French computer programmer ... both playing hooky.