Having steadily fallen deeper in love with soccer, one American futbol fanatic promised himself he'd go to South Africa for the World Cup. Then something came up...
Author Josh Dean Illustration Barry Blitt
I’D IMAGINED PLENTY of scenarios over the years in which I might find myself on page one of The New York Times. As a kid, it seemed likely that I’d go pro in any number of sports, if not also join the CIA and overthrow dictators in the summer. As an adult, and a journalist, I’d have settled for a byline.
But I certainly never imagined it like this.
I was walking down the street in Cologne, Germany, one steamy morning in June 2006, when my cell phone rang. It was a friend, calling from the U.S. “Were you at the U.S.-Czech game yesterday?” he asked, meaning the opening match of the 2006 World Cup for the national teams of the United States and the Czech Republic.
Yes, I said.
“Were you wearing an American flag?” he asked.
Yes, I answered, sheepishly this time. Uh-oh.
“I’m pretty sure you’re on the cover of The New York Times.”
Indeed I was. I found the photo a few minutes later in an internet café full of sweaty backpackers. There, on the home page of the Times website, was what seemed to be an unnecessarily gigantic photo of a clutch of American soccer fans looking utterly demoralized in the seconds after the Czech Republic scored a goal to go up 3-0 and dash America’s World Cup dream barely an hour after it had begun. And in that clutch, nearly in the center (not the focus of the photo—that would be a young girl with her face painted, standing up, mouth agape), prominently pictured, was me, in a U.S. jersey, wearing the stars and stripes as a cape.
I called my girlfriend to confirm that this photo wasn’t just on the website, that it had also appeared in full color, above the fold, on A1 of one of the world’s most famous newspapers. I believe her exact words were: “Oh my god.” And then: “Are you seriously wearing the American flag as a cape? What a dork.”
She had a point. But such is the magic of the World Cup that it elicits in rational humans (or, at least, usually rational humans) a passion they wouldn’t normally express in public. I am a devoted fan of many sports teams. I have gnawed sofa cushions and punched walls over the New York Mets and hugged strangers and sung “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in the streets after West Virginia University football games. But nothing brings out such irrational fervor as the World Cup—and my team isn’t even that good. It hardly matters. No sporting occasion comes close to this once-every-four-years bacchanal of athletic fanaticism and patriotic fervor. Equal parts sport and celebration, it unites nations and puts wars on hold.
Volumes have been written about the geopolitical significance of the cup, of the metaphors observed when countries face off on the pitch (that’s soccer for “field”). Countries around the world quite literally stop in their tracks as nearly every citizen of the 32 nations participating—plus a huge percentage of those that aren’t—stops to watch the game and share in a kind of global adoration for the world’s most popular sport (with the huge exception of the U.S., where it gets about as much respect as jai alai).
Over the 10 days I spent in Germany, I rarely passed a home, restaurant or bar that didn’t have its TV tuned to soccer. Bakeries, cafés and clothing boutiques had flat-screens wedged into their shop windows, and owners, employees and patrons could be found gathered in the streets out front as commerce ground to a halt.
Watching the 2006 tournament in Europe might have been my most intense World Cup experience, but it was hardly my first. When the Cup came to the U.S. in 1994, I was an intern working for a suburban paper in Washington, D.C. One afternoon, I went out to RFK Stadium and saw a Saudi player nicknamed the Desert Pelé score the Cup’s most fantastic goal in a stadium full of orange-clad Holland fans, who left happy when the Netherlands won anyway. I watched the U.S. shock the world and beat Colombia from an Irish pub on Capitol Hill and ducked out of a family reunion in North Carolina to see Brazil top Italy in penalty kicks.
The 1998 edition was in France and was a debacle for the U.S. But I was up with the sun every morning, watching as our national team barely showed up, losing three times in three games, including a humiliating loss to Iran.
In 2002, Korea and Japan cohosted, meaning that I had to rise at 4 a.m. to watch games before stumbling off to work. That was just fine, as the U.S. had its most impressive showing yet, advancing to the quarterfinals. I caught the first half of the team’s final match on the radio on a bus in the Italian countryside during a business trip; I sprinted into a village bar for most of the second half, in time to see the U.S. outplay, and nearly beat, Germany, the eventual runner-up. I don’t speak Italian and had no idea what the announcers were saying during the postgame recap, but the back-pats from the Italians around me told me that everyone was impressed with America’s showing. Now that was something.
But it was on the streets of Cologne that I really fell in love. It hardly mattered who was playing. We chugged beers with Swedes in a tent city outside the Sweden-England match, chanted alongside hundreds of Angolans in an open-air bar lit only by a large screen showing that country’s match with Portugal (its former colonizer, by the way) and climbed lightposts alongside lager-sodden locals in the early hours of the morning after Germany scored in the last minute to beat its neighbor and longtime rival Poland.
Flying home, I promised myself that I’d never miss another Cup.
AND I MEANT IT. I fully expected to be in South Africa for the World Cup this month until something slightly more important popped up: my first child.
At least the boy had the decency to schedule his arrival for late April, a good month before the U.S.’s first game—a titanic opener versus England—meaning that I’ve got 40 or 50 days to adapt to sleeplessness and accumulate enough diaper changing points to sneak out to pubs for mid-afternoon matches.
The World Cup bounces on to Brazil in 2014, and this time I mean it: I’ll be there, maybe even with a new conscript in Sam’s Army, as the U.S. team supporters are known. My son will be four, which is plenty old enough to travel, plenty old enough to love the game, and plenty old enough to chant Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole! in tune.
I mean, seriously, no one’s going to laugh at a four-year-old in a cape.
Brooklyn-based writer JOSH DEAN is currently shopping for a flag large enough to wear as a sarong.
Soccer may not be huge in the U.S., but Americans are buying more tickets to this World Cup than people from any country except the host.
TICKET SALES, BY NATION:
1. South Africa
2. United States
3. United Kingdom