Friday, July 7, 2006

It's time to watch Sunday night's football

Express Staff Writer

In the past five weeks I have done the following: Sat in a chilly basement while the sun shone outside. Joined a group of 15-year-old boys at Lefty's bar. Jumped up and down on my couch à la Tom Cruise. Screamed abuse at my telly. Called into a radio chat show and yelled at the imbecile hosts.

And why, you may ask, was a mild-mannered English lass indulging in these out of character pursuits? For the love of the beautiful game: Football. (To clarify, I am referring to the football where the feet of the player and the ball actually have contact for more than five minutes of the entire game.)

Since June 9, myself along with an estimated 30 billion viewers across the planet have been glued to indisputably the biggest sporting event on the world stage, The FIFA World Cup. This Sunday marks an end to all the craziness, as Italy and France face off in the World Cup final.

While I would love to take this opportunity to indulge in a long and rambling rant regarding the trials and tribulations of this World Cup (frightful refereeing, childish stupidity from England's star player and absolutely terrible commentating by ESPN), I won't, because it's over. England are out. We played badly and we lost.

Now I must turn my support to another country. Germany had been my favorites, but I have to admit that with their demise I am now faced with a particularly difficult choice: France (the old enemy) or Italy, whose country I love, but whose football team is comprised of prancing, preening little drama queens.

But I will watch nonetheless. I will watch despite my fury over Rooney being sent off, despite my disdain for the lackluster performance of England's former captain David Beckham, and despite the ridiculous amount of unnecessary red cards and penalty kicks awarded throughout the tournament. And, from my somewhat unique trans-Atlantic position (born here, grew up there), I would like to encourage you to watch too. And to help, I will try and shed light on the question many Americans have been pondering this past month—just what exactly is all the fuss about?

To put it in a language recognizable to this country, I turn to John Hodgman, correspondent for the late-night news spoof, The Daily Show:

"(The World Cup) is the biggest sporting event on the world stage. It's like the Olympics, plus the World Series plus the birth of your first child multiplied by X, where X equals awesome."

Hodgman has hit the nail on the head, especially with the World Series analogy. Imagine a World Series that actually lives up to its name. Where America gets to pick the best players from the Yankees, Red and White Sox, Marlins and so on, and then put them on the field against the best teams from 32 other countries. And, get this, those 32 countries aren't the only ones who wanted to play. 207 nations across the globe played for two years just for the chance to qualify for the event. It makes your mouth water just thinking about it.

What is really special about the football World Cup however, and what turns ordinary citizens of the world into crazed fans, is something most Americans can relate to: patriotism.

Across the rest of the globe, flag waving, national anthem singing and professing a love for your country is close to taboo, primarily due to its jingoistic flavor. The United States is really on its own in this one. But come World Cup time, the rules change and nationalistic fever hits 32 countries full in the face.

Take Germany for instance. They are the hosts of this World Cup, reaching the semi-finals earlier this week (they lost to Italy). For Germany, passion for the World Cup has done what 60 years could not, it has broken through a nation's inhibitions about openly demonstrating national sentiment.

"Germans are identifying with their country and their national flag and I think that is great," German President Horst Koehler told Bild newspaper. "We are on the right path towards coming out as Germans, and to be proud of what we have achieved since 1945."

The World Cup is helping to heal a country. Such is the power of soccer.

So tune in this weekend and catch the World Cup final on ABC, Sunday at noon, you'll be in good company; the Queen of England and the Pope are both fans. (His Holiness delayed dinner at the Vatican to watch Argentina take penalties against his home country, Germany).

It is not just another game. It doesn't matter if you can't pick out France or Italy on a map, it's not really about France and Italy, it's about the world. And really, America could learn a thing or two from the world.

Who else will be watching

"I can't wait another four years for the next one!" Steve Nash, basketball player

"Football is not only a wonderful game that unites millions of fans around the world, it is also a modern symbol of solidarity on account of its diversity—irrespective of faith, color of skin, political commitments and affiliations, people are carried away by this beautiful, emotional and exciting spectacle." Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union

"As a nation we share a great passion for sport, and a desire to encourage participation in sporting activities, particularly amongst younger people. Nowhere is this truer than in the game of football." Queen Elizabeth II

"The World Cup makes us at the UN green with envy." Kofi Annan, UN's Secretary General

"Watching the games with people from all over the world, you come to see that football is a festival in which people express their love for their countries." Paulo Coelho, author

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