On July 3, 2010, I watched the Spain-Paraguay World Cup quarterfinal with a distant relative by marriage. We were friendly but not friends; we just happened to be staying at the same summer place for the weekend, and both of us were more interested in the game than watching our family members silently judge each other by the pool. So we watched it together.
My viewing companion was a mild-mannered fellow, generally a buttoned-up guy who loved playing tennis at the nearby club and cooking big, complicated, delicious meals for everyone in the house. He was some sort of scientist, with all kinds of Ph.Ds in things I didn't understand, but he was socially deft, adept at traversing and navigating the perpetual minefield you encounter when you've just married into a new family, like both of us recently had. Everyone liked him. So did I.
He was also from Spain. I wasn't sure where exactly from Spain he was from. I figured it would come up during the game.
It did not. About 10 minutes before the game began, I came in from outside and asked if he needed me to grab him a beer from the fridge. He was already on the couch. He didn't look up. "Already have three, thanks," he said, as if he were answering a question from half an hour ago. He bobbed back and forth on the couch, frantic but focused, an infantryman on a Higgins boat, vomiting off the side but ready to fight. I sat down next to him, cautiously. He barely seemed to notice.
"Paraguay, man … these South American countries," he began, a crazy look in his eyes I'd somehow never noticed before. "They have such a problem with Spain. They all wish they were Spain." The broadcast introduced the referee, a man named Carlos Batres. They always make sure everybody knows the nationality of the referees in soccer. Batres is from Guatemala. "Bah, Guatemala!" he snarled. "Another Central American country that hates Spain. This match is going to fixed. It's bulls---. They want to f--k Spain!" The telecast showed Batres. My friend extended his middle finger to the screen. "You want to be Spain," he screamed. "BUT YOU WILL NEVER BE SPAIN!"
It went on like this for two hours, and it was awesome. When David Villa scored in the 83rd minute, we both leapt up, punched the air, embraced and then sprinted around the room whistling and dancing. (I'm pretty sure we broke a plate that we never told our hosts about.) Spain ended up winning the game 1-0. Thank God.
We all went out to dinner afterward. It was pretty normal and uneventful.
* * *
Life is a search for connections. We come into this world searching for other people like us, and we never really stop. As a collective, we secure these connections through neighborhoods, through cities, through tribes, through nations. And these connections, they last forever, whether they make sense or not.
We travel all around this planet, but we're never more bonded with those who are from where we are from. I may have nothing in common with a person, but if they grew up in the same hometown as me, we have an instant understanding of each other even if we haven't spoken in 30 years … even if we don't even like each other. We can talk all we want about a globalized society, about technology turning us all into collective citizens of the world, but that has always seemed more true in theory rather than in practice. In real life, we search out our own. Where we are from gives us an alignment, a direction, one to head toward, or one to sprint screaming away from. It centers us.
It can also isolate us. This happens a lot to us as Americans: We are so separate from the rest of the world -- culturally, geographically, temperamentally -- that we think the exceptionalism that's part of our national character actually makes us exceptions. (And it can make us pretty stupid too.) Every country is inherently self-obsessed because humans are inherently self-obsessed. The trick is not getting lost in it.
Of all the glories of the World Cup, I think the greatest one is an outlet for this nationalism. It gives us an opportunity, every four years, when there are no strings attached to everyone thinking they're the best in the world and allowing no arguments to the contrary. (The Olympics do this as well, but I'd argue at a lesser intensity.) It is a place to channel all that's negative, all the ugliness that comes with this tribalism, and point it in one specific direction. It is a place to be proud of who you are and where you came from … even if it's not always something to be so proud of. I love America. I am ashamed of many things that America does, but there is no other country in the world I would rather live. This is a complex concept, one that will be debated and wrestled with for centuries left to come. But for two hours on Monday, none of that will matter. I will just believe that we will win.
This has always been the fundamental greatness of sports, the reason they're so enduring and powerful: They turn a world of grey into one of black and white. If my team wins, I am happy, and if they lose, I am sad. Nothing in life is that simple but sports. Now, obviously, the world of sports is not exempt from politics: The exact opposite, in fact. But for two hours, that can be stowed. It is important to remember more difficult things when those two hours are over. But putting all that away during the game isn't just acceptable: It is the point. It is the only sane response to a world of chaos.
On Thursday, Brazil kicks off the 2014 World Cup against Croatia. Brazil, for all the justified anger about the World Cup's cost to the country, will stop what it is doing and watch the game. Zagreb, the largest city in Croatia, is basically shutting down basic civic services during the match for a massive party. Every nation will do this. (Even ours.) They are their own individual collectives, all with this collective in common. In our isolation and our tribalism, we are all, ultimately, just like everyone else. It is the reason the World Cup is the greatest sporting event on Earth. It bonds us to our homes, and to the rest of the world.
They all want to be (America) … BUT THEY WILL NEVER BE (AMERICA).
Insert your own country accordingly.