On June 12, I left the United States in a time-limited effort to see how the world watches the World Cup, the event which supposedly unites us all. It would be impossible to provide a complete picture of this, but I learned as much as time and logistics allowed. Over the last three weeks, I saw Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Ghana, Germany, Netherlands and France play, watching along with their respective countrymen, plus any number of scattered games with a random expat or two.
Based on that experience, here are a few sweeping generalities:
South Americans care way more about the World Cup than Europeans, embedding it into their daily routine on a different scale than anywhere else in the world. African nations invest more of themselves into the tournament, however, both economically and emotionally.
The idea of soccer as sociopolitical statement is now mostly folklore; almost everyone cares about winning because winning feels great, not because they want to shove it to some former colonial power or current military antagonist. However, many people are becoming aware of globalization's creeping influence on the soccer world and want their national teams to reaffirm their individuality. South Americans want to win playing like South America, and Africa wants to win playing like Africa.
If people like underdogs, then America is not an underdog. Regarding their team's chances: Everyone is hopeful and nobody is confident. Far more people enjoy complaining about their national team than they like watching it. It is pronounced "selfie" in every single language. Almost every non-American regards U.S. soccer fans with an odd fascination bordering on the absurd. They think our constant militaristic references and nationalism lie somewhere between shameful and ignorant.
* * *
In Mexico City, my taxi driver tells me he has to work during the Mexico-Cameroon match. When I ask him how he will keep up with the game, he shows me a portable, AC-powered TV with a small antenna, just below the center console.
* * *
Some 39,000 feet over Brazil, I sit next to a Costa Rican as she receives match updates from air traffic control, as told to the pilot and relayed through the flight attendant. As we float above the host nation in a fog of ignorance with the game playing out below, we pass the nervous time by telling soccer stories. She keeps checking her watch to see when the game is over.
A few minutes after, the flight attendant walks by, holds up three fingers on one hand and one finger on the other, then breaks her stoic expression with a smile so wide the plane could glide on it. The woman next to me smiles just as broadly, repeatedly asking, "We won? We won?!" The flight attendant doesn't say anything; she just keeps smiling. The woman claps three times and, even though I can tell she doesn't want to, starts to cry just a little bit.
* * *
An Argentinian man sits quietly for the entire match, barely emoting when Messi scores the first of his World Cup golazos. When the final whistle blows, he stands next to the cafe bar and plays a song on his trumpet. After a few renditions, he moves outside where a crowd has gathered. The people form a circle, and friends shove each other into the middle. A toddler wearing a Messi kit stomps to the beat.
* * *
I run from the plane to the nearest TV and arrive not a moment too soon; Clint Dempsey waits for no one. I'm being observed by hundreds of travelers as if I'm on a nature show. From the way my celebration echoes in the Santiago de Chile airport, I'm the only American here. The Chilean government has opted not to provide a public viewing for Chile-Spain. The match starts at 3 p.m., and they don't want to encourage people to leave work. Their logic is flawed.
* * *
The Bogota airport security checkpoint has the closing minutes of the Colombia match on the radio. Colombia is winning. The security team collectively sighs with every successful clearance. The match ends and they hug. The metal detector beeps as I pass, but the guard either doesn't hear it or doesn't care. All of the airport employees wear Colombia kits, running and hugging each other in jubilation. Ten hours later, I will be in Madrid, and nobody will be wearing Spain kits. They were eliminated the previous day.
* * *
A small, dimly lit restaurant in Ghana offers the only combination of food and soccer I can find. The ocean breeze wafting around is the only thing preventing the humans from sweating more than the beers. Cameroon is playing Brazil, so nobody is rooting for Brazil. The four people inside are still talking about the Ghana-Germany match two days before. They wish Ghana would play that fearlessly all the time. An emaciated cat hunts for scraps, begging in front of anyone eating. Everyone is a little sloppy with their rice.
"He did what?" asks the Ghanaian man dining next to me, as I learn of what Luis Suarez did. Three days later in Germany, people seem more interested in Suarez's suspension than the USA-Germany match. Two days afterwards in Amsterdam, cafes bustle with frantic waitresses, fresh coffee and stale Suarez jokes.
* * *
All of Holland is glued to a television except for one woman. She's holding a bright red rose and walks with the swiftness of a houseplant. "Is Holland playing?" Yes, I tell her. "Who are they playing?" Mexico. "Are they winning?" No, Mexico is leading by a goal. "Oh, dear." As quickly as she came, she fades out of sight 20 minutes later, by which point Holland is winning.
* * *
I'm downwind from three chain-smoking Frenchmen, outside a bar in Strasbourg called Zanzibar. The street is narrow, cobblestoned and shaded by aged Alsatian houses. A man gets up, middle-aged with gray hair and unkempt handlebar mustache. His voice is raw with decades of smoke inhalation but smoothed over by the French language. He asks me if I want a beer in passable English, a rarity for the region. "I bring you big beer, it is 'appy 'our," he says with a grin. He returns with my big beer and sits back down with his friends, his beer and his cigarettes. He laughs a lot, a hearty guffaw that comes from somewhere inside where nobody can see. After a few minutes, he looks at me and winks the kind of earnest, classical wink that might have ended a prewar cartoon. France plays Germany tomorrow. "I 'ope to see you again," he says when I pay my tab. I wish I could come back for the game, but Zanzibar doesn't have a TV.
* * *
FIFA wants us to believe the World Cup provides some inherent humanitarian good, uniting the entire world. There's little debate that this World Cup final will be the most-watched event in human history, due to the unceasing growth of the world's game and unprecedented viewing access to it. (This is even more astounding considering that the world's two most populous countries, representing roughly one-third of the world's people, aren't even involved.) But just because so many people watch the same thing at the same time doesn't mean they're united.
FIFA wants us to believe in "soccer diplomacy." In the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Iran, the players shook hands prior to the match and, well, nobody died. After the game, U.S. defender Jeff Agoos offered this legendary sound bite: "We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years." But even this case is laden with caveats. Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei had instructed his team not to walk towards the Americans to shake hands, defying standard protocol and making every Belichick-Mangini handshake debate trite by comparison. To resolve this, the Americans had to agree to walk towards the Iranians, or else there would have been no pregame handshake.
Believe it or not, it is upon this concession -- that the Americans would walk towards the Iranians and not vice versa -- that much of the thesis of soccer diplomacy ultimately rests. At the same time, a terrorist organization had purchased 7,000 tickets to the game and planned massive protests or worse. The TV cameras refused to show the banners they displayed and drowned out their chants with ambient noise -- another "victory" for soccer diplomacy.
Just as often, the World Cup has been a transparent Band-Aid over ghastly sociopolitical wounds, such as the 1978 World Cup, where Argentine political prisoners could hear the roar of the crowd from their cells -- or basically everything about Qatar 2022. There are any number of renowned books that argue this general point: Soccer occasionally heals wounds, but more often than not it douses them in salt.
For every assertion I can make about the way the world watches the World Cup, there are millions of exceptions. It's impossible to make culturally relevant observations about the World Cup -- or anything that involves 3.2 billion people -- with total clarity. But if we need a soccer tournament to remind us that the world is smaller than it seems, then the World Cup can only accomplish so much.
Instead, the World Cup is the taxi driver, the cafe owner, the child, the customer and the musician. The ball is controlled by one player at a time, and each person watches in his or her own way. The World Cup's power rests not in the big, amorphous blobs of humanity watching in large squares, but in each individual experience masquerading as a global one. It is a beautiful lie.