Wednesday, 16 June 2010

One World Cup: Different in Every Country

The World Cup is well and truly underway, with each team having played at least one game now.

So what have I learned from the opening week of games? Mainly, its that, how you perceive the tournament comes down – in part at least – to which country you’re from.

With Australia stumbling at its first hurdle, it seems there’s plenty of people back home who couldn’t wait to pull out the “I told you so” or “we’re not a Soccer nation anyway” articles. People that are basically revelling in Australia’s struggle. I mentioned in last week’s article that many Australians have a very regional attitude towards sport, and seem happy that they can write off the Socceroos and get back to their usual routine.

German fans celebrate the first of 4 goals against Australia

That’s not to say that all Australians have given up on our boys though. Plenty of Australians are embracing our national team, and the cup as a whole – getting up at all hours of the morning to watch with the rest of the world – showing the sport is alive and well in Australia. There’s even people out there providing advice on how to get some sneaky sleep at work, so you don’t have to make the decision between sleep and the World Cup.

Australia’s reaction to a poor start is certainly different from other countries though. England got off to a less than ideal start, thanks in large part to a horrible fumble by their keeper, with a 1-1 draw against the USA.

Despite the obvious disappointment, English fans are still convinced their team can (and in many cases, will) win the World Cup. There’s no jumping off the bandwagon. They’ll remain behind their team (except maybe Green) 100% until such time as they win the Cup or are officially eliminated, unlike Australian fans who seem to be trying to softening a potential future blow by lessening their expectations.

This is all part of English football though. They genuinely feel as though they are the greatest football nation on earth, despite not winning the cup since 1966. To them, this is their game and the World Cup belongs in England.

Whether you believe it or not, its hard not to admire their commitment. I watched the England-USA game in a bar full of English fans on Friday, and the lead up to the match took me back to the last World Cup, in 2006, when I was living in the UK. The camp pop songs that come out every four years as the English fans feel that this time they’ll win, and the commentators who indulge the nation’s belief that it is indeed their time.

I should point out that, while I was in the UK for the 2006 World Cup, it was not England – it was Scotland. And they’ve got an altogether different way of watching the Cup, and they’re not terribly keen on their cousins to the south. Some might say with good reason. During the coverage of England’s opening game in ’06 (the Scots receive the same telecast as the English) the commentary team actually had a discussion on “who we can expect to play in the final”. The crowded bar in Edinburgh didn’t react so well to that.

The Scots haven’t made the tournament since 1998, but that’s not to say they don’t have a team. It just changes from game to game – whomever is playing against England.

This World Cup, however, I’m in Canada, not in a traditional “football country”, and it does show somewhat. While Vancouver, with its many immigrants and tourists is embracing seems to be embracing the event with its many sports bars opening up early for the games, it seems a lot like back in Australia where you can see most of the locals would prefer to be talking about something else – in Canada’s case, that being hockey.

I’ll be watching much of the knockout games from the US, which similarly isn’t known as a football nation. Its easy to forget though, that the US has around 20 million registered football players, which is more people than live in many of the World Cup nations. Still, it seems, similar to Australia, many are simply taking an interest while the expectations of their own team is high. The added bonus for the Americans is a chance to gloat about their 1-1 draw with the English. I’m sure once the US are eliminated, most US sports fans will happily get back to ignoring the cup, and watching the baseball.

Of course, some countries and their fans are happy just to be there. The host nation, South Africa provided one of the best moments of the tournament to date, by tying their opening game 1-1. While the World Cup is unlikely to end the way the last major tournament in South Africa – the 1995 Rugby World Cup – did the event gives a country that is still quite divided another chance to come together.

Another country for whom the World Cup may mean something more than just football, is that of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea). Little was known about their team coming into the tournament, and yet much has been written about their first Cup finals since 1966. Much of it has to do with politics rather than football, with stories about their leader, Kim Jong-il not allowing games to be televised unless the team won, and an attempt to sneak an extra striker into the squad in place of a keeper.

It is hard to know exactly how the events are being viewed in North Korea. Do they expect to win the cup?
Some people aren’t happy with North Korea being at the cup, having been labelled as an “enemy” due to their weapons programs. Others, however, see this as another chance for sport to do what diplomacy often cant, and help open up the communist nation to the rest of the world.

Whatever the case, North Korea has supplied the best “David V Goliath” moment of the cup so far, when they played well above the expectations of everyone, and ran Brazil within a goal of dropping points.

For many though, the World Cup is a chance to party. And for my mind it’s a good one. To be in South Africa right now with people from all over the globe there to celebrate at least one thing that they have in common – football – would be a dream. I got to experience that at the 2010 Winter Olympics earlier in the year in Vancouver, but its very addictive.

For the rest of us, we can get a bit of the vibe by just hitting some of the local bars during the games, and letting ourselves get carried away in the excitement.

And hey, at least there’s one thing most everyone will agree with no matter where they’re from – how annoying are those horns?

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