Four years ago. Cement and humidity. Rattling bus ride, stomach-sick and backpack-heavy, up and over, along the coast and back in again. Everything laced in car exhaust and heat, the smoke off cooking meat, the horn blows of “Hips Don’t Lie”—and the crackle of television sets, shoulders hunched around the static glow.
I’ll admit that I didn’t really know what the World Cup was before the last one. Cause I’m American and we’re generally not aware of things outside our own culture (as captured by this Simpsons episode). But four years ago, I got a crash course: I was traveling during the entire duration of the World Cup. I didn’t know shit about the game, and kindly fellow travelers tried repeatedly to educate me, but it was pretty much a loss. What got to me, though, was the way the World Cup consumed the places I was in, and completely took over daily life.
It started slowly. During the first rounds, just a couple dudes holed up in the kitchen of the youth hostel on drizzly Bogota afternoons. They made a list of all participating countries, along with offensive, politically incorrect nicknames they invented with their apparent oddles of free time (the only one I can remember is “Portugal: Little Brazil”).
As I snaked through the murderous mountains, bus break downs and military checkpoints, the intensity of the World Cup gathered speed. By the time I got to the sweltering, smoggy Caribbean coast, it was in full swing: TVs pulled out onto the Santa Marta street corners, men on folding cars, kids crosslegged, staring transfixed. Colombia wasn’t even in the games. It didn’t seem to matter.
I’ve heard reasons for why soccer isn’t big in the US, and why football (American football) is—basically, that football is tailor-made for commercial breaks and thus commercialization, while soccer’s lengthy sets make it untelevisable, in the American sense. It seemed like a plausible explanation. “I must say, it’s rather nice,” the British girl told me, leaning in and soft-voiced, “to have this one huge thing that America isn’t really a part of.”
I was in Merida, Venezuela for the final game. It was like Super Bowl Sunday times ten—you couldn’t really do anything else but watch the game. So I hung out at my hostel and pretended to follow along.
We went out for a walk after the end of the game, to survey the goings on. The city was transformed into a Venezuelan sideshow: a choke of traffic, horns and revving engines, kids hanging entire torsos out of the windows of moving vehicles, everyone chanting: “Italia! Italia!” I could only imagine what it must have been like in Italy.
The energy of it, the global ecstatic energy, felt like an addictive, consuming and altogether foreign thing. Was this what was going on while Americans were busy tailgating and spending $6 for a Budweiser? The raw emotion of it reminded me of a Sherman Alexie poem I’d read years ago:
On TV, more soccer riots in Europe.
There would be riots in American stadiums
during our particular games
if the people who had reason to riot
could pay the price for admission.
Like anything, like any time you travel and are surrounded by some awesome and immersive cultural force, you want to feel a part of it. But there’s always that little twinge, that hint, a prickle in the back of your neck, that you’re separate, somehow apart from—that you don’t really understand, not deeply enough, and that you’ll always be a little on the outside.
Do you ever play that game with yourself?—“the next time this happens, I wonder where I’ll be.” Four years older, but not where I supposed: still in the US, still waiting tables, still scraping money together here and there for little trips. Not the life I expected, or the one I even wanted, but the one I’ve ended up in: arrived in, disoriented and unsure, a noisy bus station on the smog-choked side of town.
So I didn’t join in the fuss this time around. I didn’t watch the games or pretend to follow along, didn’t ride the train out to Civic Center on Sunday to sit on the grass and squint at a big projection screen. I didn’t tweet my predictions or try to seem more international than I was really was by feigning interest (ahem, covered quite nicely here).
I let it pass quietly, peripherally—like a party going on in the apartment downstairs, when you look around the dim light of your bedroom and sigh. You put in some ear plugs and let the noise fade, feeling the foam expand as you fall asleep. In the morning, life returns to normal, and you try not to think about where you’ll be for the next one, in another four years.