The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Archive for June, 2008

Soccer Diplomacy

Posted by steigs on June 25, 2008

My day job is in politics.  I don’t discuss it (much) here but sometimes I do daydream about ways we can improve America’s image through the “beautiful game.”  So, a modest proposal: President Barack Obama should attend a game at the 2010 World Cup.  (Assuming, of course, that he wins the November election.)

I’ve been watching Euro 2008 and a staple of the television coverage is the cutaway shot to the celebrity and/or politician fans.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly prominent:

She has even chided German winger Bastian Schweinsteiger for being suspended for the Austria game. He said: “She told me that I shouldn’t do the same stupid things again. When Frau Chancellor says you have to do something you have to do it.”

Germans have been charmed by her enthusiasm, which with a general election expected next year, she may find useful.

If a President Obama traveled to South Africa to watch, say, a US-Ghana rematch with his Ghanian counterpart, you know that the worldwide television feed would show him every chance it got.  And the message sent would be, to paraphrase US Weekly, “Americans: they’re just like us.”  In the wake of the last few years, we need to reassure other countries that there are shared values, that the US is not simply an angry, alien land. 

Obama is already something of a continental hero in Africa — a trip to South Africa for Africa’s first World Cup would be wildly popular there and seen as a gesture of respect, much like President Bush’s plan to attend the Summer Olympics in Beijing. 

I recognize that Barack Obama is not known as a soccer fan, although the British tabloids seem to think he supports West Ham.  His love for basetball is abundant and authentic.  But he is clearly a serious sports fan and the World Cup has become a popular sporting event in the US.  As such, he might even have a great time — and having millions and millions around the world see him doing that would be worth more than most public diplomacy initiatives dreamed up around Washington can achieve.  Barack Obama has written eloquently of how America is viewed in the shantytowns around the globe.  Here’s a simple trip he could take that would bring him into all those shantytowns at once.

Oh, and for his domestic political advisors, here’s a thought:  Have a President Obama attend the next US-Mexico World Cup qualifier in 2009.  Millions of Hispanic voters will be watching!



Posted in Euros, Television, US, World Cup | 1 Comment »

The Doner-ization of Germany

Posted by steigs on June 25, 2008

Today’s Euro semi-final match-up of Germany and Turkey highlights something most Americans are unaware of — the vast Turkish immigrant population of Germany.  The post-World War II rebuilding of West Germany involved importing a lot of low-wage, low-skill “guest workers” from Turkey, many of whom put down roots and stayed.  It is a bit reminscent of the influx of Hispanics to the US.

It’s been a difficult relationship at times but the influence of Turks in Germany is undeniable.  For example, the quintessential street food of Berlin may be the doner kebab, a shaved meat sandwich.  (It’s yummy.)  It’s a bit like the way adapted Mexican food has become an American staple, a cultural infiltration through the stomach.

If you believe the New York Times, today’s game will be a friendly rivalry match:

If the most memorable symbol of Germany’s successful hosting of the World Cup in 2006 was the German flag displayed without shame or second-guessing, the motif this time around for German spectators are the twin Turkish and German flags flapping from countless car windows around the country.

“Of course my heart lies first with the German team,” said Rainer Krause, 63, a Berlin native who bought a red Turkish flag as well as a German one at a store in the heavily Turkish Neukölln neighborhood, where he works., “But over the decades the loyalties have grown together, there are such strong feelings of connection.”


Some Germans have gone so far as to switch allegiances from their home team to Turkey, a sentimental favorite of the tournament if not quite a Cinderella, considering its run to the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup. “It’s only fair,” said Rosie Lambrecht, who was out shopping for a Turkey T-shirt on Tuesday morning and who roots with her Turkish friends and neighbors in Neukölln. “They’ve never won the tournament.”

The Times says 500,000 (!) are expected in the public viewing area by the Brandenburg Gate.  Hopefully, it will go off peacefully, a sign of how sport can bring people together.

Someday, the US and Mexico may reach that stage.  For now, it’s not important enough for most Americans and, perhaps, too important for Mexican fans.  But it’s nice to imagine a re-match of the US-Mexico knock-out round game in the 2002 World Cup at, say, a 2022 World Cup with thousands of fans of both teams watching together in parks in New York and LA and DC…

Posted in Euros, Germany | Leave a Comment »

Going over to the Dark Cyde

Posted by steigs on June 23, 2008

I haven’t commented on my DC United much of late, although the team has found some form.  Too busy with the oft-pulsating Euro 2008 — sigh, the Dutch got my hopes yet again — and, sadly, with work.

But leave it to Dan Steinberg over at the Post to remind me why I love my trips to RFK:

The Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles monopolize Washington’s “Look! Soccer crazies!” media attention, and rightfully so. But if you’re always staring at their bouncing side of the park you might miss some of the team’s other vibrant supporters groups. Like, say the Dark Cyde.

That three-year-old group’s membership is a bit vague–its founder said there are about five members–but that founder more than makes up for the small numbers. He is Darth Hooligan, and he is awesome. Witness the District logo tattooed on his left arm, the red-and-black DC Shoes on his feet, the stuffed United mascot hanging from his midsection, the No. 69 “Darth Hooligan” jersey around his torso, the $10 Target light saber twitching in his hands, and the self-applied Darth Maul-inspired red-and-black paint on his face. Yesterday his hair was out, adorned by two feathers; “usually, I wear my little devil hat,” he said, as his friends gleefully displayed his red and black skull cap.

Darth Hooligan, eh?  Now that’s a mash-up of devoted fandom, indeed.  Perhaps one reason for soccer’s rising appeal in the US is the way we are still discovering/inventing our fandom.  NBA or NFL games have become very programmed, filled with piped-in music and prods.  The supporters’ groups at a United game drive the cheers, not the PA system.  The growing awareness of the international game means fans here have a better idea of what their options are.  We can pick and choose among traditions, not simply adapting styles from other American sports or — thankfully — from stereotypical British hooligans.  We’re still figuring it all out, which makes it feel more lived in.

Back to “Darth Hooligan”.  He offers an interesting take on why Darth:

“One day I was watching ‘Star Wars Episode I,’ and it just hit me, out of the blue,” he explained. “You know how Darth Maul is red and black? I’m starting my own supporters club called the Dark Cyde. Come as any villain in any movie, as long as you wear red and black.”

The choices are theoretically endless, as long as you can imagine, say, Norman Bates sporting red and black face paint. Anyhow, why villains? Darth said that United is the New England Patriots of the MLS, at once dominant and reviled league-wide, the unbeatable standard hanging over every rival club. Villainous, in other words.

Ooooh.  Embrace the bad guy, eh?  Personally, I would have thought that would have made us the Oakland Raiders of MLS but perhaps their image has fallen because of their recent losing seasons.  It’s hard to be the villain when you’re bad — at least bad in terms of winning and losing. 

There’s a certain appeal to the villain.  As a serious comic book collector in my youth, I can attest that invariably the villain is a better character than the hero.  And they almost always have more fun…at least until they get caught.  It’s an interesting exercise to contemplate adopting a villain for your soccer fan alter-ego.  Darth Maul doesn’t do it for me, which is probably partly a function of age.  The original Darth was my generation’s villain but that costume would get pretty toasty at a summer game at RFK.  Same for Doctor Doom.  Perhaps the Joker would be more my style.  (I suppose you can make him in red and black.)  Or perhaps Magneto.  He’s got a red helmet after all….

Posted in DC United | Leave a Comment »

Czeched Out

Posted by steigs on June 16, 2008

The Czech collapse against Turkey yesterday was startling, a rapid unraveling of a previously solid team.  (Wait, Petr “possibly best goalie in EPL” Cech made a crucial error?)  Credit the Turks for an impressive display of fortitude.  My wife M. says she likes to root for teams that show “can do” spirit — clearly she should be cheering on the Turks now, given that remarkable comeback plus the way they came from behind against the host Swiss in that wicked rainstorm.

This may represent the end of an era for the Czechs, who like other smaller nations with strong soccer cultures, usually need a couple of stars to lift them from the “regular qualifier” level to “dark horse threat to win it all” level.  (See also: Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria etc.)  American fans remember all too well the way we were dismantled by the Czechs at the 2006 World Cup, before the Czechs went awry at that tourney.  They’ve had a handful of world-class players in recent years but they are largely moving on — Pavel Nedved has retired from international play, giant Jan Koller will join him soon, Tomas Rosicky has injury problems and missed this tourney.  They’ve still got Cech but he wasn’t exactly helping the cause yesterday. 

This Czech side peaked at Euro 2004, where they arguably played the best soccer of any team before running into the brick wall of the Greek defense in the semi-finals.  I was lucky enough to see them beat Denmark in the quarter-finals.  What was it like?  Here’s a taste.  For more, read on after the jump.

Around minute 30, the Danes start swaying in unison.  The Czech fans, on the other hand, perhaps provoked by the Danes, begin doing one of the stranger cheers I have seen.  First, they chant “Czech-ia!” and then “Hop Hop Hop” hopping as they say it. 

As best I can gather it means “Onward, Czechs!” but the effect is as if the section beside us is getting a Ramones concert on a frequency the rest of us can’t hear and doing the pogo — either that or offering encouragement to rabbits.  “Hop!  Hop!  Hop!”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Czech, Denmark, Euros | Leave a Comment »

Washed Away on a Sea of Oranje

Posted by steigs on June 13, 2008

As I’ve expressed before, I’m a fan of the Dutch.  So their brilliant demolition of Italy was a treat to watch, perhaps even some long delayed vengenance for the painful semi-final defeat at Euro 2000.

But this BBC blog post brought back some fond memories of my trip to Euro 2004

Orange Elvises, orange mountain maids, orange bears, orange road workers, nuclear plant workers in orange radiation suits – orange variations of any kind of clothing you care to mention rolled into town and sparked a huge, huge party.

I know at some level that this what the Dutch so often do — raise our hopes with great play before losing in heartbreaking fashion, probably on penalty kicks.  But it’s always fun at first and while I’m stuck in the US for Euro 2008 it’s good to know that the Dutch fan tradition continues. 

Posted in Euros, Holland | Leave a Comment »

“I felt like killing the ref”

Posted by steigs on June 13, 2008

I think we’ve all had that homicidal feeling after a referee gives the other team a huge break.  Like, for example, a borderline penalty call in stoppage time of a crucial match

“…last night I was speaking very differently about the whole thing, I wanted to kill.  Referees make mistakes and this was an obvious error that harmed us all…”

That’s Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, on the Austria-Poland game.   Brilliant political pandering to his angry constituents or a reckless stirring up of passions?  You make the call. 

Posted in Euros | Leave a Comment »

Riding the Pink Train

Posted by steigs on June 6, 2008

Euro 2008 kicks off tomorrow.  Alas, I won’t be there.  I haven’t managed to arrange my life so that I can jaunt off to the tourney for a week like I pulled off in 2004.  But awhile back I did catch a game at the stadium that will host the final in Vienna on June 29th:

I’ve gotten to soccer games in a variety of ways — subways, driving my car, the bus, hiking up a hill.  This, I conclude, is undoubtedly the coolest.  M. and I are riding a mini-train — the “liliputbahn” — to the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna.  And, to make it even better, the train is pink. 


We are bound for an important Austria Wien game — Wien being German for Vienna — against Olympique de Marseille.  It is the first leg of a two-game playoff for a slot in the lucrative Champions League group stage.  The kid-sized train is rolling along through the Prater park, packed with men chugging beers and reliving their childhoods.  Woo-woo! 

Want to hear more about that, along with a quick trip through Austrian soccer history?  (Really, they used to be good, despite the current national team being so pathetic as to generate a petition to withdraw them from Euro 2008 to avoid embarrassment.)  Read on! Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Champions League, Euros | Leave a Comment »

The Euro 2008 Beer Finals

Posted by steigs on June 6, 2008

The Guardian comes through for us, on this “Euro 2008 eve.”  Let’s play Euro 2008 through a tasting competition with a national beer for each representative!  For example, the Dutch choice:

Grolsch Weizen, 5.3%
This widely revered wheat beer, from the same stable as the iconic swing-top, is bursting with lovely flavours. But, as always with the Dutch, much depends on whether they get along in the glass.

The early favorites are obvious — Germany, Czech Republic, etc.  For example, Pilsner Urquell’s early triumph:

Czech Republic: Breezed through the group stages with its sturdy malt base, brusque hop bitterness and a mouth-feel as velvety as the revolution.

Alas, Belgium didn’t qualify for Euro 2008 else, as one commenter notes, they’d be overwhelming favorites.  (Perhaps Belgium is the Brazil of beer!) 

The winner is slightly surprising.  I won’t spoil it for you — click the link to find out.  In the meantime, I sense a theme for the next few weeks of soccer watching…

Posted in Czech, Euros, Germany, Holland | Leave a Comment »