Sunday, July 11, 2010

It’s Only the Most Popular Sport in the World

Take a poll. What is the most popular sport in the entire world? Ask that question to a provincial American and you might get “baseball” as the answer. Ask that question to nearly anyone else in the world and you get as the answer “football.” Or maybe “futbol.”

And even then your average provincial American will have, in his mind’s eye, visions of “first and goal” and “roughing the kicker.” Because in America, football is . . . well . . . football and soccer is soccer. But to the rest of the world, soccer is football and football is the most popular sport in the world.

And the equivalent to the World Series, the Superbowl and the NBA Finals all rolled up into one event that is held once every four years is taking place today: The World Cup Finals.

Over the years, soccer and the World Cup has given us cultural icons such as Pele, and now a cultural irritation called the vuvuzela. And it has also now given us Paul the psychic octopus.

As for myself, yes I have played soccer. It was one of the “foreign” sports activities that we had to learn about and play in junior high school. And as a parent, I assumed the rank of parents lined up along the sidelines shouting encouragements at our Peles-to-be all the while completely unconsciously making kicking motions with our feet.

And then there was my one encounter with a World Cup Final. In Paris. 1998.

True to form, when I arranged my family’s tour of Europe all those years ago I was completely ignorant of the fact that 1998 was a World Cup year, let alone the fact that it was to be held in France that year. Completely ignorant of the fact that the day after we arrived in Paris the World Cup Final was to be played at the Parc de Princes in Paris between France and Brazil.

I received a quick education, as did my children, when walking down the Champs-Élysées, we encountered a young man wearing only a thong and painted from head to toe in red, white and blue (or as they say in France, bleu, blanc et rouge).

Things quickly devolved from there, but let’s move on.

In Paris, in July, the sun sets around 10 PM so we lost all track of time, and only sought a place to eat dinner after realizing we were all famished. We found a restaurant that looked open, but no one was eating there. Everyone, it turned out, was in the bar watching the World Cup Final. The hostess assured us, though, that dinner was available so we sat alone in the dining room watching as the staff rotated between us and the bar.

The upside is that we made the acquaintance of everyone who worked tables in the restaurant, and got news flashes, in French, about the ensuing action on TV.

“C’est tres chaud, tres chaud,” is one observation that I recall, news to me that the French and Americans had the same concept of “hot” when it came to expressions of excitement.

Then when France, the home team, beat Brazil, the winners of the 1994 World Cup by 3 to zip, the whole place came unglued. A million souls spilled into the Champs-Élysées. Celebration continued into the wee hours as you can see from this photo taken from my hotel window at 2 AM.

So yes, I have my TV tuned to the match of matches and will watch it all. But watching it on television is nothing, I can assure you, compared to having a meal in an empty Parisian restaurant on July 12th 1998.

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