There are certain things in life that have to be experienced to fully understand and appreciate the beauty of life which is all too often ignored or not understood. For me, there are those instances where a glass of wine is so complex that I think about it hours after tasting. Some meals are so perfect that with every bite I am filled with a vortex of joy at the culinary perfection with sadness knowing that very soon the meal would conclude. For others, it can be the elation of finding the perfect trail to hike and enjoy nature. Still, there is one thing in the United States that as a society cannot fully understand until we experience.
For whatever reason, people in the United States seemingly have a mental block when it comes to soccer. Yes, we watch our national teams compete in the World Cup. However, we are not the die-hard fans that other national teams see all over the world. While this is not news to most people, it should come as a shock. There are few nations on the planet that possess the same nationalistic zeal as what is found across the United States. Three years ago I wrote about why people in the United States should care about the world’s game. While there has been a sharp rise in the popularity of the sport since then, including the recent match between Portugal and USA drawing more than 18 million viewers, there is no shadow of a doubt that we have a lot to learn about cheering for our national teams.
Seeing as I “cut the cable” by no longer subscribing to satellite or cable television, watching US soccer matches during their qualification run relied mostly on going to local bars. Arriving in my 2010 world cup alternate jersey, people look at me as if I had a third eye, though that is not because I am wearing an old kit. Instead, people look at me wondering why I care enough to be seen in public wearing soccer clothing. While I live in Northern Virginia, an area where soccer is widely appreciated, I am always amazed at how few people ever show up to any local bar to actually watch the US play. Yes, some people who happen to be there might glance at the screen every once and a while. However, soccer viewing in the US appears largely as a private affair.
On June 24th, 2014, I happened to be in Freiburg, Germany. The family I stayed with lives about a fifteen minute walk to the largest brewery in Freiburg, Ganter. The facilities also include a Biergarten, or “Beer Garden.” For those of you who have never had the fortune to go to one, understand that it is a communal facility. Ganter’s has a small playground for young children, a runway which looks like it is used for playing games like Bocce, and dozens upon dozens of picnic tables. People may bring their own food to eat and many people have a picnic on the grounds, though they ask that patrons do not bring in outside beverages. They do have a small kitchen which prepares an assortment of delicious German foods. And obviously, they have their beer brewed on the grounds.
By the time 4:00pm rolled around, I was done working for the day. I arrived at my host family’s house and took a brief nap after checking my email. During the nearly two hours I was there, no one from my host showed up. So, I was not going to waste my evening sitting in my room with nothing to do. I checked the World Cup schedule and noticed that the Italy versus Uruguay match was going to start very soon. I decided that it would be an interesting cultural experience to head to Ganter and see a public viewing. What I witnessed made me realize a terrible flaw in our country: we lack a sense of community.
As people began to slowly fill the space in Ganter, there were plenty of people who entered by themselves, in pairs, or in groups but only to be seated at larges tables en masse. With the exception of one couple wearing Italy gear, the Germans really did not care who would win but rather wanted a quality match. They Germans surrounding me cheered with every great play and gave collective sighs and groans of frustration when shots narrowly missed a goal. There was one moment where Italian captain Mario Balotelli received a yellow card for trying to jump over an Uruguayan player’s head (who was standing by the way) only to knee the player in the back of the head. The entire place erupted in laughter. The same thing happened late in the match when Luis Suarez was caught pulling a more subtle version of the Mike Tyson by biting an Italian’s shoulder.
With the rather crowded beer garden, I intentionally chose one of the worst seats right behind a support pole for a tent in part because I knew the Germans appreciated watching the match more than me but also to observe my environment. For the first half, I sat alone at my table. During half time, a man who was probably in his 60s who did not speak a word of English, carrying a bratwurst in one hand and a beer in the other, asked if he could have a seat opposite of me. I was happy to oblige. He largely kept quiet for most of the match until the non-call on Suarez biting a player. He then went on a brief rant to me about how he could not understand how it was possible for cameras to be on players at all times and for some to still do stupid and cheap actions. For the remaining ten minutes of the match, I had a new friend. He soon realized that my German was nicht so gut and proceeded to slow down when talking to me while incorporating hand motions to assist in my understanding.
Reflecting back on my experience caused me to examine how it was possible for Germans to be more excited about a match where they are impartial viewers than Americans are as our team competes, and saying that Germans care more about soccer barely scratches the surface. For the Germans, as I suspect for people across the world (particularly Europe, Africa, and Latin America), soccer is not solely about the game. It is not about the incredible saves or ethereal strikes. It is not even about the winners and losers, though winning does bring about jubilation. For the Germans, watching soccer is very much a community event. As people from all walks of life in Freiburg descended onto Ganter, this became also a religious affair, or at the very least how religion has been an integral part of communities throughout history. The people around me did not watch every touch of the ball. Much of the time, they talked to those people around them. This match was not about the winners and losers. It was about how the beautiful game was intended: as a community with warm smiles and cold beer.
As our national teams faces Belgium on Tuesday, perhaps you can take two hours out of your busy schedule and join the community as we cheer on Dempsey, Howard, Bradley, and the rest of those who represent our nation on the world’s biggest stage.