Postcard from Cup Crazy Europe

No telling who you'll sit next to at game time in a Paris restaurant or a Roman piazza.

By Steve Burgess 9 Jul 2010 |

Steve Burgess writes about film, culture and, now apparently, the ambience of global sports bars for The Tyee.

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Dutch fans proud to show the flag, wherever they happen to be. Photo by S. Burgess.

This Sunday the first African World Cup concludes with another all-European final -- Holland vs. Spain. I will watch it in Vancouver. The play-by-play will be in English. It's going to be very disorienting.

I've been in Europe for the past six weeks or so, catching World Cup action in a few different countries. Traveling overseas during the World Cup is a wonderful experience. But it can really throw off your GPS. One day near a giant outdoor screen, a man in front of me stood up for the Algerian anthem; another day in the same spot, a gang of Brits and Americans engaged in a cheerleading contest; followed still later by a smiling row of orange-clad young women with Netherlands flags stuck in their hair. So where was I? That particular week, Lisbon.

You might think that a World Cup spent in Europe would feature a succession of clear-cut loyalties -- German fans in Germany, Portuguese supporters in Lisbon, a whole lot of depressed people in France. But the World Cup works like a big highlight marker, making visible the national identities that usually pass unnoticed on European sidewalks and in cafes. Add in the tourist factor, and there's no telling who you'll sit next to when it's game time in a Paris restaurant or a Roman piazza.

God save the goalie

For the traveller, a World Cup is a mixed bag. It's great to meet fans from almost every nation and pretend to agree with them. The tough part is rationalizing the fact that you spent a great deal of money and effort to end up on the other side of the ocean, where you are now spending long stretches of every day watching TV.

At least some cities let you do it outdoors, so it feels like sight-seeing. In Lisbon a big screen was set up near the railway station. The England-U.S.A. match brought out competing mobs. While the Americans could only manage the usual "U.S.A.!" chant, the English broke into choruses of "Jerusalem," and "God Save the Queen." Very stirring. At half-time there was an international beer chugging contest. "Next goal wins it!" one Brit said urgently. I'm quite certain he was referring to the drinking contest. The Brits won that one at least, although it's possible that their goaltender lost possession in the hotel bathroom afterward.

Later in the week it was Algeria-Slovenia. After watching my Algerian neighbour stand up for his national anthem, I stood up when they played the Slovenian song, just to mess with his head. He didn't notice. Probably a good thing, especially when Algeria went on to lose.

The World Cup provides offers scenes of tragedy and courage, and that's just among the spectators. I was in a Roman cafe the day Italy suffered its catastrophic elimination loss to upstart Slovakia. Faces around me could have been pulled straight from sorrowful scenes by Caravaggio. And then there was the lone Slovakian fan. He was one brave dude. Rude and foolhardy, but brave. He whooped, yelled, sang, and generally rubbed those aquiline Roman noses in it. It's a credit to Italian hospitality that no harm came to him. The Italians were too bummed anyway.

Roamin' fans

Inevitably, a World Cup tour ends up becoming a chronicle of disappointments (especially when, as in this case, the itinerary leans heavily on France and Italy). What shines through after a tournament like this is the sheer love of football across the continent. People love the game, regardless of whether their own national heroes have already exposed their feet of clay. Everything is discussed -- the refereeing most of all. In my favourite Roman pizzeria I could follow the waiters' conversation without understanding more than a few words. One waiter thrust out his arm, then flexed it again, following with a quick kick and a roll of the eyes. Crystal clear -- the topic was Brazilian Luis Fabiano's controversial double-handball goal against Ivory Coast.

Then there was the howler in the Germany-England match, when a clear goal went unseen by Batman the Ref. I watched that game with several other patrons on a rooftop patio in Rome. Like me, they had traveled far to reach this spot, and to commune with fans from other cultures. They were from a place called Saskatoon. I understand football is very popular there, too.  [Tyee]

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