I didn’t know much about football. I knew that Americans called the game “soccer” and that we didn’t play it very often. I didn’t even know the World Cup was as big of a deal as the rest of my study-abroad friends made it out to be. Back home, we didn’t bother with the game. The Stanley Cup, sure, the World Series, definitely. Soccer — football — was such an obscure pastime that I didn’t even know which teams were playing in the final.
The pub was packed with locals looking to cheer on either the French or the Italians — mostly the latter, as anti-French sentiments seemed common amongst the British. I thought it was ironic how these people felt they were somehow superior to the two countries playing, and yet their own team had only made it to the quarterfinals.
Spirits were still high, however. Any excuse to drink and get rowdy on a Sunday afternoon.
Europe, for me, is the epitome of a liberal society. Here we were, able to drink at the age of 18, able to smoke indoors, allowed to sit on tabletops if we wished, in an effort to accommodate football fans from all areas of the city. No one scolded us for any of this.
There was only one television in the pub, a 20” dinosaur that hung catty-corner in an area across from the bar. The players, dressed in blue or white, looked like ants scampering across the artificially green field.
We cracked up at Zidane’s head-butting fiasco. We cheered and danced when Italy won during the penalty shootout. I drank Strongbow cider for the first time in my life. A fight broke out in an area where people were playing darts, and no one stopped it.
“Let it alone,” a grizzly old man in a tweed cap said, to no one in particular. “They’ll sort it out, yes.”
I went to a football match in Ghana once.
The locals of Hohoe were proud of their national team, and even prouder that the World Cup was hosted for the first time in an African nation. But once Ghana lost in the quarterfinals, the fervor dissipated. Whatever chop shops and lean-to bars with television or radio service were populated largely with expats looking to cheer on the remaining teams. Instead, energy was focused on training up those who hadn’t qualified to play on Ghana’s national team.
The match was held between two local clubs; the one closest to the city of Hohoe wore white, while the visiting team wore red. They played on a dried-up field with secondhand cleats. There were no seats, or bleachers, and most, if not all, of the fans were male.
My friends and I had decided to wear our brand-new, custom-made gowns designed with material printed in traditional batik style. We stood out as complete yovos, totally clueless to the fact that these matches were largely casual affairs. It drew attention to us, overwhelmingly.
A man named Samuel asked us to follow him.
“We have a place for you,” he said, guiding us to a roped-off area of the pitch. I use the term “roped off” loosely — the 5’x7’ perimeter was hastily created using bright pink tape, as a means of separating us from everyone else.
“Do they ever fight?” I asked him. Because of the sport’s global popularity, I knew fans were sometimes overzealous during matches. Riots in Brazil, trampled fans in Italy, collapsing stadiums in Spain — attending a football match could be risky.
“No, there are no fights,” Samuel replied. “We just want to watch the sport. The people are very calm here.”
We watched for a good 20 minutes, talking with Samuel about the rules of the game, which team he thought was better, what he did in Hohoe. He was a salesman at a shop for auto parts.
I heard a loud rumble from the crowd. Something had changed. The members of the red team were now racing towards the white team, their voices angry, their fists clenched. They pushed the other team into the spectators. Fans began to encircle the group, fighting and screaming.
“This is not normal,” Samuel replied, his eyes surveying the situation. “We must go.” He quickly tore down our pink tape and pleaded with us to run in the opposite direction.
New York, 2014
I didn’t realize the USA vs. Ghana match was going on until 6:06pm. There was a fury of Facebook posts all afternoon about the home team, but nothing about who they were up against. Only when I saw someone post, “Does anyone even know where Ghana is? Who cares! GO TEAM USA!” did I put everything together. At 6:16, I headed to the nearest bar for happy hour and to see what this year’s World Cup was all about.
That Facebook post ran through my mind as I pushed through the heavy, dark doors and scanned the bar for an open seat. Does anyone know where Ghana is? I did. But how many other Long Islanders could point it out on a map?
The US team had already scored. Spirits were high on social media, but in the bar few patrons spoke, their eyes fixated on the television screens, a nauseating, neon-green glow emitting from each one.
I struck up a conversation with a large, round, bald man to my left. His name was Mike.
“Are you a sports fan?” he asked.
I shook my head. “But I’ve been to Ghana,” I replied. “I figured maybe I’d watch it.”
“I’m a Liverpool fan myself,” he said. “But I’m rooting for the US today, I guess. Both teams are really good though. Ghana has whooped us in the past.”
Mike turned out to be the best guy to sit next to at the bar. He was worldly — he had cousins in Ireland, England, and Scotland, that he visited every year — and he knew more about the sport of soccer than I figured any American did.
He explained to me that the players for each team came from all around the world.
“You can be grandfathered in,” he said. “Literally — like if your grandfather or grandmother came from Ghana, you could play for the Ghanaian team. There’s a guy from the US who didn’t qualify for the American team, but his grandparents are from Bosnia. So he gets to play for them, even though he’s a US citizen.”
I must have been talking too loud, because there was a man two stools down from us who kept glaring at me. I couldn’t tell if the sound of my voice annoyed him, or if he thought I was a pretentious traveler, or if he just didn’t like black people. He looked pissed when Ghana finally scored a goal, and even more pissed when he saw that I was happy about it.
Patriotism has never really been my thing. Especially when it comes to sports, I have a hard time pledging allegiance to teams representing my country. And I know people were happy about Team USA winning the match — “Both teams did really well, but it’s all about the points,” Mike had mentioned — but for me, it sort of just reinforced this idea that Americans are better than other people.
I didn’t like this idea that there would be fair-weather fans posting on Facebook about how the USA kicked some unknown African country’s butt, and how WE’RE NUMBER ONE, and that we’re invulnerable somehow. When, in reality, Ghana was never the underdog — America was.