It’s karaoke night at the Indian Pass Raw Bar in Indian Pass, Florida, a roadside joint favored by bikers. But my mind isn't on the excellent, cheap local oysters on the half shell that my friends and I are polishing off. It’s a World Cup match day, and I’m hoping that someone will switch the channel on the TV from boring baseball to soccer from Brazil.
I’m a Milan-born journalist on vacation in this remote part of Florida’s northwest, far from the Internet and cell phone reception, and I’m suffering from soccer withdrawal. But I'm not going to out myself as a European, not in a place voted among the best Southern bars by Garden & Gun magazine, in a part of the world where people wear Confederate-flag clothes.
Despite my American passport, I’m already conspicuous in my Lacoste polo shirt and boat shoes, amid a crowd of burly men buzzed on Coors and PBR beer. Their Ole Miss and Roll Tide T-shirts leave little doubt as to which kind of football they prefer.
But they're missing out. More and more Americans are into soccer. Their team has made the round of 16 in this year’s World Cup, a better performance than storied soccer powers such as Italy and England -- even better than the previous world champion, Spain.
But there’s a part of the World Cup experience that I think Americans can’t quite share. Those of us who grew up in Europe, where a few hours’ drive can take you into another country with another language -- here, hours of driving barely gets you to the Alabama border -- find special pleasure in the chance to revel in a kind of harmless nationalistic celebration.
Soccer fans take the cup as license to indulge cultural stereotypes that would be repellent in any other context. You can’t read World Cup coverage without stumbling onto prejudices that are generally banned as politically incorrect and offensive. But when your team’s playing in the World Cup, these cultural stereotypes are just a form of the trash talking that Yankees and Red Sox fans throw at each other.
The examples of such stereotypes are many -- the European media likes to show Brazilians dancing on the pitch to a spirited samba, while deriding the team’s players for a supposed aversion to the hard work of defending and a tendency to mood swings. English top striker Wayne Rooney looks (and shoots) like a half-drunk pub brawler. Asian players are disciplined and fight hard, the stereotype goes, but lack creativity; you’ll hear African teams described as buoyant but tactically naive. The Spaniards’ brilliant pass-heavy play can be a dazzling flamenco, but their losing moments are as full of sun-baked sadness as a García Lorca poem. The Serbs alternate flashes of raw talent with violence, and so it’s no surprise, says the conventional wisdom, that the Yugoslav civil war should have begun symbolically on a soccer field. And speaking of wars, nobody steamrolls the enemy like the Germans, whose swift, crushing attacks remind sportswriters (mostly English ones) of the blitzkrieg.
You couldn’t get away with any of this stuff if there weren’t a soccer game on. I know from personal experience: Ordinarily I’m a devoted globalist with no particular attachment to my national origins, but every four years I turn into a super-Italian.
In fact, when the World Cup isn’t on, I'm a stone-cold Francophile. I swear by Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; I'm moved to near tears when I hear the French national anthem, La Marseillaise; I pride myself on the élan with which I navigate the Paris metro. But not when it comes to soccer. At soccer, the French have to suffer. I don't care who beats them as long as they lose, and anything will do. An undeserved last-minute loss to an inferior team, on a bad call by the referee? Fine, if the French are on the receiving end.
And the Germans? Under normal circumstances, I love Germany, too, even the language and the boring politics. The Germans destroy the Italians at pretty much every organized anything, and we admire them for that. But when it comes to organized sports, it's the messy, unreliable Italians who regularly trounce the powerhouse of Europe. Few things exceed the pleasure of belting out the national anthem with its melodramatic lyrics -- “Siam pronti alla morte, l’Italia chiamò!” “We are ready to die, for Italy has called!” -- and then watching 11 Italians beat 11 Germans with wily counterattacks, in a triumph of cunning versus might. That’s how we see it, at any rate.
Americans don’t get to make such playful use of national stereotypes. No sports commentator would dare say that the Americans scored a goal while the Mexican defense was taking a siesta. And when it comes to really enjoying the World Cup, American isolation is a serious handicap: It’s not as fun to beat another nation if you haven’t had a lot of interaction with them.
The French can’t play the Germans in a big-time international tournament without some echo of the wars of 1870, 1914 or 1940. But the battles on the soccer field are only a sanitized re-enactment of that bloody past. The World Cup, and to a lesser extent the European Championship, are a wonderful way to keep exorcising those demons.
But maybe Americans don’t need all that heavy history to get into the spirit of the World Cup, and plain old American enthusiasm will be enough. After all, even in Florida, I’ve spotted signs of serious soccer change. I may not have been able to watch the World Cup among the Indian Pass bikers, but a few miles away in Apalachicola, many eyes were glued to the Brazil versus Chile cliffhanger on Saturday. At the tables next to mine, at a restaurant on the Gulf shore, dads and sons who would have looked just right at a Little League game were cheering instead for two foreign soccer teams -- and from their comments, clearly knew a lot about them.
Later that day, in the gaudy spring break magnet of Panama City Beach, kids on the beach were tossing a football: a proper American pigskin. But at the Salty Goat Saloon on the town’s main drag, as a country singer onstage played George Strait and Waylon Jennings oldies, one of the big monitors above the bar wasn't showing NASCAR. It was playing the day’s World Cup highlights, and I wasn't the only one stealing glances.