I awoke before my alarm to the muted sounds of kitchen woks clanking and bicycle bells ringing, as grandmothers and grandfathers emerged from their hutongs, traditional Beijing dwellings, off to buy vegetables from the morning markets. These were sounds that could be heard in any number of neighborhoods around the old section of dusty Beijing; they were the sounds that had accompanied my alarm every morning— harbingers of a new, smoggy day.
And yet today, there was something particularly charming about those sounds— the woks reminded me of my mother’s kitchen, the twanging bells were reminiscent of an early Louis Armstrong wax recording. Today was the day that the United States Men’s National Team would face Germany. Today was the day that would hopefully see our undervalued, proud team, and their derided, confident coach, emerge from one of the most competitive World Cup groups in recent history.
It was impossible not to feel elated in that initial moment of consciousness that morning. The match would air today, after months of anticipation and anxiety; after a tremendous win against the Ghanaian team that outplayed us; and after an agonizing draw against a Portuguese team that deserved to lose. This delirious day of determination, which had been crawling forward in slow motion for the last week, had finally arrived.
Since its founding in 1924, China has only qualified for one World Cup— a disappointing 2002 first-round exit in which they failed to score a single goal. Yet despite this fact, China may be the world’s dark horse capital of football fandom. Each morning in my office, the woman who sits in the cubicle next to mine greets me by rattling off facts about the previous night’s matches, many of which she stays up to watch. This is the truly remarkable fact about this year’s enormous World Cup presence in China— because of the time difference, the earliest matches begin at midnight, and the latest matches don’t start until 6AM.
Each day, as the oppressive Beijing heat begins to recede and the massive Chinese characters bearing the names of restaurants and bars gradually illuminate into the noisy bouquet of neon characters found in cities all over China, there is an undeniable humming sound on the streets, foreshadowing the arrival of the throngs of men and women who haunt these bars and restaurants deep into the night.
I personally am only a second cousin to these raucous viewing parties— my experience of this World Cup has, with the exception of the United States’ matches, been limited to highlights and post-game analysis. But each morning, as I walk to work, I am a witness to the post-mortem proof of China’s soccer obsession: Beijing’s early-morning streets are sodden with the discarded clam shells and baijiu bottles of these alcohol-infused viewing parties.
While it has been unfortunate to not be in America during this World Cup, I don’t feel that my experience of it has been greatly diminished; in fact, I feel more connected to this World Cup, and particularly this American team, than I did in 2006 or 2010. For this I have to thank two unceasingly clever and self-effacing balding British men, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, who co-host a soccer show called Men in Blazers. It may seem counterintuitive that two Englishmen have made an American living in Beijing feel more connected to the World Cup than he did when he was actually living in America. This illuminates an underlying quality of the World Cup—something that makes it singular in the world of sport and in the greater context of nationalism.
In this World Cup, my unbridled love for one team has not hindered my love of many teams. Entering the tournament, I felt acutely the pain of the Dutch, and longed for them to defeat Spain and redeem their crushing defeat in the 2010 final; I have secret hopes that Mexico will win the World Cup, if only to live vicariously through the celebrations of its coach, Miguel Herrera; when Iran lost to Argentina after holding them to a 0-0 draw for almost the entire match, I was disappointed, almost devastated; I even felt the plight of the Ghanaian players, our kryptonite of tournaments past, because many of them were poorly compensated for the time and effort they put into training for this greatest of competitions, this global unifier with more reach than the UN.
This is not, as Ann Coulter and others before her have said, some ‘socialist’ phenomenon through which the world becomes akin to a globalized commune. This is an a-political, primal, human, connection— engendered by the very same instinct that begets unconditional love and stops unnecessary wars, that curbs the more malicious human instincts and ultimately preserves our species.
Football is the most human sport for other reasons as well. It is a sport that is both individualistic, and collective. It is a sport of Homeric heroes like Pelé, Maradona, Messi, and Ronaldo; it is equally a sport of determined teamwork, like that espoused by Italy and Spain. It is a sport that denies the most primordial tool— mankind’s use of his hands— forcing players to discipline themselves into something unnatural, but ultimately more beautiful.
I carried all of these thoughts with me as I locked my apartment door later that evening, on my way to a bar on the expat-laden side of town where the match would be projected on a big screen, imported beer would be on tap, and fellow Americans would be plentiful. As I turned to walk out of the narrow concrete alleyway, the outdoor hallway that connected my apartment to the five other hutong dwellings, I noticed one of my neighbors smoking a cigarette in the fading dusk light.
An old man with a deceptively young face and a full head of hair, he greeted me, his face illuminated every few seconds by the flaring nicotine— intimate companion to so many Chinese men of his generation— that he pulled into his weathered lungs. Most Chinese men of his age would be preparing for bed at this point in the night. I asked him how he was.
“Not bad,” he responded, his voice deep and throaty, “I’m just killing time before tonight’s World Cup matches start.”
Surprised, I asked if he was planning on watching the midnight match.
“All of them—I haven’t missed a single one yet. I sleep some during the day…I’ll wake up to eat, but otherwise my life revolves around these games.” There was an unmistakable note of pride in his voice. We said our goodbyes.
“Good luck tonight,” he called after me as my footsteps faded into the Beijing street.
On the way to the subway, I stopped for a quick chat with Lu Tao, a middle-aged man who owns a convenience store near my apartment. Lu Tao and I had become fast friends, as he always had some incisive comments to share on Chinese culture whenever I would walk into his shop. The neighborhood’s resident philosopher, his bodega was a hodgepodge of Belgian beer, Chinese cigarettes and liquor, Korean sodas, as well as an international assortment of snack foods, cleaning supplies, and electronics. I knew him through the Belgian beer.
I mentioned that I was on my way to watch the USA match, to which Lu Tao responded: “You have no idea how disappointing it is that China is so utterly deplorable at football. We’re a nation of 1.3 billion people! Look at Belgium—a country of 12 million and yet they have a team bursting with Premier League talent. But China, my country, has never produced a single star player.”
I mentioned that I was equally baffled— the fact that China was so successful in the Olympics but not in football simply did not equate.
“Do you want to know why? Listen, I’ve been following the World Cup since I was 13— all these years, I’ve been waiting for a Chinese team to do our country proud. But it hasn’t happened yet because of the corruption— the players aren’t chosen purely on merit— they’re chosen through connections, through money.”
While this seemed like one exasperated fan’s exaggeration, I didn’t have time to press him for his rationale— the USA would take the field in a couple of hours, and I wanted to soak up as much pre-match atmosphere as possible— wanted to feel, for the first time in this World Cup cycle, like I was back in America.
I emerged from the subway and immediately noticed the difference between this Beijing and the Beijing I normally inhabited. Large, elegant advertisements for imported products littered the air, dwarfed only by the sleek glass buildings that housed Beijing’s multinational corporations and trendy nightclubs. Ah, the Sanlitun district— great crutch of Beijing’s expat community— Circe’s cave to any Odysseus finding himself marooned in a loud, cluttered, pungent China.
As I walked across the brightly lit, clean promenades, I momentarily lost a sense of place. French, German, English, and Spanish filled the air, a clarion confirmation that I was not really in Beijing anymore. It was time to experience the World Cup as it was meant to be experienced.
I sidled my way through a crowd at the door and found myself in a raucous atmosphere where the foreign faces outnumbered the locals by a margin of six to one. At the bar were the requisite imports on tap, and the even more requisite crowd of foreigners clamoring for their next round. These transactions were carried out in English, the tongue of common denomination linking expatriate life everywhere. After several minutes, I got my Lagunitas IPA and headed up the beer-spattered stairwell to take my place among a crowd of unknown faces. The match will begin soon; the match will begin soon. I could think of nothing else, and those last minutes before the game began were excruciating. I had waited so long for this moment.
The room was fairly segregated, with a large consortium of white German jerseys on the left and a kaleidoscope of red, white, or blue t-shirts on the right (but very rarely all three colors on the same shirt). The Americans had come out in greater numbers, but the lack of official gear was a clear bellwether of the difference between the two groups’ footballing dedication. The Americans were passing around pitchers of beer, chanting: “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN,” in loud, convincing fashion.
I respected the way the German fans were acting— calm, collected, and serious, this game was not an excuse to party or act wild— it carried real gravity; they expected to win, they wanted more than anything to win, but they were the old-money football version of our new-money American soccer fans— they saved the celebrations for when they were warranted.
As the national anthem was about to begin, I started to feel warmth within, a punch-drunk confidence that we might just win this game. More than this, I was elated to be with a group that was equally as optimistic as I was. I believe began to ring back and forth, stirring up a passion and excitement unlike any that other sporting events have ever been able to kindle.
The television’s audio went out just before the national anthem began, and nobody was singing along. I was disappointed, having expected a massive outburst from our side of the room. What was typically the greatest expatriate undertaking— belting the national anthem with a group of Americans in a foreign country— was in actuality like realizing that Santa Claus wasn’t real. The room, still buzzing but not especially so, had failed to do the core thing I had expected to catapult this viewing party into something legendary.
The same thing happened with the Germans. They just sat there and continued chatting in their own quiet way, eyes glued to the screen, of course, but not showing any added signs of emotion.
The match began, and it was apparent very quickly that this was going to be a struggle for the American side. Within the first ten minutes, the Germans had most of the possession and some fortunate misses. But if a blind person had been in that audience, only capable of gauging the score through the reactions of the crowd, America would have been winning 10-0. The Americans in the audience were even cheering whenever the Germans would accidentally hit the ball out of bounds.
There was a Swede standing beside me who had notified me the moment I had met him that he would be rooting for the Germans. As the game progressed, he began chiding the Americans for being ‘toddlers’ when it came to football— not understanding the rules of the game. Whenever the Americans would cheer over some seemingly inconsequential play, he would replicate their chanting in a caveman-like voice. He joked with his English friend, over and over again, that the US fans were completely ignorant of what it was they were actually cheering for.
That may have been true for some of the Americans present, but for most of us, what he only saw as idiocy was a sheer sense of joy at being alive at this stage, in this group of death. It was a manifestation of what the World Cup is for so many nations not named Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Italy, or the Netherlands— hope. What Americans have for this team is hope, and nothing more— something not common in American sports on the international stage, for which we are usually the favorites, and for which expectations are usually the active ingredient. In football, now, at our peak, America is on a level playing field with countries like Costa Rica, South Korea, and Honduras. We are potent underdogs, and that is new for us. And it’s exciting as hell.
As the game went on, I noticed that there were one or two Chinese people embedded with each group of expatriates: some wearing German or American jerseys and watching each play with intensity, others seated with French or Spanish speakers and seemingly not too committed in the outcome. This was comical, as any of these Chinese fans of Germany could just as easily have been sitting at another table rooting for America; their passion for Deutschland was a product of the chance encounter that had initially brought them together— perhaps on that street corner when they’d worked up the courage to start a conversation with a foreigner, or through any of the other myriad ways in which these connections are forged abroad. But it also spoke to a human truth— so many of our passions, our friendships, our careers, could have gone in a radically different direction.
The second half began, and each passing minute seemed to bring closer the inevitable moment when the Germans would finally score. Then, after an incredible save by USA goalie Tim Howard, they did. That goal, that magnificent, perfect goal, which came from the reflexive brilliance of Thomas Müller, caused an audible eruption in the German section, followed by a loud chorus of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland…’
However, barely two lines into rejoicing in their national anthem, the Germans were interrupted, as the Americans began to chant ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ so loud that they drowned out the German celebration. This action reflects the general American notion that things happen only in relation to us, and that even in defeat we are victorious, simply because we are American. The Germans looked slightly taken aback by this behavior, as if they had done nothing to warrant it. Indeed, they hadn’t.
It’s one thing to love your country, to hope desperately for victory, and to writhe in pain when a perfect display of football, of Platonic beauty, comes at your team’s expense. But to interrupt another team’s celebration— their fair, hard-earned, ebullient moment— that’s the type of mentality that has gotten America into its worst wars. That’s the type of spirit that makes America, in spite of its overwhelming number of wonderful, world-leading attributes, a source of spite around the world.
Throughout the rest of the match, songs of “Deutschland” were traded at decibels with ‘U-S-A’ chants, and the German fans were ceaselessly subjected to a slew of harsh jibes, such as the classic “suck a dick!” and the old-time favorite “Germans are HORRIBLE people!” This was distracting, it was unnecessary, and it did a lot to dampen this long anticipated event, and, more so, my feelings of pride in my home country.
The 1-0 loss, coupled with the news that Portugal had beaten Ghana, was a great relief. The Germans had drastically outplayed us, but we had made some gritty defensive stops, and projected flashes of offensive brilliance. The Americans in Recife, Brazil had performed admirably; the Americans in Beijing, China had behaved badly.
I left the bar content, if not a little deflated that it would be another painful week of waiting before the next match. I walked with aloof steps to the subway station, finally ready to return to my apartment in that quiet hutong, to return to the part of town that I had come to love, that had come to define this city.
As the subway rolled under the surface of Beijing— under that city that has supported human life for three millennia; a place whose people were once something and then something else a hundred times over before they became Chinese— I looked around and stared at several of the World Cup themed advertisements dotting the cabin. One ad for KFC chicken sandwiches with buns baked to look like soccer balls, stood out: a perfect analogy for the way China has simultaneously consumed the world’s game alongside its many other global products.
China, that nation whose rapid rise the Western world fears, that country filled with over one billion people who have never been abroad, whose most prominent link to the outside world is manifested in restaurants in the early morning, as football fans, feeling the residual excitement of other nations, sharing in the unbound fervor that only the World Cup can bring— an event that at once severs people and brings them closer together than they would otherwise ever become.