This Sunday, July 11th, 13 hours after my midnight show, one out of six people in the world will be fully engaged the same activity. One billion people will watch the World Cup final. Billion not million. Think of the last time you got four people to agree on which movie they want to see then increase that difficulty by 250 million fold.
There is something about the fans I met in South Africa that give hints why the World Cup is a compelling event of such unmatched magnitude.
The US win over Algeria in the World Cup was attended by former President Bill Clinton. Published pictures of Clinton showed presidential gravitas, a furrowed brow and worried look. Friends in the same viewing box report Clinton was pumping his fists and jumping out of his seat just like us animals in the stands.
Clinton's reactions means he understands soccer. How the game is an uninterrupted, delicate balance of opposing athletes and their respective cultures. A balance of physical and abstract forces. The game is designed around this balance. It's the balance that tells so many stories. Stories about the game but also about the teams and their cultures, the nations and their politics, and mostly about the fans - you and I.
It isn't surprising that a competition of cultures results in a low scoring match and that soccer fans appreciate a well-played zero to zero tie. Why not? Just watching the Italians play their highly defensive game with occasional but crippling counter-attacks is an examination of Italy's cultural history of absorbing invasions then counter-attacking with secretive societies and guerrilla strikes. How does their cultural approach works with a country that has never invaded Italy, such as the Brazilians with their game of beautiful athleticism as poetic as their music? What if the Spaniards are involved? Their late-night, highly-social culture is reflected in their perfection of the most-social of all soccer skills - passing. The World Cup is so much more than soccer games, it is an amazing celebration of culture and differences. Viva the differences!
It isn't all a handholding happy festival. All the teams, all the teams but one lose and must go home early. De facto, the Cup is mostly about assimilating loss. The US is pretty good at accepting loss. Others not so good. When the North Koreans seriously challenged the Brazilians in their 2 to 1 loss they were so encouraged that they did the unheard of - televised their next game live. Whoops. They were crushed by Portugal 7 to 0. That negative comparison of the North Korean culture got pounded into more North Korean citizen's heads than all the actions of all the governments of the world in recent history.
Soccer's balance finds a parallel in life's balance. The big forces in your life are in constant stasis. Career earnings versus spending. The complicated tradeoffs of friends, family and business relationships. Balanced in harmony or tension, dysfunctional or functional but balanced. Until something changes the balance. Maybe a trauma or a lapse or an insight or something unforeseeable causes disequilibrium and you're suddenly bankrupt or rich or married or single or addicted or feted. Balanced. No scoring. Then:
The Cup isn't just about teams and cultures and competition. Individual's stories are just as revelatory.
Strangers often ask whether my older brother and I are twins. They see something other than appearances. We mirror each other's personality. We act the same. We move through the air the same. Use the same expressions and share goofy quirks. I assume we developed our behaviors in response to the big forces in our lives.
I couldn't see it in myself until my brother kick-passed his partially discarded underpants up into his hands. I do that too! Frank "hands" me a newspaper by taking a step back and tossing it with a frisbee spin. Me too. We're also contrarians. Loaded with bags, we take the stairs between the escalator at the airport.
We haven't lived together for four decades. The separation allows me to see how Frank has manifested our parent's personalities. My dad's contrarian streak put Frank into the Massachusetts' Sports Hall of Fame for being the first dedicated sports writer to cover soccer in Massachusetts. My mom's near-obsessive work ethic had Frank learning four new languages so that he could properly cover soccer of the European and the Americas continents.
I can also see the downside of our traits. How others have struggled to adjust to me. I suddenly empathize with Mary's side of a re-occuring fight over my driving-tips-for-efficiency-gems-of-wisdom like; “Never follow someone smoking a cigarette with their window down who has a Virginia license plate because they're distracted and too slow.” She's right, the predictive merit is irrelevant, it's simply an irritating trait.
Gooooooaaaaaalllll! Mary 1, Jamie 0.
Matome, Thomas, Desmond and Isaac
On the Park and Ride bus to the Germany versus Ghana game, South Africans Matome Malatjie and his friend Thomas are beside themselves for recently getting their game tickets through a lottery. For them, their experience on this bus is another fruit of their liberation. During the apartheid years, South African sports were excluded from the international stage. Now Matome and Thomas are surrounded by foreigners so it is completely natural that too few minutes after introducing themselves they invite us over for drink or dinner after the game.
Similar over-the-top hospitality surrounded us every day. When Desmond found my lost cell phone, he dialed all my recent calls until he figured out who and where I was then he delivered the phone to my hotel. I was so moved by the constant hospitality of Isaac our favorite cab driver that I hugged him when dropped me off at the airport for my departure. Sixteen years after South Africa dropped its hyper-repressive society, the joy of liberation envelopes everyone everyday.
I'm faced with the inherent decency of humans unfettered by the delusions of racism. And I wish...
Like Frank and I, Jim and Jerry Murphy, are brothers traveling together. Jerry went straight from his 24-hour flight from Los Angeles to this same Park and Ride bus as Matome and Thomas and I. However, unlike us, the Murphys don't even have tickets to the game.
Converting their situation to something more familiar to a US experience, imagine spending thousands of dollars and traveling across two hemispheres of the globe to a sell-out football game that you don't have a ticket into. Nope, the Saints aren't playing and there is no tailgating party. Worse, (I assume) the Murphy's home team is England who's loss to Germany was their humiliating exit from the Cup. Tonight's game features Germany again. Ouch.
Jerry's brother, Jim, traveled from London. Jim tells me he's always had an interest in South Africa. I think I'm helping acclimate Jim when I let loose with my admiration of how well South Africa has managed this World Cup. I complain about the press' strange unmerited editorial search for crime and disorganization when the facts on the ground shout the opposite story of amazing hospitality.
Jim is good. He knows the situation here. He talks of the orthodoxy's fear in South Africa. How the remarkable idealism and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela and the new South African state are regularly challenged by the irrationality of fear.
Check that. Jim is really good. He links this same type of fear mongering to both the UK and US political agendas. He's shocked at how much money pours into US politics. How money and fear have come to rule US politics. Says it wasn't that way when he started his career in … politics!? Did Jim say politics? This insightful, friendly guy on the Park and Ride bus is a politician?
Jim Murphy is the son of sometimes-unemployed laborers. Jim rose to become an MP in the British Parliament (along with more titles than I can absorb) based on merit - not money. Jim doesn't have a ticket to the game and this Park and Ride bus ride with Matome, Thomas and me is the opposite of a limo ride. He's not traveling with a press secretary or an entourage or a toady aid or security much less FIFA or South African officials. He's with his brother. The Murphys are here merely to enjoy a game. If they can get a ticket.
Jim and Jerry are pleasant, normal, unpretentious folks. The kind of people you hope sit next to at any event. I can't even compare them with today's goofy US politicians - professional wrestlers without the tights. Reality show contestants who escaped the cage of my television.
Jim Murphy biography - http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/jim-murphy/25192
And Then It Hit Me
I'm surrounded by decent people. Amazing people. I haven't run into an ideologue, character or me-first type since I left the US. In South Africa, the country completely defined by a violent racism just a teenager's life ago, I'm relieved of the everyday burden of the US' preoccupation with race consciousness. The elephant in South Africa's room is the size of a Yorkie.
Jim Murphy's perspective on the UK, South Africa and the US reminds me why i returned to broadcasting after almost three decades away from the mic. It happened during Katrina when fear ruled the New Orleans environment. Remember?
"Toxic water filled with alligators and laser-guided sharks."
"The city must be abandoned forever!"
"Shoot! Shoot! Shoot everything! Fear! Fear! And more Fear!"
And the racism. The elephant in the US room was a Mastodon and it was on a rampage.
We're a rich, accomplished nation. There is nothing, nothing we can't manage or overcome. Unless we succumb to fear... and upset the balance that keeps the monsters from the id in check.
Thanks Jim and thanks South Africa for reminding me that decency cannot co-exist with fear. And that most fear is exclusively between your ears and irrelevant to your situation. It's time to revive my radio show's traditional closing:
“And if someone tells you there is something you need to fear. Something so terrible and overwhelming that you're proper response is fear. You pop them on the chest with your finger and tell them you're from New Orleans. You lived through Katrina and you can manage anything. Fear! Only fear makes a disaster unmanageable.”
Saturday midnight to Sunday 3am
My brother reports that the Saints' Reggie Bush was also in the USA locker room after the Algeria game. Bush had refurbished the turf at Tad Gormley stadium after Katrina. Although Gormley is bit small, it's the best outdoor soccer venue in New Orleans.
Google “Frank Dell'Apa” for my brother's soccer reporting or try this link for a story about musician Gil Scott Heron's father, one of the first black professional soccer players in the US:
Ah, I couldn't resist: