Drinking in World History by the Cup

Ronaldo, center, of Brazil is tackled by Ghana's John Mensah, left. Brazil, the defending champion, won 3-0 to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.
Ronaldo, center, of Brazil is tackled by Ghana's John Mensah, left. Brazil, the defending champion, won 3-0 to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals. (By Ben Radford -- Getty Images)
By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I wasn't very interested in soccer until I came across a kind of international guide to the game in a recent issue of Mother Jones magazine. It was called "How to Watch the World Cup: Politics and War by Other Means." Even if I didn't know soccer, I thought, perhaps I could still enjoy the extraordinary show of geopolitical passion that the sport ignites.

"Those passions are tied, for better or worse, to an almost mythic connection fans make between their team and their national narrative," soccer columnist Tony Karon wrote. "When facing Germany, English fans routinely chant lines like: 'Two World Wars and one World Cup' (linking their defeats of Germany on the battlefield and the soccer field)."

So that's what the fuss is all about. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe are expected to catch at least some of the matches before the World Cup ends July 9. With my newfound insight, I was about to become part of a global arena where scores are settled between the oppressed and the oppressors, the colonized and the colonizers, to say nothing of those who won and lost in the last cup.

"The roar heard across the Irish Diaspora when the Republic of Ireland team scores against England expresses a passion that long predates the game of soccer -- the more jingoistic among the English fans respond with bloodcurdling anti-IRA songs," Karon wrote. "Millions of Africans walked a little taller that summer's day four years ago when Senegal beat its former colonial master, France, then the reigning world champion."

To get in on the action, all I had to do was connect with some national narrative, and my first opportunity came during last week's match between Ghana and the United States in Nuremberg. For centuries, millions of Africans had been brought from Ghana to labor as slaves in the United States. Now, the two countries were about to face off before the world in the international city of justice. As an African American, this clash of national narratives gave me pause. The U.S. team featured rising star Oguchialu Chilioke "Oguchi" Onyewu, who was born in the District to Nigerian parents, grew up in Silver Spring, attended Sherwood High and now lives in Olney. He is, quite literally, African American.

In a sport where European skinheads wave Nazi flags in the stands, Onyewu, 24, says he has been subjected to more racial taunts this year than ever. "I've been harassed while in a car, punched in the face, heard monkey chants," he told USA Today. "You just ignore it, because whenever you react, that provokes them to do it more." Clearly, he could use some cheering up.

On the other hand, Ghana is regarded by many African Americans as their spiritual home. Accra, the capital, is one of the District's international "sister cities." More African Americans visit Ghana than any other country in Africa -- in part, no doubt, for the respite it provides from the burdens of race. So, although I wished Onyewu well, I cast my lot with the Black Stars, as the Ghanaian team is called, and delighted in their 2-1 victory.

If I had experienced any ambivalence about the U.S. loss, those feelings quickly disappeared when the U.S. coach began whining, accusing referees of making a bad call and even refusing to shake hands with Ghana's coach until the two coaches were off the field and almost in the locker room. Call that match karmic soccer. I was fast becoming a fan.

Then yesterday Ghana played Brazil, and I found myself rooting for a country that had imported more slaves than any other in the Western Hemisphere. My narrative had taken an odd twist; the story line had become blurred in the rhythms and style of South Americans who are predominantly of African descent and often indistinguishable from their African American kin in the United States. How could you not cheer for that cool cousin to the south who showed you how to dance? Who can turn soccer into samba, an athletic field into a dance floor?

Brazilian players "combine impossible skill with breathtaking audacity and guile, an ability to shoot from great distances and apply boot to ball in a manner that improbably 'bends' its trajectory," Karon wrote. "The telepathy with which they are able to anticipate each other's movements allows them to dazzle both the opposition and the crowd with the fluidity of their passing movements and their propensity for doing the unexpected."

So Brazil beat Ghana, 3-0. But I wouldn't have been disappointed no matter how the game turned out. There was, as Karon suggested, a certain pleasure in making mythical connections with these narratives, which, like every other national story, inevitably come together in that little cup called the world. Maybe next time I'll learn something about soccer.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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