Different Worlds Cross Paths at the World Cup
June 26, 2006
Unfamiliar scenes greeted the U.S. men's soccer team during its brief stay in Germany for the 2006 World Cup. American fans, many of them visitors from the U.S., flocked the streets near the team's hotels, swarmed into viewing areas to watch games on large-screen TVs, and filled sections of the stadiums in which the American team played.
Huge fan followings are part and parcel of a World Cup played in Europe, where close proximities between countries and multiple transportation options fuel massive short-term fan migrations. But this sizable American contingent has never been seen before, and represents a milestone in the sport's acceptance by a segment of the nation that has yet to embrace it.
The World Cup is far more than a sporting competition. It marks a convergence of cultures, where nationalism and exuberance and pride play out a complex, colorful tableaux. Surging orange waves are Dutch fans, those in green and gold swaying to samba can only be Brazilian, and what appear to be from a distance masses of feverishly working red ants are excited South Koreans.
American men's soccer players are strangers in their own land. They are ignored if not disdained by much of the mainstream U.S. sports media, and often berated and ridiculed when they play "home" games by fans of the opposing national team. They are cult figures, at best.
"We hate playing away games at home," says goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who has played his entire 14-year club career in Europe and shakes his head when asked why Mexican fans often drown out American fans in U.S. cities when their soccer teams meet, or hordes of Argentina fans swallow up a few fans waving the Stars and Stripes at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
To a man, the U.S. players were staggered by the large and loud sections of American fans who attended their games in Gelsenkirchen, Kaiserslautern and Nuremberg. For each World Cup game, the competing nations are allotted about 8 percent of the available tickets, which equals between 5,000 and 7,000 tickets per game, depending on the capacity of the stadium. The U.S. Soccer Federation sold all its available tickets quickly and fielded requests for thousands more before and during the tournament.
Roughly half of the population (107,000) of Kaiserslautern is comprised of U.S. servicemen, military and civilian support personnel, and their families. Ramstein Air Force Base houses about 35,000 military personnel and U.S. Soccer arranged for the players to stay there prior to their June 17 game against Italy.
A trip to Kaiserslautern last March for an exhibition game against Poland gave U.S. players a chance to meet servicemen and visit with some who had been injured in battle. Several players mentioned that their pride in representing their country at the World Cup grew exponentially upon talking those who wore the same colors in far more perilous situations. Excessive nationalism at international soccer matches has triggered ugly, violent scenes numerous times since the World Cup first began in 1930, but far more common is the sight of fans and players united in the shared experience of sport.
"It makes you want to do that little bit more," said midfielder Clint Dempsey, scorer of the U.S. goal in a 2-1 loss to Ghana Thursday that eliminated the Americans. "You see all the sacrifices they make and everything we do kind of pales in comparison."
Dempsey belies the image of soccer in America as a strictly suburban activity. He grew up in east Texas, lived in a trailer park, commuted to Dallas to play competitive matches, and spent part of his high school years playing in a rough-and-tumble Latino men's league. He comes from a background similar to those of players in other countries and he reveled in a passionate environment backing him and his teammates.
At least one-third of the 42,000 fans who attended the Italy-USA game in Kaiserslautern cheered for the Americans, who lost two players to red-card ejections yet still managed to tie the game, 1-1, against one of the world's top teams. Huge roars greeted their good plays and the stadium reverberated when the U.S. tied the game. Towering (6-foot-4) defender Oguchi Onyewu's tackles were saluted by fans shouting his nickname: "Gooch!"
It all sounded and felt somewhat peculiar, for in addition to more fans, what the players desire are louder, more boisterous supporters similar to the fans in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Few national-team games in America produce a vibrant pro-U.S. atmosphere, so the players recognized the irony of enjoying such support so far from home. Yet, this is what the World Cup yields every four years.
"We all walked off the field after the Italy game saying that was the best away crowd we've ever been a part of," said forward Brian McBride. "They're all in sync and in tune, it was great. Our support here has been amazing. Long may it continue and grow."
Another sizable American contingent came to see the match against Ghana, but the Americans couldn't muster the victory they needed to stay in the competition. A questionable penalty-kick call enabled Ghana to take a 2-1 lead that held up throughout the second half.
"They were pushing us on towards the end of the game," Clint Dempsey said of the fans. "It was great to see that type of support, especially when faced with adversity. Sometimes you have fans, when things aren't going well, they jump off the wagon. Our fans never jumped ship and that says a lot for our fans."