World Cup 2006 & A Presidential Election
Two contests, two winners or, then again, maybe not
Mexico...in small bytes
TRAVEL..........STORIES OF MEXICAN LIFE..........& MORE
Saturation and Withdrawal. It happens every four years. We pig out on a month of generally outstanding soccer and then suddenly are left in limbo. Of course, this year we can fill in the void left by the absence of all that fancy footwork by keeping abreast of the scurrying about to find a new President for this Republic where we live. Since Mexico’s presidency is decided ever six years, the next time the two events will coincide will be in 2030.
Who knows what will happen then but for this particular World Cup and the 2006 Mexican presidential election, it’s surprising to see how much the two events parallel each other.
Our politically active friends often raise eyebrows at our fanaticism directed toward such a trivial event but I can’t help but feel as Alex Bellow, author of Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life who says, “The export of Brazilian futbol stars to other countries is good for them and good for Brazil because their exodus serves a cultural purpose. Brazilian soccer players plying their trade overseas far outnumber the diplomats who work in Brazilian missions abroad and their effect is often similar.”
Bellow’s book has been described as a quirky study of the culture of Brazilian soccer and it seems our fascination with the sport is as quirky a way to bridge the animosity that can at times sizzle between two not particularly friendly base camps.
Moving between borders flashing a U.S. passport is unfortunately not the greatest way to win friends and influence people today. But then this attitude is not particularly new.
In Viva Mexico! my favorite and oft-quoted book on the country, author Charles Flandrau writes in the early 1900’s, “From end to end of Europe the United States is, and for a long time has been, a synonym of political and financial corruption.”
We’ve seen the phenomenon of dislike any number of times in our travels. In the 70’s during our early ventures into Mexico, the U.S. was conveniently blamed for each and every problem to descend on the country. This animosity did not, however, prevent the local populace from heaping a display of unheralded bonhomie on my husband in 1974.
“Congratulations!” said the gentleman in the market, grabbing Paul’s hand and shaking it vigorously.
Strange. It’s true this was our second trip to Pátzcuaro and we did know a number of people in town but this was ridiculous. One stranger after another shaking Paul’s hand, grinning and patting him on the back. Then it dawned on him. Aha! Germany had just won the World Cup in a hard-fought game against Holland whose star player, Cruyff, was sort of the Ronadinho of today.
We might not have known all those well-wishers but in a town that had yet to see many repeat and long-term visitors, it was a sure bet the local populace knew a lot about us, including the fact that my husband was born in Germany.
As opposed to the general U.S. population, neither one of us can be considered Johnny-come-lately converts to the sport. Husband Paul can’t even be considered a convert, growing up as he did in Germany, playing one position after another and finally finishing up as a FIFA referee in the nascent days of Minnesota soccer.
In the 60’s when the U.S. decided to attempt an aborted entry into the world of professional soccer, I was one of maybe 3,000 fans in the Oakland Coliseum, a stadium with a capacity for 70,000. With a football mentality, I thought my midfield seat a good choice. The home team was made up mainly of Yugoslavians so Yugoslavians made up most of the 3,000 in attendance. Plus a few foreigners, of course. As has been the case time and again in my travels, one of the locals took this foreigner under the proverbial knowledgeable wing and informed me kindly that my seat was ill-chosen.
“Here, follow me.” I was led to the cheap seats behind the goal posts of the opposing team. “These are the best seats. You get a great view of all the home goals. Then at half-time we move.”
“But my ticket is for the middle.”
Looking around at the cavernous and almost deserted stadium, my guide rolled his eyes, gave an eloquent shrug and said, “Come on. Trust me on this.”
He was a journalist for a U.S.-based weekly Yugoslav paper and seemed to be the only one in the vicinity besides myself who spoke English. The knowledge gleaned about the intricacies of the game was nothing compared to the experience of being the oddity in an in-crowd…a lesson that has served me well in all the subsequent years of traveling.
During the same time, Paul was serving as Peace Corp Volunteer in Ascención de Guarayos, Bolivia and choosing as his first project the clearing of a swath of land to set up the jungle town’s first soccer field. When we went together in 2004 to visit the radically transformed town, the first thing we saw as the bus left us off at 3:30 A.M. was the carefully maintained and obviously well-used soccer field much the same as Paul had left it in 1969.
So soccer fever is firmly entrenched in our systems and is a “disease” that has served us well over the years. In the course of many a chat with new acquaintance in other lands, the climate has radically changed. As talk begins, there can an almost visible chill in the air and then as the conversation progresses, things warm up considerably. Political differences of our two countries disappear as two people find a common bond.
Like the night in Guanajuato when we were looking for a spot to check out an important game. Mexico was playing a crucial play-off game to see if they would quality for the World Cup 2002. We wandered about the taco stands by our hotel asking one and all where we could go to watch. One suggestion after another came up. I countered with, “I’m with my husband but would it be okay for me to go in that place?”
This caused much controversy and great discussion. Finally the consensus was we could only be directed to one place and that only rated a palm facing downward thumb and little finger wagging back and forth recommendation. It was that or nothing so naturally we went.
It was readily apparent no other gringos had ventured into the place before when all conversation stopped and everyone but everyone (including the help in the back that were summoned out front to gawk) stared.
No one seemed particularly glad to see us until we said our purpose was to watch the game. Then the environment became considerably warmer and we were welcomed into the fold, as we discussed fútbol while muscling in through the crowd to get a good view of the TV sets perched above the bar.
The palm wagging was a fair evaluation of the place judging from the fact that a young man accompanied his date to the bathroom and only let her go in after checking the premises first. Then he stood guard outside the door until she was through. At that point, I decided it was definitely a time to limit myself to one beer per half.
The management, however, had other plans, promising a free beer for every Mexican goal. The tri-color was racking those goals up way too fast. The extra beers were being handed out like popcorn balls to willing recipients. The crowd was particularly happy when they received my share as well. It simply wasn’t worth imbibing the free brew if I had to face THE BATHROOM.
It was a pretty boisterous and rowdy crowd what with the victory and all that free beer but we were okay. We were cheering for the right side.
In a sneaky ploy to garner more paying customers, the only way to watch all games was by subscribing to SKY, a satellite TV service. Incurable soccer fans that we are, this is what we tried to do even though the idea of multitudinous channels appeared highly ironic for two people who for over 30 years had shunned any kind of TV. But once our Visa card was rejected in two separate locales, this cooled our ardor. Why would a card that insured payment every month via automatic payment from our bank be such a pariah on the consumer scene? Because a Mexican Visa could entail interest and interest was what seemed to be the mitigating factor in the whole transaction. It was necessary to sign up for 18-months of service. Eighteen months can mean a bit of interest for the normal credit card holder, to say nothing of bank charges and assorted fees.
We decided to go to San Cristóbol de las Casas for a vacation and take on the festivities in one of the most popular haunts for European tourists but an operation intervened. I was adamant about having the surgery after the Italy/Australian game and had to have repeated assurance that I’d be out of hospital by Friday in time to watch Germany/Argentina and Italy/Ukraine. We miscalculated. Even in Morelia, a city of over one million people, none of the sites we had previously visited to watch the games before or after pre-operative check-ups were open.
So we were back at El Camarón Que Brinca in Pátzcuaro, one of the few, if not the only, option to watch all the games in our town. We had noticed the woman madly cheering the French team in it’s bout with Spain before, during prior games when she was an intent but very mute member of the audience. It turns out she was born in Mexico so Spanish was her first language even though she was whisked off to France as a young child by her parents. Having spent most of her life there, she was now back living in Mexico speaking Spanish with a French accent.
So how do I know all this? Because in the final game, we had adjoining tables in El Camerón Que Brinca and carried on an animated conversation the whole time, until it wasn’t possible to hear her conversation what with the rising volume and I simply joined her at her table.
So Pátzcuaro was witness to the rare sight of a Mexican-born French woman sitting with an ex-Minnesotan with an Italian surname as they discussed the game and life in Spanish, cheering the respective favorites most vociferously while consulting a German-born ex-FIFA referee about the calls of the Argentine referee. At the end she bought us a beer, we shook hands and embraced.
Now tell me soccer doesn’t bring people of different nations together.
Which is more than can be said for the two sides in the Mexican Presidential election but that seems to me only fair. A tad more is at stake here and the world has seen too many elections won dubiously of late. It’s unlikely that the loser in the election will buy the winner a beer and the winner will offer un abrazo and both sides will shake hands and part as friends.
I suspect that whoever ends up on top, since the results are far from finalized, will share the same sour feeling I felt about Materazzi’s shady tactics toward one of the true heroes of the sport. The loser could well leave the playing field believing that the odds were stacked just like many of Italy’s games during the last season.