It has now been a few days since the US World Cup defeat against Ghana. While it is only about now that I could bring myself to write about it, recovering from the disappointment of shattered dreams, I must also apologize for opening old wounds for those of you now similarly recovered. Well, I’m sure there are a few-to-many non-soccer readers of this blog who wonder what the fuss is about. For you, hopefully the cultural scene will be entertaining; for those still mourning, all I can say is that we mourn together. Ah, the sting of what could have been.
As mentioned last post, to watch the game I went to downtown Cairo, meeting up with friends who live there. Maadi, the affluent suburb in which we live is a far cry from the vibrancy of city life. Here, while I have enjoyed watching matches in the local coffee shops frequented only by Egyptians, there has never been fervor in the audience, which has ranged from five or six to a high of forty or so, for the England-Algeria match. Interested fans, yes; cheering for goals, sort of. The scene is one of subdued approbation, perhaps akin to that of an accompanying friend at a pee-wee soccer game. “Nice job, kid.”
Downtown was entirely different. I was met at the metro by my friend, who led me through the busy streets for several minutes. We passed by many shops with TVs tuned to the game, and not a few cafés which were starting to fill up. We, however, were heading to the big screen TV in the open air, found recently by my friend, who enjoyed also the inexpensive tea and hookah.
When we turned the corner we entered a wide promenade, and the masses emerged. Every few feet I expected us to stop, as we passed by open-air cafés with large TV screens. Midway through we reached our goal. This café, wherever the physical location may have been, had arranged perhaps two hundred chairs around a projection system casting the game on the outside wall of a building. As we took our seat I scanned the whole promenade – surely there were several hundred to a thousand people gathered to watch the match. Of course, this was the US vs. Ghana – not exactly a blockbuster fixture unless you care for one of the teams. I didn’t bother to watch Japan-Paraguay, for example. Imagine what the crowd could have been for the England-Germany or Spain-Portugal match. Having not yet returned, I cannot say. It is a bit of a hassle to get downtown, and I enjoyed these matches from Maadi.
As game time approached, however, we discovered that we were among partisans. There were scattered other Americans here and there, and a few from our office met up to watch with us. The Africans, though, were present in the dozens. A number cheered at the close of the Ghanaian national anthem, but everyone erupted with their first goal less than a quarter hour into the game. We were outnumbered, and greatly.
They may have been Africans of any nationality, but they were supporting the lone African team to emerge from group play. The Egyptians who filled in the rest of the crowd rediscovered their African identity as well, and cheered wildly as we sunk dejectedly into our seats following yet another early deficit.
The crowd quieted as the Americans eventually took the better of play and converted a penalty kick to tie the game. They were quite nervous as we pressed for the winner denied repeatedly by good goaltending or profligate finishing. In extra time they found cause to cheer again, having been gifted their second goal, and held out happily to victory. One voice cried out in English, in an accent I couldn’t place, “Good bye America!” and I felt like spitting water in his face – whoever, wherever he was. Amazing the evil that sport can summon.
We left walking back with our friends, some of whom were European sympathizers, who may have felt it odd to watch Americans lament the outcome of a soccer game, but offered comfort nonetheless. I was too downtrodden to really notice the reaction of the African / Egyptian crowd, so I am afraid I cannot report. This is the problem, I suppose, when a journalist gets involved in the stories he covers. Objectivity goes out the window.
It is true, though, that the episode gains the touch of humanity often missing in the nightly news. In our work I feel like a pseudo-journalist; I must tell the story, but I have a goal beyond objectivity. We wish to aid understanding and peace building both here in Egypt and in intercultural relations in general. You are free and invited to question the descriptions given above, or in any other reports offered. Yet at the same time, please receive the dual assurance: I will not manipulate stories, and I will strive to care about our subjects, investing myself wherever possible. If either one of these is neglected, then why bother at all?
A final note, to return to the soccer narrative: Looking back, I can identify two premonitions that tugged at me as the game was about to begin. First, I do not generally consider myself a patriot, but I increasingly coordinated my clothing with US colors as the tournament went on. That evening I wore my red t-shirt only to find that it was Ghana wearing nearly the exact same color. I thought of removing it, but propriety intervened. Should I have done otherwise?
Second, our oldest daughter has always had difficulty pronouncing the name of her Uncle Aaron. In her parlance, he becomes ‘Uncle Gyan’. Gyan, though, is the name of the Ghanaian forward, and the player who tallied the winning goal. Why did this thought enter my head in the minutes before kickoff? What cosmic effect did the failure to exorcize it have on the outcome of the game? Was it worsened by the fact I remained shirted? Amazing the lunacy that sport can summon.
So, another four year World Cup cycle awaits. Ecstasy to agony is the story for all but the champion, including the legions of fans who fall by the wayside. Fortunately, the metro stays open until 1:00am during the summer, so the miserable ride home cost only eighteen cents rather than a four dollar taxi fare. Egypt is a wonderful country, even if their soccer fans side against us. Alas.