Saturday, June 19, 2010

School Spirit

Late in the fall of my senior year of high school, my friends discovered that I'd never been to a football game. They informed me that this situation had to be rectified before I graduated.

I resisted them. I'd made it through nearly four seasons without attending a football game and had not yet felt the lack. Generally, I am not a football fan - and I knew even less of the game in high school than I do today.

But my friends insisted. It was a high school experience I should have.

I still disputed them. My high school experience was not particularly normal in any sense. I felt no need to pretend it was.

They informed me that there was only one game left in the season, and I needed to support my school.

I said I had no school spirit. My school was actually two schools sharing a campus; we had classes in both with people from both and were only separate for administrative things and sports teams. So my attachment to Canton, my own school, was not particularly strong. Salem had better pep rallies (which I attended because I got out of class), and better sports teams overall (but I'd never seen them play). The final game of each football season was the Canton v. Salem game, and Salem had won for 17 consecutive years.

My friends ignored my protests. They informed me that I was going to attend the final game of the season. They informed me I was going to support Canton.

I tried to plead that one of my good buddies since Kindergarten played for Salem, but my friends would not allow me to root for the "other" team. They dragged me to the game, and I determined I would be neutral.

I really can't remember much of the actual game. I remember the cold. I remember walking up into the stands. I remember looking down at the field from above and seeing the teams stretched out in formation below me. However, understanding none of the rules of the sport at that point in my life, all I saw was a line of blue and a line of red running into each other at regular intervals. But slowly, as the temperature dropped, the numbers on the Canton side of the scoreboard rose.

And, as the moments of the game ticked away, I found myself growing agitated, interested, and even, dare I say it, excited that Canton was winning. I looked down at the blue Salem bench and spotted my friend's number on a jersey. I had a moment of divided loyalties, but as the crowd grew noisier, I discovered something: I had school spirit.

When the final whistle blew, I cheered and yelled and smiled and laughed with the Canton fans as I watched my friend fall to his knees as his team lost the game for the first time in 18 years.

Yesterday, I didn't get to watch the whole US game. I had to go to lunch with friends who are coming as students next year. As I stood in line for the cafeteria, one of PBU's soccer players was checking people in. A small crowd had formed around her - some with responsibilities, others just hanging. I came up to the table to scan my card, and one of the crowd was giving commentary: "They're still down 2-1." She glanced at her phone. "No! Wait! They tied!"

The soccer player cheered, and nearly lost count of the people in line. And I, scanning my card and turning in, felt that strange stirring within my heart once again. I missed the controversial recall of the 3rd US goal, but when I looked it up later I felt a little outrage deep inside.

These feelings make little sense to my brain. After all, I'm rooting for England, right? But, if the US continues to do well, I might just discover that deeply hidden "school" spirit once again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Whoever Plays the Yankees

I have an uncle who loves baseball. When I say that, I'm not sure you can quite understand me - unless you have one of those types in your own family. He LOVES baseball.

Now, often team loyalties in sports come through familial ties. A son loves the team his father loves, unless of course, he grows to hate that team. But probably, more often than not, the favorite team passes from father to son. One reason for this may be location - if a boy grows up in Baltimore, just like his father, he's likely to love the Orioles, just like his father.

But for my uncle and his sons, that love of team has gotten a little confused. They've moved all over the country, and while the love of baseball has passed from father to son, the team loyalties are representative of each son's experiences. The youngest, born in Chicago, is a Cubs fan to the end. The middle son, who went to school in Boston, loves the Red Sox. The eldest, living in Minneapolis, has become a Twins fan. They all love baseball, but have their own voices as to which team deserves their fandom.

My uncle, though, has passed one thing along to his sons. You see, he has a favorite team - if you push him, he'd root for the Phillies or the Orioles (one NL, one AL) - but on a day-to-day basis, my uncle's favorite team is whoever plays the Yankees. And this loathing is what he's passed on - they all hate the Yankees. Any chance they have to see the Yankees lose, my uncle and my cousins are there, cheering for the opposition.

I feel the same way about Germany in football. Too many times I've seen the powerhouse nation crush the hopes of the underdog. I was in Czech Republic during the 1996 final EuroCup game, and listened to the silent streets when Germany defeated them in extra time. I've watched them defeat my favorite England in various matches. Any chance I have to see Germany lose, then, and I'm cheering for the opposition.

Here's the problem, though. Germany's good. Really good. I actually really enjoy watching them play. I went into Sunday's game slightly hopeful, but my hope in Australia was crushed, then crushed again, then crushed for a third time, and a fourth. Yeah. It was painful. I have a fondness for Spain simply because they beat Germany two years ago in the EuroCup final...and they got upset yesterday by the Swiss - I wonder if the majority of the Swiss team is German- or French-speaking?

But hey, upsets happen. The other day New Zealand pulled out an equalizer in the final minute of extra time. Today Mexico beat France by two. And maybe I can take comfort in that. Because tomorrow morning a little country I wouldn't typically root for is playing Germany, and it's pretty likely that they will fail miserably.

But I'll be rooting for an upset - by Serbia of all teams - because, when it comes down to it, I cheer for whoever plays the Germans.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why England?

In case you didn't know, the World Cup starts tomorrow. Some delightful student painted the spirit rock before the end of the school year, and we're still enjoying it.
Added to that enjoyment, my boss brought in her Brasil flag and jersey to hang in her office. She's feeling homesick, a little. We went by the dollar store the other day to get streamers, and she decorated her ceiling with green, yellow, and blue tassels.

I, on the other hand, typically have a little dilemma when it comes to the World Cup. See, I have two favorite teams. Fortunately, if I'm just going for colors, I'm pretty safe - red and white cover both - but if I want a flag, well, then things get complicated.

However, this year, Croatia didn't make it to the Cup. And I'm sad about that, but relieved that I won't have to have torn loyalties again. Instead, I can focus my attention on my other favorite: England.
The other day, someone asked me, "Why England?" And it caught me a little by surprise. See, I can tell you the whole story of why I love Croatia. In fact, I'll include that story at the end of this post. But I don't quite remember why I like England.
Maybe it's the red and white. Since I went into sixth grade my school colors have included some form of red and white. Perhaps, subliminally, I'm drawn to the shades.
Maybe it's St. George's Cross. I've always loved the legend of St. George and the Dragon. I'm still waiting for my brother-in-law to have time to actually make the bronze miniature of the scene he once described hoping to make about 14 years ago.
Maybe it goes back to Beckham. I definitely became more aware of England when Beckham played for them, and I still argue that there's no one more enjoyable to watch on set plays than the man who can "bend a ball" like that.
But the school color concept could be shot full of holes, probably, if I tried. And St. George and the Dragon doesn't seem to really hold up as an argument for liking a soccer team. And Beckham's not playing this series, and there are other players who I've always liked as much or more than him.
So when I was asked, "Why England?" I had to dig a little deeper to find my answer. It struck me with surprising clarity when I finally came upon it. "I think it goes back to Hong Kong," I said. "I did live in a British Territory."
I often tell people that I'm Chinese on the inside. My time in Asia and my family's love of the continent has shaped who I am. But maybe a little part of my inside is English, too. It's the part that thinks "rubbish bin," or spells "favourite" and "behaviour" with a "u." And actually, it's the part that remembers pausing on the sidewalk to watch a rugby game or cricket match at the school down the street - and yes, the part that stood by fences watched a football match out on the pitch.
Yesterday, I was sent a link to an article on the idea that "Football is War," and it reminded me of some of the reasons I love Croatia. When I have a chance, I'll post my thoughts on that football team.

"Listening Walls"
I watched it on a small TV at a friend’s house in rural Alaska. Outside my window were scruffy spruce trees and rugged mountains on a cool spring June day, on the television was a hot European summer and an old stadium in Berlin filled with fans – some in yellow and green, some in red and white. The walls of that Olympic Stadium must have shaken with the swelling sound of the crazed supporters for the opposing teams. As it came over the airwaves to me, a part of me had to laugh – I was watching this scene in a place where soccer is barely recognized as a sport (it’s not hockey, after all). But for much of the planet, the World Cup is the greatest sporting event.

It was the ultimate underdog soccer match, Croatia against Brazil. They’d made it to the World Cup again, but no one expected much from Croatia, especially playing against Brazil. There are reasons why Brazil leads the world in football. They are truly great. But, alone in the wilderness of Alaska, I was rooting for Croatia.

My love affair with Croatia began ten years earlier than that game, on a hot June day in 1996, when I landed in the Zagreb airport and headed out across the country to my friend’s home. Forty years of communist rule followed by four years of war for independence had left its mark on the countryside. The beautiful landscape, once a draw for tourists from around the world, was ravaged by bombs and landmines. The fragile economy was taking its first tentative steps toward a market system. A proud race of people looked at their devastated countryside and found it hard to muster confidence for the future. Buildings bombed at the beginning of the war were overgrown with vegetation, while the ruins of more recent battles were still charred rubble.

There was a hospital that had once been premiere in the region, which had been bombed by Serbian troops. Passing the shell of the hospital complex, I wondered at the hatred that could lead to such atrocity. We stopped outside a little town named Lipik, at the ruins of a Lipizzaner horse farm. It seemed to fit that Croatia, home to a strong and proud people, would also be home for the tall, beautiful show horses. On a tour of the farm, I learned that the Serbs had positioned themselves on the ridge, bombed the stables with napalm, and then stolen the horses that weren’t killed. At one time, Croatia had the largest population of Lipizzaner horses in the world, but the man showing us around told us with tears in his eyes that they had all been taken away. The war was not simply about land and sovereignty; it was the age-old story of brother fighting against brother – each knowing just how to strike the rawest nerve and cripple the enemy’s pride. Walking through the stable, my toe touched a half-burned name plate and I bent down to read it: Vida, “life.”

It is said that it was a soccer match that triggered Croatia’s war for independence. In 1990, violence broke out between Croatian fans and Serbian fans at a match between a Zagreb team and a Belgrade team. No one knows who threw the first stone, but the police force, mostly Serbian, allowed the Serb fans to continue and beat the Croatian fans. One Croatian player got involved and karate kicked a Serbian policeman. It was known as “the kick which started the war.” Within the month, a Croatian parliament held its first session and war began.
War in the Balkans is always a complicated matter: religion, ethnicity, and political affiliations divide people who in reality are very similar. But brutal fighting has torn the region for over a thousand years. In the Croatian war for independence, over ten thousand people were killed. At the end of it, a place that had once been a favorite stop for tourists became known as a war zone. A country that hoped to prove its potential to the world was relegated to the status of “former Yugoslavic republic.”

The experience of watching the 1998 World Cup final in France is a still image forever imprinted on my memory – a crowd of people gathered in the rain around one television set, covered with a raincoat in an outdoor café – but it is the game a day or so earlier that plays itself out on live video in my mind: the third place game. The great Oranje of the Netherlands against the unexpected Croatian team – this team, from a country that had not even existed seven years earlier, was up against one of the best teams in Europe. I watched the game in a French bistrot, surrounded by drunk Dutchmen garbed orange…and I rooted for Croatia.

I’ve been on the streets of a European city when their team is the underdog in a major match. Traffic stills; the bustle of an ordinary day quiets. In cafés and on street corners men huddle around television sets intent upon the action. No matter where you go – from hotel lobbies to police stations, cafés to grocery stores – you can find a place to watch. I’m sure that the streets of Zagreb were quiet that day. They may have even set up large television sets in public places so that people who didn’t have them could watch. When Croatia scored, I bet you could hear the roar of the crowds echo through the cobblestone streets, all sharing the euphoric experience of joy.

In the little French bistrot, I was the only one rooting for the checkered red and white team, and, for fear of inciting the drunken, orange mob surrounding me, my outward celebration at their win was subdued. But internally I thrilled with joy. I knew I was joining thousands celebrating in a little country on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. I can imagine the silent streets of Zagreb flooding with citizens, singing and celebrating all night long in the city’s square. Only three years after the end of a terrible war, a young and struggling nation had made a name for itself on a world stage. I remember images of grown men weeping, and a country celebrating together as if it had again declared its independence.

Eight years later they returned to the World Cup for an encore performance. The team’s play was not as impressive as their first turn, and early match-ups against Titan teams didn’t bode well for the little country’s success. But the Croats had not forgotten what it meant to be there, to be playing – even if they were the long shot.

The old stadium in Berlin was overrun with Croatian fans, whose voices never hushed throughout ninety minutes of play. I watched from the other side of the world, kneeling on the floor in front of the television – rising up when the play grew intense, leaning back in the few quiet moments. For the entire game Brazil out-played Croatia. And for the entire game Croatia hung in there. They only allowed one goal.

The final 10 minutes of that match were electrifying. Watching on a small television, thousands of miles away, I was engulfed by the sound that filled the stadium. Every thought I was thinking and feeling I felt were displayed in full color and noise. The commentators could barely be heard over the din, but one of them said, “And remember, this is for the team that’s losing!” The entire Olympic stadium swayed with the sound and fury of the Croatian fans, who never gave up, even as their team lost.

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin was built at Hitler’s orders. He moved the games to Berlin from Poland in 1936 with the intention of showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race, but an American Black man named Jesse Owens won four gold medals. As I watched a soccer match in that stadium on a June day in seventy years later, a little part of me wondered what those walls – built for the glory of Hitler – thought about that crowd. A group of people whose land had been wracked by genocide and war, playing their hearts out on the field, singing their hearts out in the stands, forgetting for a moment the horror they had lived – the killing and being killed – in the glory of knowing that they had made it through and were once again players on a world stage.