• U.S.

An American Spectator

5 minute read
Gregory Jaynes

WE — THE UNITED STATES OF AMERIca and I — managed to get the World Cup kicked off all right last Friday in Chicago. Bolivia, grateful just to be in competition on the tepid shores of Lake Michigan, kept the Cup-holding Germans to a single goal before a crowd of 63,117 gathered in a great, poured-concrete tureen called Soldier Field. At the half, the temperature broke upon your cheek, hot enough for the back of a wristwatch to singe, and I, the only blue eye among distinguished Asian bleacher mates, remarked that someone could stir us and call us shabu-shabu. A mirthless response forced me to note that levity is a poor camouflage for the unlettered, even in sports.

It was my wish to bring an unsullied mind to the game, and so I approached Chicago packing little to no scholastic preparation. The careful reader will recall that last week I confessed to a profound ignorance of the sport we Americans continue to call soccer (we provincials in our middle years know it, alas, as “girl’s kickball”), and I remained, through the run-up to the opening match, in the cellar of understanding.

I reached “that toddling town,” as Frank Sinatra has it, about two steps behind a heat wave that had Chicagoans speculating whether a human could actually melt. The weather was all the word hereabouts, the weather and O.J. Simpson, and the two local subjects, heat and homicide, utterly eclipsed the Cup, the most popular sporting event on earth. Nevertheless there was a parade, and bunting and flags were hung about, and the city cleaned itself and put out flowers and swept bums under the rug. Outside those who stood to turn a dollar (about 200 million of them were expected to be spent in Chicago during the event) and who therefore were keen on the sport, an air of polite interest invested the town. The atmosphere was reported similar in eight other American venues where the Cup competition commenced after the Chicago opening.

Trackers of such things said that 1 in every 5 of all citizens of the planet watched the ceremonies and the action here in Chicago, meaning that 1 billion pairs of eyes fixed me as close to the President of the United States as, say, Charles is to Di on a good day, spiritually. American TV personality Oprah Winfrey gave the greeting “Hello, world,” followed by four songs about love and stuff from Diana Ross, then a peacockish revue of the 24 countries competing in the 52 matches being held in America, then a splendidly brief welcome by Bill Clinton, who joined German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in conditioned, shady air to watch the match. The rest of us rose on sweaty feet to three national anthems. Then, action.

The Bolivians had not been in Cup play since 1950, had not been in these finals before that since 1930, had never even scored in the World Cup, much less won a game, and I had never seen a soccer game, so Bolivia was easy to cheer. The Germans won the Cup in 1990, came in second in 1986 and 1982 and had every right to feel superior. Any old dilettante could see that they played better, with more control, even though this dilettante couldn’t find excuse enough to use such sportswriterly terms as teutonic wedge and the like. (Had the gents from 3,660-m-high La Paz triumphed, I had worked up a sportsy, turgid sentence along the lines of “driven by the lungs of mighty Wurlitzers. . .”)

To the unpracticed eye, nothing much happened in the first half, though there was some eggbeater-like action in midfield a time or two. When the ball strayed into the stands, play stopped until the fans returned it to play, something that rarely happens in American sports. American sports are so spoiled, in fact, they tend to demand a new, unblemished ball if a seam so much as feels a sigh coming on.

In the 61st minute, Jurgen Klinsmann, a star scorer for the Germans, earned his pay by acquiring a point while the Bolivian goaltender, Carlos Trucco, was engaged in picking himself up off the ground. German enthusiasts chanted, whooped and sang, while Bolivian hearts sank along with mine. The game ended orderly and soberly 29 minutes later. There was nothing rowdy or untoward about the crowd at any time, despite the sport’s reputation for passion that leaves bruises. People just got up and walked out. No announcer said anything, not even the final score or that it was time to go, on the public address system, which had gone unemployed throughout the whole match. Football people assume that if you are there you know why — they don’t need to tell you what’s going on, let alone whom they find the hero at the end of the piece.

When the sun set, veterans said it was hard to believe they were in a World Cup town. The center held. The faithful said it felt weird being somewhere that didn’t skip a beat for such a seismic affair. Phil Hersh, who writes for the daily Chicago Tribune and is extraordinarily fond of soccer, told his readers he wished the World Cup weren’t happening here. “I want the World Cup in a country where cheers come from restaurant kitchens when the home team scores,” he wrote.

That did not happen here. Outside Soldier Field, the business of America, which is business, was not suspended. Too bad for America, I say. I mean, I was in Soldier Field, aiming to learn something by and by. Next week, the bell tolls in California.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com