Thursday, July 06, 2006

World Cup 2006: The Month Thailand Stood Still

One of the ten questions that every single Thai will ask a Falang when they meet is, “yoo prated nai?”, which means, “What country are you living in?”. What they’re really asking you is “where you are from?”, but the concept that you are actually living here doesn’t register. When I answer that I am from America, I am usually greeted with a thumbs up, and a “America, Very Good!” “Our countries are friends,” they’ll explain.

The other week, I walked into the local gov’t office, floating on that cloudy level of consciousness that means I either drank two shots of Nyquil or stayed up all night. As I plugged in my computer, a queue formed at my desk. One by one, my friends and co-workers took turns shaking their heads in disapproval, either laughing or showing disgust, summed up by a collective thumbs-down, saying in unison, “America is bad, America is finished.”

The night beforehand America had been eliminated from the World Cup.

Thailand has never qualified for the World Cup, and is well behind other Asian nations in the development of their national program, so there is no reason to believe they will ever qualify in the distant future. Yet Thailand is totally bonkers about the World Cup.

Some things to consider…

• Thailand is expecting a huge economic downturn this month as a result of the World Cup. Gambling is expected to be rampant, and there have been gov’t campaigns giving encouragement to “keep working”.

• Thais, generally, go to the temple in the morning of their birthday to make merit. As described in a recent article in Reuters, some Thais who have the misfortune of having their birthday this month are met by monks too tired to perform the ritual. Why? Because they were up all night watching the games.

• A Thai friend of mine in BKK actually quit his job so that he could give sufficient attention to the World Cup. Again, the World Cup is at night.

• This year the Di Vinci Code wasn’t the only film suppressed by the Thai censors. A Thai comedy about Laos hosting the World Cup, and as a result getting an automatic bid for the tournament, was protested by the Laos gov’t and eventually cancelled. It defamed Laos culture, which is, more or less, Isaan culture.

• The sixtieth anniversary of the King’s coronation took place this month. In an effort to remind everyone that this event was taking place, they showed footage of fabulous ceremonies in the Palace with foreign dignitaries. For a week, this footage was broadcast instead of the first World Cup game of the night, and is responsible for the only time I’ve ever heard a Thai badmouth the King.

• The viewing population of all the games combined is expected to equal 54 billion viewers worldwide. The population of the earth is 6.6 billion. Think about that.

This is the equivalent of having multiple Super Bowls broadcast every night for a month. Is it strange that Americans have absolutely no interest in the World Cup? I have grown to appreciate soccer during my time overseas, but I can remember what soccer meant to my generation growing up. Soccer is the most popular sport in America, among 7-11 year olds, and then well, we move on. I mean no offense to any former or current soccer players, but in my recollection, you continued playing soccer only if one of the following applied:

1. You were born to immigrant parents

2. Your parents wanted to see if you were athletic. If it turned out that yes, you could run in a straight line, when you came of age you were given a helmet and shoulder pads and told to run into each other at speed. If no, have you any interest in the band? If you couldn’t manage “It’s a Small World” on the recorder, then you embarked on a journey through the second-tier pantheon of high school sports- soccer, lacrosse, or tennis. Like my friend Brent Fenneman explained to me, “If you can’t hack it, grab a racket.”

3. You were a hot girl. (Can I even say that anymore? I’m turning 25 this weekend, and I’m unsure if I can refer to a high school girl as hot. Let’s move on…)

Am I generalizing? Of course. But look no further than the US soccer teams. The men are led by Claudio Reyna, Pablo Mastroeni, and Oguchi Onyewu. The US women are hot and famous for tearing their jerseys off after victories.


US Women's Soccer. Why do I feel obligated to tip them?

This, by the way, is no indictment of soccer. Is football any better? Who in their right mind can look back at a ten year-old running around in a plastic bag so that he can drop ten pounds and be able to go out and butt heads with a classmate, and think, yeah that’s intelligent? I remember in college, a coach had collected all the battle scenes from Braveheart to show us before a game. Any sport in which it helps to watch a man being speared with a trident beforehand probably should not be played.

Who’s wins? Definitely the bowlegged kid who’s parents felt sorry for him and bought him a guitar. For the rest of his life, he’ll have the uncanny ability to pick up women, while I can throw an oblong ball forty yards in the air. Like my mom would say, with that and a quarter, I can make a phone call.

One area that American soccer is unmatched is our youth team names. In my own youth, I had the honor of taking the field for the Pac Men and the Gremlins, which are the best names since Dirk Diggler came up with Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell. In no other sport are great names like these even considered. Although in college, there was a movement to change the Columbia mascot from the Lion to the Ghostbusters, with theme song and all. Now that would have been a cool name.

During my own youth soccer days, some of the proudest moments for my family occurred while I was in goal. Anyone who’s ever seen a youth soccer game can attest to the fact that it rivals curling and competitive walking as the most boring sporting events in the world. And curling is growing on me. As a player, I would grow bored with the game and amuse myself by getting tied up in the netting of the goal. Someone would eventually have to come untie me and continue play. But one time, as my parents would tell it, when the ball finally made its way to our side of the field, the crowd noticed the goalie (me) had disappeared only to come running from the bathroom minutes later. I don’t remember much of my early youth, but I remember that decision, and it wasn’t a difficult one.


Unlike Will Ferrell, Americans aren't very serious about their soccer.

My own appreciation of soccer grew out of my time in the Peace Corps, specifically in Haiti. I remember taking my host-brother to the local soccer field early one morning to kick the ball around. As we were about to leave, a group of men came on the field ready to play. In a country with 95% unemployment, playing soccer on a Wednesday morning is a popular activity. My kreyol wasn’t at all good at this point (and really never got there), but I got the idea they wanted me to take some penalty kicks with them. I set the ball up about 15 feet from the goal, with a tall, athletic man guarding it, obviously not about to let me score in front of his friends. Line anyone up in front of a soccer ball, and there is some percentage, albeit very small, that he’ll kick the ball true and accurately in the corner of the goal. There’s also a small percentage chance he’ll do this on his first try. The stars aligned and that’s exactly what happened, as the ball left my foot and curved past his outstretched fingertips and went into the street because there was no net to stop it. While his friends nodded in acceptance and appreciation, I bid them goodbye and left quickly, terrified they’d ask me back for more. Best to quit while ahead.

In Thailand, I’ve continued to follow international soccer, if only to end uncomfortable silences. As my vocabulary has grown, my ability to hold a real conversation has extended from two to ten to maybe twenty minutes. But then the person I’m talking with and I will just nod our heads, realizing we’ve nothing more to say, and I’ll offer a “So, how about France beating Brazil? How about that?”

My TAO office invited me to watch some of the games here. They used the projector and covered the side of my friend’s house with whiteboard, so that we’d have a giant screen. No matter what the game is, everyone here watches it. Trinidad & Tobago vs. Sweden even drew a crowd, which evidently only funny to me, had to ask which team was which. For the first couple weeks, games took place at 8pm, 11pm and 2am. I came here to watch a few of the games, and experience a few peculiarities of how Thais watch soccer, specifically who they root for.


I dare my father to buy a bigger screen than this

So you have absolutely no vested interest in any of the teams in the tournament, yet you enjoy watching the games and want to support a team. Who to root for? Naturally inclined to root for the Asian teams, my friends initially supported Korea and Japan. But I quickly found out that most Thais root for whatever team is winning. I invited friends over to watch the US vs. Ghana, only to witness them change sides with each goal scored. In the final minutes of the game, all my friends said they cheered for Ghana, because they’re better. “You can’t do that,” I complained. “You can’t just root for the winning team based on that alone.” That’s like rooting for the Yankees, cancer, or the Republican Party. Thais are no fan of the underdog.

And this weekend, as Italy and France face each other in the finals, my neighbors won’t go to sleep disappointed, because either way, they win.

For the past month, when I meet new people and tell them I’m American, they laugh and shake their heads. “You’re not very good at soccer then,” they’ll say. In another month, it’ll probably go back to “Very Good!”, but for now, at least we have something to talk about.

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