"Someone said, 'Football is more important than life and death to you,' and I said, 'Listen, it's more important than that.' "
-- Huddersfield Football Club manager and
Scotland international soccer player Bill Shankly
The best place to watch the 2006 FIFA World Cup final on July 9 will be standing in the middle of a sweaty, 74,000-strong crowd on the terraces of the flying saucer-shaped Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany. Ah, to be there -- to watch the Italians falling theatrically, the English failing majestically and the Ghanaians defending questionably. And then finally, a full month later, 63 games since host country Germany kicked off against Costa Rica on June 9, to watch the Brazilian squad winning effortlessly just like they did before in 2002 and in 1994, 1970, 1962 and 1958.
For one month every four years, the entire world is reduced -- simplified -- to a soccer game: Ninety minutes, two halves, 22 men, one referee and approximately a billion or so spectators. As the qualifying countries battle it out on the field, the drama and excitement of the World Cup is undeniable -- unless, of course, you live in the United States, in which case it's fairly easy to ignore.
The players: France's Zinedine Zidane, Brazil's Ronaldinho, Italy's Totti and Cote d'Ivoire's Didier Drogba. Heroes. Half-deities. Giants among men. It's like opera, but with mud.
This time around, Serbia and Montenegro has a team in the Cup.
So does Trinidad and Tobago. Even Angola, Tunisia and Iran will be fielding teams.
And if, by chance, the United States and Iran advance far enough to meet one another in competition, it will be about soccer and not nuclear proliferation. Likewise, if Serbia and Montenegro plays Croatia, it will be about soccer and not the Croatian War of Independence of the 1990s.
Soccer is the equalizer. If England plays Argentina, it will be about Diego Maradona (the barrel-chested little cheat) and the illegal goal he scored with his hand (with his hand!) in the Mexico 1986 World Cup quarterfinals, knocking England out of the competition. For the most part, though, it will be about soccer.
During the 2002 World Cup, which was held in Japan and South Korea, I was traveling through Southeast Asia. Wherever I was, from the bustle of Bangkok to a remote hill station in Vietnam to a jungle village in Laos, there were always at least two televisions blaring, broadcasting two games at once, with a pack of locals running from one game to the other.
Despite the lack of a common language between us, every Cambodian villager I met attempted to discuss the broken metatarsal bones in David Beckham's left foot. In Nong Khai, an empty town on the border between northern Thailand and Laos, I asked a villager which team was winning when Germany played the Republic of Ireland. He held two fingers under his nose to imitate Hitler's mustache, raised his other arm in salute and goose-stepped enthusiastically down the road, kicking his flip-flops high in the air. Germany, in other words -- or, more correctly, in the absence of words -- held the lead.
This time around, Germany hosts the World Cup and the 32 qualifying teams will set up camp there for the month. Games will be played in 12 stadiums dotted across the country, in cities including Hamburg, Hanover, Nuremberg and Stuttgart. In the same way the whole world is deconstructed and simplified by the World Cup, Germany will be stripped of its geography until all that remains is these 12 cities, their cavernous stadiums and little else.
For most of us, a seat in the Olympiastadion for the World Cup final is not a likely prospect. With less than a month left before the start of the competition, seats in the sky boxes at the Cup final are selling for a cool $22,000 each. A seat among the proletariat on the sidelines, near the surface of the carefully-manicured field, costs $7,280. And for a Category 4 seat, high up behind the goal somewhere, your view affected by the great distances light must travel to reach you, will still cost $4,500.
All games will be shown on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, so there's no need to go bankrupt to enjoy the tournament. And there are isolated pockets of fanaticism right here in town, too.
For many ex-patriots, Hap's Irish Pub on Erie Avenue will become a home away from home for a month this summer. I ask owner Danny Thomas if he'll be showing World Cup games. "We'll show all of 'em," he says matter-of-factly.
With eight groups of teams in the first round and four teams in each group, the first frantic weeks of the Cup will see lots of games being played simultaneously, the outcome of which will all affect one another. In other words, Thomas will need plenty of TVs.
"We're going to have one on the deck," he says, "and there's three inside. So there's a total of four."
Games will begin as early as 9 a.m. Eastern time and as late as 3 p.m., and schedules are available at the official FIFA Germany 2006 Web site (fifaworldcup.yahoo.com/ 06/en).
For fans on the other side of the river, there's English pub Cock 'N Bull on Covington's MainStrasse. "We'll be open for every game," says co-owner Craig Johnson, "no matter what time it's at."
Johnson says he's planning a promotion with Spaten Beer, brewed in Germany, and will be showing the games on a plasma screen television. Hofbrauhaus in Newport also plans to show games and celebrate its Teutonic heritage but at press time hasn't yet decided just how Teutonic it wants to get.
So there's no excuse to not watch the Cup, soccer fans. Make sure you find yourselves a hockey fan and designate him your personal driver until July 9, or just stay at home and throw a World Cup party. And make sure you invite me. ©