It is arguably the biggest sporting event in the world, even bigger than the Olympics. Also held every four years, the FIFA World Cup dominates most of the world for a month or so – pretty much everywhere except North America.
Here the sport that the rest of the world refers to as football has a different name, soccer. Football in Canada and the United States is completely different. Some sports fans follow the World Cup, but most North Americans don’t seem to care. It isn’t our game, even if more and more young people are taking up the sport, it hasn’t entered our national consciousness.
When we lived in Liberia I had my first taste of how important football can be in some countries, bigger even than hockey is to Canadians (and that is saying something). For young Liberians soccer could be their ticket out of poverty. With the average annual income at the time being about $350 the thought of playing professional soccer was a very appealing dream to most young men. And they knew it could be done – George Oppong Weah, who would be FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995, was already making a name for himself as a Liberian playing in Europe.
Soccer/football was so important that when the Liberian national team won an important match the President would declare the following day as a national holiday. That meant that even those who didn’t care for the sport had a certain interest in the outcome of the games.
I knew intellectually how important the World Cup was in Europe, but I had never been on the continent for a game. And just my luck, this year the World Cup was in Brazil, which meant that the games were being played very late at night in Europe. But that didn’t stop us from the experience, at least a part of it.
In Brussels service was slow in the restaurant we were at when the game was on. No problem, we had kind of expected that. I knew there were outdoor parties with big screens throughout the city, but we didn’t take part in that – we were still a little jet lagged and none of them was near our hostel. We did join the crowd in the market square in in Ypres though, for a while anyway. I had a suspicion Belgium wasn’t going to pull out a win, and at our bed & breakfast we could watch the game in English instead of Flemish, so after watching a bit we just grabbed some food and went home.
From a football perspective my trip planning was off by a day, but it was the only way our itinerary would work. I had wanted to be in Germany for the final, especially since I thought from the beginning that Germany would be in that last match. The way it worked out though, we were in Bucharest. We seriously considered heading to the University where there was a huge block party with big screens and entertainment, but with the game starting at 11 p.m. I decided I just wasn’t up for it. I guess that means I’m not that big a fan, or maybe it is just I am not a fan of crowds. We watched in our hotel room and I just managed to stay awake to the end of the game.
Strangely enough, when we arrived in Germany the next day there was no trace of a World Cup victory celebration and no mention of ongoing events. If that was ice hockey in Canada there would have been parades and parties for a week. Maybe I just missed them – easy to do since I don’t speak German.
Even though we missed out on the greatest part of the World Cup frenzy, it was interesting to see first-hand how such a sporting event can impact a nation. In Brussels it seemed every second apartment had a Belgian flag hanging from it to celebrate the team. The same thing in Ypres. When the national team was playing, everything else ground to a halt. And I suspect not much work got done the next day either.