Watching People Watching Soccer
By Grant Rosenberg

It is an incongruous image, a Jumbotron set up in front of the Hotel de Ville, the city hall of Paris since 1533. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people overflow from the square into the street, even onto the bridge that leads to Notre Dame down the street. All are there to watch the opening French soccer match taking place way over in Asia, where the French team is playing Senegal.

Walking over to Place de l’Hotel de Ville, I had expected to see a hundred or so people that would come and go, much like at the modest, summer afternoon concerts in downtown Chicago with their lunchbreak visitors. Instead there was a swelling mass of people, tourists and citizens with standing room only, splayed out in front of a Jumbotron that was nowhere near jumbo enough. Of course, this could be my Americanness talking, which gives me the impression that we should do everything on a large scale and sit too close to the TV. Placing a television screen in a large public space in the city seemed a practical way to keep tabs on the game in the middle of one's day, not to mention one of the generous social services the French nation is known for.

Like it does for many Americans, soccer bores me. Though I played it happily in my youth, I lost interest in high school. Why did this happen for me and so many others? While professional soccer exists in the United States, it suffers from a miniscule, though committed, fanbase. This seems more than a bit ironic considering that soccer is such a strong part of the elementary and high school sports curriculum. In contrast, while football is the most popular and well-attended high school sport, it isn’t played in gym class in its full glory. Yet football has thrived professionally as one of the big three spectator sports in the United States, even though most men have never played it themselves as it is played on the professional field. Soccer, on the other hand, seems to be in its nature a participatory rather than a spectator sport, at least in the United States.

Though I find watching baseball a bit boring, it does not compare to the tedium of watching soccer, on a field that I’m not the first to opine is just too damn big. Back in 1998 during the last World Cup, New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik was living in Paris. In an attempt to understand why soccer is so well loved the world over, compared to the lack of interest in the United States, Gopnik forced himself to watch a month’s worth of matches. He eventually came around, either due to a form of Helsinki syndrome or an honest epiphany of how soccer relates to life. "We seek unfair advantage, celebrate tiny moments of pleasure as though they were final victories, score goals for the wrong side," wrote Gopnik. "The World Cup is a festival of fate: man accepting his hard circumstances, the near certainty of his failure."

Add to this the geopolitical issues, and hell, it's quite a thing, the World Cup is. A former colony of France, Senegal is competing for the first time in the World Cup. As the formerly colonized takes the field against the former colonizer, immediately the potential for hubris comes out to play, in a way that doesn’t when sports teams from, say, Indianapolis and Cleveland face each other. Unlike our rather puffed-up notions of a "World" series in baseball, the World Cup is actually global. What's more, the World Cup feels less like the Olympics in general and more like the 1980 U.S.A vs. U.S.S.R. hockey match, with that kind of potential international drama. In other words, it isn’t politics, but it is political. In England, church times were changed this past Sunday so as to not create a conflict for soccer fans. There were even Jumbotrons erected on church grounds. In the Middle East, Arabs and Jews put aside conflicts for a bit to watch the matches together, reports an article on MSNBC’s site. With World Cup fever, one gets the sense that the geopolitical events of the day are just a nuisance, that the conflicts of nations should have a time-out for the sake of world sports. Like a marriage that stays together for the spectacular anniversary parties, the World Cup demands it.

It is still something I am not accustomed to, how sports news headlines outside the United States read like political science book spines, grandiose declarations of nation-states and their battles. Mexico vs. Croatia, Brazil vs. Turkey. It is epic, grand, much like the field itself; slow-going, like international diplomacy.

In 1998, Jean-Marie Le Pen commented on the French players, with their diversity of color and origin, for not singing the national anthem with enough feeling. For most others, the team was a symbol of French diversity and unity, particularly when it went on to win the World Cup. And now here they are again, four years later, still having Le Pen to kick around (despite his defeat in the presidential election, his National Front party is up for more than a few legislative seats in the election this month), an even more multi-ethnic team, in a Europe becoming more conservative about immigration and what it means to belong to a nation. The main star of the team, probably the most famous face in France these days, is Zinedine Zidane. His Algerian parents came to Marseille, where Zidane was born, much like many immigrant families in the wake of decolonialization and war. He led France to victory in the 1998 World Cup, and though injured at the moment is the anchor for this team of defending champions. He is also as ubiquitous as Michael Jordan, selling phone services, water and more. And also like Jordan, he is a symbol. As national hero #1 amongst not just the large North African population but the white French kids, he represents a victory for cultural identity and also transcends it. Pop culture heroism trumps prejudice every time.


The crowd in Place de l’Hotel de Ville roars as if the match is happening in front of us. There are vendors for food and sundries, along with TV cameramen documenting the festivities that are undoubtedly taking place all over the world, but particularly in France and specifically in Paris, where they still talk about the celebrations in 1998. I spend more time watching the crowd than the match, finding the energy thrilling, hearing a shockingly loud collective roar each time that hope rises, reacting to a two-dimensional wall, the fantasy-fix of every off-track betting junkie. There is also something significant to large peaceful crowds gathering, unchecked by any security point, not for political protest or to strike, but just to watch some guys kick a ball around. Ah, but then France cannot score a goal, and the competition comes down to just that: Senegal: 1, France: O. People begin to walk away quickly, back to the rest of the day, as the Jumbotron waits for the crowds to return for the next match.