Losing Sleep Over Football Fever

A soccer fan I know recently turned down a date because he had to go watch the World Cup. "You are the only man," another friend commented, "who has ever chosen soccer over sex."

"No way," my friend replied. "I'm the only American man who has ever chosen soccer over sex. The rest of the world does it all the time."

Last Saturday night, a record-breaking 1.5 billion people, about one in four of the planet's population, chose the final match of this year's World Cup over all else -- over sex, over sleep. And for those of us rooting for Brazil, especially those of us lucky enough to be anywhere near a group of Brazilians with drums and flags, it paid off in spades. Brazil beat Germany 2-0, in a trademark display of Brazil's jogo bonito, the beautiful game. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians poured into the streets to celebrate. Now, we dedicated few in the U.S. can breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, we can get some shut-eye.

While the World Cup did well this year, in the States -- ESPN2 had its largest soccer audience ever -- American soccer fans still represent only a sliver of the audience that the Superbowl draws. The mania hasn't quite infected the U.S. mainstream yet. But the nutty kickoff times for the World Cup matches this year highlighted how when the symptoms take hold, they come on strong.

For U.S. fans this year, sleep deprivation was a bonding thing. U.S.A. Today called U.S. fans "scarce, but fervent."

ESPN watched its ratings for World Cup time slots double, which is significant not numerically but as a measure of dedication: those slots landed at 2:30am and 4:30am on the West Coast, others were a barely more civilized 2:30am and 7:30am on the East Coast. Coca-Cola ran an ad in which three guys scramble out of bed in the pitch dark, splash water on their faces and pull on soccer jerseys. The camera pans out to show them sitting around their TV clapping, behind the only lit window in the entire apartment building.

For soccer fans, the bags under our eyes became coffee cooler conversation, a badge to be worn with pride this Cup. "Senegal-Turkey?" "Yeah."

For some, the need for extra caffeine at the office added a bit of European cachet. Emma Taylor, a British soccer fan in New York said, "It kind of seems cooler than being into an American sport. You're an early adopter."

But for most of us, it was more than that. World Cup 2002 offered a particularly rich set of Cinderella stories, starting with African newcomers Senegal beating former European champion France. "I think as soon as I saw Senegal beat France, if there was any question that I was going to watch every game, it went out the window," said one fan. The Brazilian team started out under a cloud of pessimism and scandal, and went on to turn its star Ronaldo into a national symbol of recovery and hope. South Korea turned their coach into a national hero by making it to the semi-finals. Amidst all this, the U.S. team's unexpected trip to the quarterfinals was gravy.

Football fever is so pervasive, so fanatic, so passionate everywhere else, that once you're around it for a while, it rubs off. "I'm surrounded by internationals, people who really care," said Katie Hisert, a New York World Cup fan and graduate student at Rockefeller University, where a significant portion of the student body is international. "I didn't want to hear people talking about how great a game it was afterwards, so I couldn't miss any. It is like an addiction. I don't know why I got up to watch Turkey vs. Brazil. I was lying in bed, thinking, I could just get some sleep. But then, I was like, NO. I have to watch the game."

That unwillingness to merely videotape the game, no matter the cost to your health, became the sign of true infection here in the States. Other symptoms included: extra cups of coffee, yawning and general grumpiness. "I walked into a door," said Hisert.

But caffeine shakes be damned, true soccer fans stayed up. "I don't know," said Jay Patrikios, a designer and fellow obsessive in San Francisco. "I wanted to be there with them, I just wanted to be there as it unfolded." Patrikios now speaks of the Cup in adoring terms. "It's not like you would say, 'Oh, I can't go get my mom' if her car broke down in a crappy neighborhood. You have to go get your mom. That's the same kind of obligation I have toward the Cup," he said. "I hope my mom doesn't read this."

The handful of bars showing the matches in cities across the nation were packed with people who were willing to pay up to $20 cover, drink until 2am and then guzzle Red Bull until the game ended at 6am. World Cup bars in San Francisco turned people away for the quarterfinals, and Brazilian establishments were full to capacity hours before the 4am kickoff for the final.

Everywhere else in the world, that level of feeling is nothing new. Young football fans worldwide worship their favorite stars to the point of imitating their hairstyles, from mohawks (England's captain David Beckham) to bright dyes (the entire South Korean team) to weird triangles of hair just above the forehead (Brazil's Ronaldo). Talk to the average Brazilian, and it goes without saying that when Brazil wins, life is beautiful, and when Brazil loses, life is awful. For better or for worse, the World Cup affects the outcome of presidential elections. Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso declared a national holiday after this year's victory.

A Brazilian waitress swimming in a oversized Brazilian jersey at a busy San Francisco pizza parlor told me just before the final match that "It's worse than losing your job, your whole life, when the Brazilian team loses." She also said that while a month ago, none of her American customers said a word about her get-up, in the week before the final all her customers suddenly seemed to care about the World Cup. "I don't know if it's because the U.S. got so far, but suddenly, everyone wants to know, 'Brazil! So, what do you think about Ronaldo?'"

America has been slated to catch the fever since 1994, when we hosted the World Cup. But numerically speaking, it just hasn't happened. In 1996, Major League Soccer was established, and has been struggling to draw crowds ever since. None of the experts want to speculate anymore on whether the U.S. will ever truly get it.

So maybe the fever has really taken hold this time, maybe over the next four years we'll finally start calling "soccer" football. Or maybe we'll just have to watch all the best American players go play in Europe for the next four years. Either way, for this World Cup, we U.S. fans did our best to make up for quantity with quality and caffeine.

We were proud of our team, but I would venture that for the majority of American fans, there was some other narrative driving our sleepless nights, whether it was Senegal's upset, South Korea's neat but ardent fans, or just (in my case) nostalgia for time spent in Brazil.

Football fans love the game, its purity and simplicity, but the Cup is so much more. It's the drama and rivalry that come when the passions of so many billions of people around the world are invested in one game. "It's the Esperanto that never happened," said Patrikios.

"American sports are purely entertainment. This is a lot more to people," said Adam Wienert, a fan who works for the University of California. "The thing that I love is the fact that you can get two countries who would never speak to each other politically, and they will get 11 men to represent their countries on the field and they will kick a ball around." 

As we look back at the man-hours lost to naps at work and general haziness, think of what we may have gained -- a little more depth of passion, a slightly more international perspective. The fever is spreading. If we're lucky, in four years time, we'll all play football instead of dropping bombs.

And maybe next time the games will come during daylight.

Michelle Chihara is a senior writer at AlterNet.org.

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