Saturday, July 12, 2014



On Watching the World Cup

Last week, sitting in an Ethiopian Café in my Roger’s Park neighborhood, I marveled at the comradery and collective spirit among the Café’s usual regulars from half a dozen capitals of the world.

Glancing about the room at the intent faces fixed on the mounted wide-screen TV, a collage of images came before my mind of past World Cup matches I’ve watched, in places not unlike this café. I recalled the boisterous crowd in Scotland a few years back, relishing with glee the fall of the English; I recalled the faces of my Argentine friends sitting next to me in a Rush Street bar when their countrymen lost; I recalled a man in a Galway pub turning to me as if I were Irish, “Do you think we’ll ever have a team in the finals? Just once?”

But the memory that comes back with most clarity is that first time I stood before a screen amongst fans of the world’s great past time.  

It was 1982 and France was playing Germany as I recall, an historic match, as Germany came back to beat France, winning on penalty kicks. But I can’t remember much of the actual match.  For one, it was a black and white set and not a very big one at that. And, there were a lot of people standing in front of me, scores of heads bobbing and straining to get a glimpse of a static image that rolled almost without stopping throughout the entire match. That was until I stepped up to try to save the day, after all I was there to offer my expertise for projects that benefited the village.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I tried to build latrines, I tried to demonstrate the effectiveness of mud brick stoves for saving firewood, I tried to teach farmers twice my age to grow vegetables during their dry season with temperatures that topped 110 degrees; but I might be best known in my village of Senegalese farmers for my greatest feat: trying to get good reception for the World Cup on a black and white TV by holding the antennae over my head and stretching its cord as far as it would go.

I must admit that initially when I’d learned that the Chief’s brother had decided to rent a TV to watch the World Cup from some relative in the regional capital, I shook my head in disbelief, wondering how they were going to watch a TV in village that had no electricity.

A week later, after returning from seeing my Peace Corps pals, I’d forgotten all about it, until I approached the cluster of huts of the Chief’s compound, and there it was—the familiar bluish light reflecting off the mud brick walls. Give it to the Senegalese, who could get anything to work with a bit of wire and their magical talents with machines. They’d hooked it up to the battery of a truck that I assumed didn’t work because it had not moved an inch since I’d arrived the year before.

I marched on in and went straight to my hut, lit my kerosene lamp, unpacked my bags and refused to be amused despite the crowds of villagers streaming in to take a look—many for the first time—of a broadcast on a TV.   

Blinded, I couldn’t understand what this meant to them, not just the broadcast, but the passion for the game of football.  On the walls of many of the men, there next to their national hero, Leopold Senghor, their first president, and photos of Mecca, were tattered posters of the French National Team. And every day, boys played on the sandy village square before the mosque with a ball made of weeds and rags.

The night of the World Cup, I tried to block out the circus outside my door by reading Solzhenitsyn but an hour before the match an excited voice broke my concentration: “Mustapha, Mustapha, (my Senegalese name) your people, your people, they’re on the TV!”  The Chief’s 10 year-old son, a kid who followed me everywhere and would strangle a poisonous snake to protect me, was heart-broken that I was not only not interested in the World Cup but not even interested in my own people all the way from America on TV.   

I winched and was about to utter some excuse in my broken, baby talk Wolof, when I heard the music.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Not here, I thought, on the other side of the globe, thirty miles from the Gambia River, it couldn’t be them?

But, yes. They were not only my people, they were The Village People, the world’s wonder of the disco age, belting out “YMCA,” with their characteristic exuberance and costumes. 

Looking at the crowds on the TV screen from Brazil and now even in Grant Park, I recognize that same sense of joy I remember seeing on the faces of the Senegalese so many years ago, as they watched a small black and white TV sitting atop two empty barrels, feeling as we do now connected, for a change, to the rest of the world. And that’s indeed worth watching.