Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Finding the World In One City: FIFA World Cup 2010

Okay, let's not delude ourselves. It's going to be at least two World Cups before Canada gets back to The Show (our last appearance was 1986 where we failed to even score a goal). Yet Canada, or at least Toronto, is embroiled in a wonderful every-four-year frenzy that is probably more exciting (for some) than the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup (two years at least, probably more, before they contend, so relax).

If the Olympics in Vancouver got Canada to puff out its chest with pride (see my blog on the CTV 2010 Vancouver Olympics DVDs on June 12th), the FIFA World Cup in South Africa gets us -- at least in the big cities across Canada where there are significant ethnic communities -- to embrace our heritage, but thankfully not at the expense of our Canadianness. People display their ethnic backgrounds during this time by proudly flying flags of their home countries featured in the World Cup that began on June 11 (and ends on July 11). If there is a victory, a spontaneous street party will break out, especially in ethnic communities with large population bases (the Italians, the Portuguese, the Koreans, etc.). It also gets us to open up to each other, especially in cold-hearted Toronto where you never EVER look at each other as you pass on the street, let alone dare talking to complete strangers. Yet, so far this week, I've started a brief conversation with a woman carrying a British St. George's flag. The flag became the signifier that said "it's okay to talk to me as long as it's about football." We discussed England's chances (she was convinced they'd do fine, but I'm not convinced, though I wasn't rude enough to say so). Then I bid her good luck and continued on my way.

Later that same day, as I was biking home from the GO station, I was passed by a vehicle flying both a Portuguese and Brazilian flag (the large Portuguese community often embraces the usually superior Brazilian team often even before Portugal is eliminated). I couldn't resist. He stopped at a light not too far beyond me, so I sped up, tapped on his window and once he rolled it down I pointed to his flags and said "who are you going to cheer for on June 25th?" (Portugal and Brazil face each other that day.) He answered "I have no idea," a big smile playing across his face. Just today, I passed another man getting into his car with an Italian flag stuck atop the back window. I wished him luck and he thanked me.

You also get a sense of how this multi-ethnic city of ours is gradually crossing barriers by looking at the cars and their flags. I've seen cars with both British and Portuguese flags, ones with both German and Portuguese flags and one with both Italian and Portuguese flags. Clearly those are homes with divided loyalties. Even myself there's a bit of a division. My wife is Goan (Goa was a Portuguese colony in India for 600 years, so the Goans are a mix of Indian and Portuguese), so she normally would be cheering (somewhat, kinda, sorta) for Portugal. But we loath their star, Cristiano Ronaldo, not because he's a bad player (he can be great), but because he's a selfish, arrogant, narcissistic dork who has no concept of good sportsmanship on or off the pitch, so I cannot and will not cheer for Portugal and she's reluctant. We do agree completely that we'd like to see the Dutch win, a great side who've never fullfilled their promise (since the Irish, half my heritage, were denied their lawful place in the World Cup by the cheating French side in the lead up to the Cup -- guess what other team I'm not cheering for).

I'm also favouring Ivory Coast, because my favourite player, Didier Drogba, is their star. Drogba can be a drama queen on the pitch if things don't go his way too, but he is an absolutely brilliant player -- he's actually playing in this with an arm he broke in a warm-up match on June 4 -- and he is by all reports a complete mensch off the pitch. It is said that his tearful pleas after a match five years ago helped to bring to an end a developing civil war in the Ivory Coast -- what's not to like? South Africa and Ghana also have my affection, but when I'm being realistic, what team do I imagine will win it all? Spain. They are the complete package in every position (but what do I know, because this morning they lost to Switzerland 1-0). But enough of that. This isn't a sports blog!

I have yet to actually go to a bar and drink in the atmosphere of one crowd madly cheering for their side, but I will. That, too, is part of the spirit of this tournament. I may not be obviously of a certain ethnic group, but if I show I'm in their corner, I have always been welcomed into the celebration. It is going to be one glorious, frenetic, emotional party that every Torontonian -- whether you 'get' football (or if you must, soccer) or not -- should, nay must, embrace if you ever really want to understand the glorious ethnic stew we live within every day. I will report once more after the final in July.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and writer. He's putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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