Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sushi and Soccer

Saturday morning, my housemate, Frank was puttering around in the kitchen preparing breakfast for his daughter Sara, as I put on my shoes and coat to go to the cafe. “Do you like soccer,” he asked me. “Germany is playing Russia in the qualifying round tonight for the World Cup. If Germany wins they can play in the World Cup next year. If you want to watch it, they will be putting it on the big screen in the Sushi restaurant on the corner” he said with a shrug.
Sushi and soccer. That is new to me. But, after a day of writing and photographing my neighborhood, I went.
Almost two decades ago, I lived in Buenos Aires when the world cup was played in Italy. While the encounter between Argentina and its mother-land Italy (Spain is it father-land) raised the greatest anticipation and comment, Argentina met West Germany in the final round on the 8th of July. The Berlin wall had fallen the prior 9th of November, but the German Democratic Republic still existed, though deeply troubled. It would collapse and reunite with West Germany the coming 3rd of October. The game, momentous in itself, fell in between even more momentous events for Germany.
Though the Italians were the ones with whom Argentina had to work through some sort of oedipal trauma, given their deep connections with the country, nevertheless Latin America has large numbers of Germans, and Argentina is no exception. In fact, Mormonism arrived in Argentina, not with missionaries from the United States, but when German Mormons migrated there early in the twentieth century. Germany is important and has a huge cultural influence there.
When Erich Honecker, the head of the former German Democratic republic went into exile, he initially went to the Soviet Union until it too collapsed in 1991. The he sought refuge in Chile, although he was deported to Germany, before finally arriving in Chile where he died. I was in the Foreign Ministry in Santiago, Chile when the request and diplomatic pressure came for them to accept Honecker’s exile in Chile.
Part of why Chile was because his daughter lived there, married to a Chilean national. But Chile, like Argentina, had received numerous German immigrants and had German colonies. What happens in Germany often has consequence in someway for Latin America.
The final game was intense, hard fought to the very end, when with five minutes to go a foul was declared on Argentina and Germany won a free kick. The German player shot the ball in to the goalie’s far right side and, with so little time to play, Germany won. Many commentators questioned the referee’s call, but it stood to Argentina’s deep bitterness. Immediately the Argentine’s began complaining about the referee arguing he had thrown the game to Germany and wondered if he some kind of ties that led to ulterior motives. Nevertheless, Germany won and that is how the game is remembered in the record books.
The Argentine team was still received as national heros by hordes of fans who thronged the highway between Ezeiza airport and the national palace, where then President Menem welcomed them. The scene soon moved from inside the presidential palace, to a balcony where the people who crowded the broad Plaza de Mayo could celebrate their team.
My experience with the World Cup while living in Argentina left me with lots to think about in terms of nationalism. Despite the libraries filled with writings around the glories and pains of Argentina and the meaning of it as a country, nationalism was reduced to a common jumping up and down--whether Menem in power on balcony, Maradona cloaked in the blue and white flag, the people in the Plaza or all the Argentines participating at a distance--and shouting over and over “Argentina, Argentina. Argentina” in almost waltz with the first two beats slow and grave and the last syllables, quick eighth-notes.
This year, it is unknown whether Argentina will make it into the World Cup, under the coaching of Diego Maradona a star, and brilliant imp, on the 1990 team. Today they meet Uruguay in Montevideo, across the estuary from Buenos Aires, and must win if they wish to have a chance, given their losing streak in recent games. There is no doubt, however, that Argentina is one of the greats of soccer, as is Germany.
Wondering what I would find in the odd, and very post-modern combination of sushi and sports bar I walked down the street a little after six, when the game was scheduled to start, towards the Sushi restaurant on the corner. It has a sign on the side that says “Sky” and a billboard in front announcing the latest rolled specials. Above the door is a big sign in black fiberglass with cut out words in angular script reading “NOTIX”.
L-shaped, the restaurant had a portable TV projector at either side, with screens placed out. Along the wall, behind the bar, two regular televisions also were playing the game.
The restaurant was full. I could barely squeeze into a corner where a table with a chair was left because its view was mostly blocked, unless the person sitting there moved the chair and sat almost up against the backs of the people standing at the bar. That’s what I did, and I could see the game displayed on the screen against the back wall, if the guys at the bar did not back up and block my view with their jean clad posteriors, which they did a lot. But, oh well. I was on their home turf and I came in late.
A single waitress squeezed her way among people to take orders and deliver them, while a man worked the bar area. Almost every spare space was claimed by someone; I do not know how the waitress managed to make her way through the crowd.
I did not see anyone eating sushi, although lots of bottles and mugs of beer were evident.
The game, played in Moscow, was far more elegant than than the qualifying round I had seen played at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah a few weeks before, when El Salvador and the United States fought it out, and the US won two to one. That game was ragged. The defense and offense never seemed completely coherent for either the Untied States or the Salvadorans.
Here the play was mostly smooth, like the humming of well engineered and well oiled weaving machines that shot the ball between players as if a shuttle making fine cloth of silk instead of a hard-fought but well-played game. Most of the play, throughout the game, was on the German’s side, as the Russians pushed and pushed, shot and shot, but they never could bring things together to convert their efforts into a score. In the thirty-fourth minute, however Germany in a beautiful effort to save a possibility from oblivion managed to score, despite the Russians’ best efforts. The cafe erupted in cheers.
Some people were conversing one with another, and the waitress was fending her way among people, almost with the speed and finesse of the players on the screen, but most people had their attention locked on the screen. When Germany would approach the Russian goalie and make a shot that failed, the groans were visceral and immediate, as where the groans of pleasure when Germany would block a Russian attack. Yet nothing compared to the intensity and continuity of the shouting when Germany scored.
However, despite all that, the Argentines were even more so when their team played and I saw its games with them in 1990. In Berlin, I could look out and see people walking down the street arm in arm, enjoying the warm-fall day with its rare sunshine. In Argentina, maybe because the world cup took place in the heart of winter, though it was a mild winter, the streets were abandoned when the Argentine team played. If there were any exceptions in earlier games, there certainly were not during the final. Not a soul dared transit the streets and sidewalks. Almost obligatorily all were inside, watching the game.
When Argentina would score, a roar would break simultaneously from every apartment building in my neighborhood as if a movement of the earth warning of an imminent quake. The people would begin with their waltz, shouting in unison while banging pots and pans or blowing horns in rhythm, “Ar--gen--ti-na”, Ar--gen--ti-na”. When Argentina won the shouting was greater and continued. The waltz deepened into a national act, as people bounced from their homes to the central parts of their neighborhoods, in may case the corner of the Avenida Santa Fe and the Callao, where they would form a circle to dance up and down around people bouncing in rhythm in the center. After a good while people would flow the the great Avenue 16 de Julio where they would circle the enormous and towering obelisk, in a rotating, bouncing horde, shouting over and over “Ar--gen--ti-na”, Ar--gen--ti-na”.
Here that did not happen. The celebration, both of the goal and the end of the game, marking Germany’s win, were contained within the bar. This is not to say that soccer is not important to Germany and German’s. They are one of the greatest world powers in the sport and play with a delicacy and quality, though filled with power, that many envy.
Yet somehow, in ways I cannot yet fathom, the ideas of nation and people’s commitment to it are somehow different from what I am used to in Latin America. And, I am not ready to try to state how. I want to wait, watch and see. Something is up in all this; it stings the ethnographer’s instincts. So, I think I will go back to the place of sushi and soccer, maybe even this evening at 6 pm, when Germany meets Finland in Hamburg.

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