Football fever

Americans bitten by World Cup bug

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Writer's note: I met Betsy Liebsch in summer 2000 when we were interning at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I working with USA Volleyball, and Betsy was working with USA Taekwando.

Betsy and I lived on complex during the three months before the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. We saw the world's greatest athletes (Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe trained in Colorado Springs), and patriotism ran rampant.

Betsy moved to Bonn, Germany, last year to work for the International Paralympic Committee. With the World Cup taking place in her backyard, I figured Betsy would be able to put soccer's global appeal in perspective with American sports.

This is an account of what two Americans witnessed during the past several weeks of World Cup madness in Germany.

Betsy Liebsch's first experience with fanatacism took place in the third-row bleachers on the 50-yard line of an Eagles-Vikings NFL football game in Philadelphia.

Eagles fans are famous -- or infamous -- for booing their own players (and even Santa Claus), so it's fair to say Liebsch knows about American sports passion. What she found in Germany during the World Cup goes beyond anything she's experienced in the States.

"The adrenaline was definitely pumping, even though I didn't care who won," Liebsch said in an e-mail. "Have I experienced anything like the World Cup? Not on this level. I was trying to compare it attending my first NFL game, but this is no comparison. Adrenaline is pumping every day for a full month here, not just for a few hours.

"Have you ever been in one of those small towns that has a festival once a year and people come out of the woodwork to celebrate?" asked Liebsch, who lives in Bonn, Germany, a city with about 300,000 residents. "That is what I compare this past month to in Germany -- flags hanging out of apartment windows, flags on cars, flags on people. The German flag is everywhere."

The German team's run to the World Cup final -- which ended in a loss last week to Italy -- was memorable for those never before exposed to soccer fanaticism. Liebsch has seen tens of thousands of fans from other European nations pour into Germany. Some have game tickets; most do not.

"Every outdoor cafe has a television set up," she said. "These aren't rinky-dink televisions either. These are big, flat-screen, plasma, high-def TVs with surround sound. In a stretch of three to four cafes on one street, you may see six to seven large televisions with cables strung from the main building through the trees taped to the sidewalk. Sometimes, you get lucky, and the TV is attached to the wall, but many times the TVs are propped up on tables or milk crates."

The games

Nick Slovan is an American soccer fan. He's from Massa--chusetts, and his high school team won a state championship. He now lives in Bonn. He can't believe his good fortune.

"When I found out I was going to get a six-month assignment in Germany that coincided with the World Cup, I was thrilled," he said via e-mail.

Slovan went to three games -- the U.S. matches against the Czech Republic and Italy as well as France versus Korea Republic.

In e-mails, he described each game and the frenzied athmosphere surrounding it. Following are some snippets.

U.S. versus Czech Republic: "The train into Gelsenkirchen was really packed and really hot. Right by the train was a group of Americans with a gigantic flag spread out over 100-plus people singing American songs and drinking German beer. ...

"As we went to the game, we realized there were way more Czechs than U.S. fans. The atmosphere was good until we got scored on five minutes in. If only the team would have played better. The fans would have had more to cheer about.

"After the game, there was interaction between the fans but nothing close to hostile."

U.S. versus Italy: "The atmosphere was more dominated by the Italians outside the stadium. They were way more boisterous than the Czechs, and everyone was draped in Italian T-shirts or jerseys.

"This was a frustrating point for my brother. He expected to be able to go to the game city and pick up a U.S. jersey or T-shirt. This was close to impossible in all cities around Germany. No stores were selling any U.S. merchandise. ...

"This game was much more intense than the previous. We were only outnumbered three or four to one. I think this had to do with the large American population in Kaiserslautern because of the military base.

"On top of that, the fans were more hyped up to face Italy, and the team played much better. I was happy to see the American supporters there were real diehards. Lots of fun."

France versus Korea: "We went with tickets from a friend with their names on it. My friend Tyler even entered the match with a woman's name on his ticket. They weren't checking passports like they advertised, so we were good to go.

"The fans were totally different. The French were ... loud sometimes, but mostly a dull roar.

"The Korea fans were something special. All were in red and all had scarves and chants down to a science.

"The most incredible thing was this drum they had. It was really militant and impressive. You could tell Korea wanted it more than the French. Finally, in the 83rd minute, the Koreans put one in and went nuts. I mean crazy. This was the best celebration I saw in person for a match. I mean, wow."

The world's game

The fans who didn't have tickets filed into plazas and other stadiums to watch on TVs along with thousands of like-minded enthusiasts. No American sports experience can compare, Liebsch and Slovan said. Not even the Super Bowl.

When the German national team won, people cried and drove aimlessly waving the German flag for hours on end. The same was true for other nations.

"I saw a statistic the other day that the Super Bowl has 95 million fans worldwide for the four-hour broadcast," Slovan said. "The opening World Cup match drew 1.5 billion viewers, or 25 percent of the world's population. The total throughout the tournament is estimated around 30 billion. It's nice to step out of the American shelter to see what the rest of the world is doing.

"Of course, I hope (soccer) continues to grow in the U.S. and we perform better on the world stage so we are less a butt of a joke and more of a respected nation."

There are plenty of theories as to why soccer is more popular everywhere across the globe than it is here.

One such theory says that Americans like offense, contact, action, etc., and soccer doesn't provide enough of it.

A second theory says that Americans, in general, don't appreciate players flopping and faking to draw fouls.

A third says Americans aren't soccer crazy because our teams are not on the same level as the squads from elite soccer nations. It was clear in Germany. The best players in the world don't play in this country, so we see them once every four years.

Brazil's top soccer players are cultural icons. If the world's best players were in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, and their highlights were shown daily on SportsCenter, things might be different.

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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