It’s almost here. Billions have been waiting for it for the past four years. Nations will rise and fall. People will cry, people will rejoice. Money will be made, money will be lost. Is it an impending meteor shower? The End of Days? The Third World War? Nope. It’s the World Cup in South Africa.
I’m not a huge football fan. I don’t particularly enjoy watching league games on a regular basis, since they mainly feature 22 overpaid twentysomethings running around after a ball of leather and diving spectacularly all over the pitch. I supported Manchester United as a kid, but that was mainly because Eric Cantona used to kung-fu kick annoying fans and compare games to fishing and birds in the sky in post-match interviews. More recently, I’ve claimed to support Arsenal, but that was mainly to fit in with my colleagues who were all Gunners fans. Plus they’ve got a player called Nasri, which made my life in London immeasurably easier last year.
But the World Cup is a different affair altogether. Along with billions of people around the planet, I become a fervent fan and don’t miss a game. I become an expert on every rule, shouting uncontrollably through my television at balding Italian referees. I also turn into an expert half-time and post-game analyst, discussing the formations of players I didn’t know existed until a week ago. I still think Bebeto plays for Brazil (he played on their ’94 squad, for any of you kids out there too young to remember). There’s no denying the World Cup is an amazing global moment, shared by the entire planet. Old and young, rich and poor, men and women, everyone is enthralled by the month-long spectacle of nations battling it out on the pitch with fine sportsmanship and a splattering of sponsorship.
However, one thing casts a shadow over my enjoyment of the event when I’m in Beirut. You guessed it; I can’t stand the proliferation of various national flags all over the place. People who’ve never met a Brazilian, let alone set foot in Brazil plaster their cars and balconies with the Brazilian flag. They support a team to which they have no national or ancestral connection as fervently as they mispronounce the country’s name. I wonder if they know that the text emblazoned on the flag, Ordem e Progresso, means Order and Progress, two things we desperately lack in Lebanon. Fistfights will break out between cousins on opposing sides of the Italy/Germany divide. The festival of flags has started earlier than usual this year. I was away for a couple of weeks, and when I got back on Monday every other car had a foreign flag fluttering from the back window. Either the country had been taken over by visiting diplomats or world cup fever had kicked off.
I saw a convoy of 4*4s yesterday all bearing the German flag and was briefly concerned they were off to invade Poland. I saw a Fiat today being driven by a man who I can only guess was schizophrenic, seeing as he had an Argentine flag attached to one window and a Dutch one attached to the other. What annoys me most about all this is that I’ve never seen the Lebanese flag displayed and defended with such passion. Granted, we’ve never played in the World Cup, and I’m not holding my breath for 2014, but still. These aren’t’ the flags of Bayern Munich or Barcelona or Chelsea. These are national flags, to which most of us have no allegiance.
Someone asked me who I was supporting today, and I obviously said England. I got the kind of look you get when you say you collect garden gnomes. Disgust and confusion infused with pity. I explained I was British and had lived in England for a very long time and so on. The guy retorted: Yeah but they don’t stand a chance. I found it odd how blissfully unaware he was that you don’t support a national team according to how likely they are to win; you support them because of some deep personal connection. Otherwise what’s the point? Of course women support teams based on who has the better looking players, making Italy and Argentina favourites amongst the fairer sex. They must have a thing for men in headbands who gesticulate a lot, maybe I should give it a shot someday.
I suspect that in the highly unlike event that Brazil play Lebanon in a World Cup match, most of Beirut would be dancing samba and drinking Caipirinhas when the Brazilians win. In the meantime, I may stick an English flag on my balcony on June 12th when we play the USA. My only concern is that the last time I did that my neighbours thought I’d started a regional office for the Red Cross in my flat.