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Picking Teams: World Cup Woes

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I was at work the other day when the U.S. played Germany in the World Cup. I work in a hotel and bar, and we’ve been showing all of the matches on a big screen about twenty feet behind where I sit. It’s on silent and we don’t get enough football fans to make a lot of noise when somebody scores, so for the most part I’m in the dark about scores until my shift is over. But I was curious about how the game went and I managed to pull one of the managers aside and ask how the game went.

“Germany won 1-nil, but the U.S. is still advancing.”

“Oh, cool.” I started to turn back to my computer.

“Don’t sound so excited, there. I mean, you only knocked out Portugal. The best player in the world plays for Portugal.”

“Yeah, but I’m a Spain fan, so…” I trailed off. They looked at me as if I’d just said I sacrificed gerbils on my altar to the moon god Zestra in my spare time.

“Why? You’re American, aren’t you?”

“Only technically. They give me a passport every ten years, that’s about it.”

“Oh, so you’ve defected,” another coworker chimed in.

“Pretty much.”

We laughed and the conversation changed quickly the Suarez’s sanctions for biting another player, and to be honest, it was kind of a relief. Normally when I say I don’t cheer for the U.S. in most sports, I get met with responses that range from prolonged, almost deliberate confusion to outright hostility.

The truth is, when you have no set loyalty to a country, or even one you consider “home”, picking a team to support becomes a bizarre logical exercise. I have a complex matrix of reasons for choosing a team to support that involves where I was when I became a fan, who my friends were at the time, if I’ve lived there, if I would want to live there, if I would ever live there again, and so on. Who I support in one competition or even one event has no bearing on who I support when the next event rolls around.

For instance: I support New Zealand in rugby, Spain in men’s football, the U.S. in women’s football, Canada for hockey, and the Red Sox in baseball. Curling and cricket are still up for grabs if anybody has suggestions for a team I should follow.

Most of the year, this isn’t a problem. People laugh and shrug their shoulders and add it to the list of weird things about me, and I’m cool with that. Being a TCK isn’t the easiest thing in the world to explain, and I’m pretty content when people will just leave things be. But when a major competition rolls around? All bets are off.

When international events begin, it is expected that I will somehow get over my complex national identity and put on my red, white, and blue face paint like a “real American.” My friends and I become frustrated with each other, and even the people who know me best get annoyed that I’ll cheer for another team, especially if I cheer them on against the U.S.

And as for people that don’t know me that well? The word “traitor” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s rarely a joke.

“Of course they get annoyed,” my friend told me one day at the gym. “Sports are our psychological stand-in for war.”

What he said clicked for me. Sports fans are passionate, superstitious, and obsessive. We talk about our teams’ performance as if we were on the pitch with them, and we accept congratulations over their wins against rival teams and condolences on a loss. When Spain lost to the Netherlands in their first World Cup match, I had a forty-five minute FaceTime conversation with a friend that was a mix of stunned silence and furious post-game analysis. It was a personal loss.

But when it comes down to it, sports fans are like this because we’re like a tribe. A clan. A nation. Instead of having to fight our neighbours for land and food supplies, we fight opposing teams. We send our warriors to the battlefield and we cheer them on from the stands. Their wins are our wins and their losses are our losses.

So of course when a competition comes around that combines tribe mentality with ardent nationalism, emotions run high. And that makes it more difficult for other people to understand our lack of national pride, our seemingly callous disregard for the country that birthed us, whatever that country may be. There is no TCK team in the Olympics, no Global Nomad team on the football pitch. We don’t fit into any neat geographical categorization at a time when we’re told most strongly that we should. Believe me, if we were represented at the World Cup, I’d happily change loyalties and support “our own.”

As it stands, though, I love cheering for Barcelona or Boston or Canada. I love putting on my All Blacks gear and going to a friend’s house or a pub or a match and cheering them on. But I love it because these are teams I’ve chosen, these are tribes I want to join. Being a TCK means seeing past the boundaries, so that I can decide who to support and why. I can even shrug my shoulders and pick one out of a hat, cheering for that team just as passionately as any of my own. I mean, in the end… why not?

As for today… Vamos Argentina!

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