We are Americans, and like a good chunk of our countrymen we know almost nothing about world football. Deenaree and I can watch, but we very rarely do and have only fleeting knowledge of the various club systems through international news and people we have met along the way. This was all destined to change…sort of. I was spending my first World Cup outside of the U.S. and Deenaree her’s outside of the U.S. or Thailand. Okay, we did see one game in 2006 while we were stuffing ourselves with lobster in Mexico near the California border, but it was hardly a taste of how the world reacts. This time, we would see what the mania is really like.
Our exposure to the importance of the World Cup actually started way back in Ecuador. World Cup qualifying was all the hype back then and we even saw the last, heartbreaking loss for Ecuador against Paraguay which ended their chances. Through the rest of South America, everyone we told we were going to South Africa immediately assumed we were going to the World Cup. And of course, we spent 10 days in Cape Town in January and saw all the advertising, new stadium, giant soccer balls and everything else that was up for the big event. Even our traditional country entrance photo when we arrived in the airport had a World Cup backdrop.
We spent the month during the World Cup split between Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Most of the group round happened while we were working our way through Poland. The games were almost always on, people watched every night and bars would constantly advertise their locales ability to show the game, times, number of screens and size. We did see a huge chunk of games in Poland, many of them at host’s houses or in our hotel room. The excitement was obviously in the air and just about everyone was watching. But, the true passion for the World Cup hit us when we finally made our way to Lithuania.
Lithuania is a country that has never qualified for the World Cup. It is a country where basketball is the favorite sport and soccer is a distant second. What’s more, during World Cup qualification this time around, they didn’t really come close, finishing the final qualifying stage well behind Serbia and France, the two countries that went to South Africa from their group. Nevertheless, not long after we arrived in Vilnius, our Couchsurfing host’s boyfriend asked us if we were up for going to a bar to watch the Spain – Chile game that evening. Having just arrived in the country and eager for a taste of the city, local beer and Lithuanian culture, we readily agreed.
As we strolled to the bar across the attractive, compact old town of Vilnius, visions of a wonderful outdoor beer garden with cold drinks and good conversation invaded our minds. Our hosts were careful to point out streets we followed and landmarks we passed. As we rounded a corner ten minutes before kickoff, we found ourselves at our destination. The sidewalk grew wider due to the recessed first floor with a portion of the sidewalk rising as stairs as the adjacent street started to rise up a modest hill. All of this was covered by swarms of people milling about and countless milk crates, some occupied and others waiting for an owner. The four of us scooped a few up, found an open place to put our seats down and prepared for game time.
We were lucky we arrived when we did. As us men made our way to the bar to take care of the drinks and the uniquely Lithuanian appetizer of fried bread with a cheese and sour cream sauce, the girls needed to fend off at least a few eager fans looking for seats that seemed to no longer be available. By the time we made it back outside, drinks in hand, the game was about to begin and the place was packed. Our TV was like a movie screen, with a projector showing us the game from some hidden corner of the excitement. In the 27th minute, Spain scored. Everyone went crazy; people came running, seemingly from nowhere, to see what had just happened. After plenty of delirium, things returned to normal…for another 15 minutes. Spain scored again. The whole place went crazy, again, and even more people came running. Who knew the Lithuanians have such a soft spot for the Spanish? The rest of the match settled down. Chile score early in the second half to keep the rest of the game interesting. Even once the game was in its twilight, clearly over, everyone remained to the final whistle.
The World Cup was far from over and we saw a number of other games. Some were in sports bars or restaurants, others host’s houses or hostels. But apart from one crazed European fan’s outgoing cheering at a hostel in Klaipeda, Lithuania, we did not have a better look into the intensity that comes with the World Cup. Next time it comes around, wherever we are in the world, we may just put up a big screen, grab a milk crate, and settle in for the fun.