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In Europe, the World Cup is Not for Wimps

At the United Nations Office in Geneva, the World Cup started with a party.

In the environment section, where I was, the June 11th start of the world’s premier sporting event meant work effectively ground to a halt at about three in the afternoon, timed to give at least an hour to prepare for the inaugural match between South Africa and Mexico. The excitement was palpable, as UN staffers from around the world packed into the unit’s conference room to watch Bafana Bafana take on El Tri.

The wine and beer flowed. Dramatic speeches about brotherhood in the world and the struggles of Africa were punctuated by screams of delight and yelps of tragedy from the peanut gallery as the two teams raced up and down the pitch. With each strike on goal, the din grew louder, as even casual observers, hardened UN field veterans with years of experience working conflict-affected countries like Afghanistan, Sudan, Palestine/Israel, Nigeria, DR Congo and Sierra Leone, joined in the fray.

The World Cup is at its core enigmatic. Though it is the most popular sport in the world, association football’s domination is based in just a few places, namely Europe and Latin America (with Africa, North America and Northeast Asia on the rise). While ostensibly global in nature, all 18 editions of the Coupe du Monde have been won by teams from either South America (Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) or Western Europe (Italy, Germany, France and England), and though 76 nations have made it to at least one World Cup, only two squads* not from Europe or South America (South Korea and the United States) have made it to the final four.

Accordingly, in a European context — even one as normally tame as Switzerland — emotions run high. For the nail-biting last 25 minutes of the Swiss’ 1-nil upset of Spain in Group H, there was a tense quiet in the town. As each Spanish assault was turned away with a grimace by the rugged Swiss defense, the possibility that Gerson Fernandes’ scrappy and slapdash goal would prove the game-winner grew stronger. When the whistle blew, the honking began. Across Geneva, for the next eight hours, people raced around town in their flag-adorned cars, horns (and vuvuzelas) blaring ’til the wee hours of the morning.

As a diverse and international town (the city proper is about 50 percent Swiss and 50 percent foreigners), Geneva has numerous supporters for each team that made the Cup (perhaps with the exception of North Korea). More often then not, especially as I watched the American matches against England, Slovenia and Algeria alongside natives from each of those places, they have been vigorous but friendly in their rivalries.

But of course, sometimes things get personal. This past weekend, my father and I drove out with some friends for a food and wine weekend in small-town France, in the Burgundy region. Naturally, on Saturday evening, we went to watch the USA-Ghana match at the town’s one beer pub — an American-style bar called “Route 66.” With all the requisite Yankee accoutrement — wagon wheels, photos of New York, and so on — the bar clearly sold its faux American-ness as much as its beer.

Nonetheless, after the USA game had been running on the pub’s TV for just 15 minutes (enough time for the US team to concede a goal, of course), the barman, apparently annoyed by the concentration of US soccer fans that had trickled into the bar, abruptly and angrily changed the channel.

No amount of protest would change his mind. As I tried to ask for an explanation (in French, by the way), he simply walked into the back, leaving his patrons to fend for themselves. To be fair, my pleas to switch the game back were probably not helped by my father’s loud muttering behind me: “You’ve got to be kidding, you froggy bastard!”

Incensed, we walked around the town, trying to find another venue in which to watch the game, to no avail. For a country that is football-obsessed, it was incredible to see that no one among the locals seemed remotely interested in the games being played.

As it turned out, however, it was not lack of interest that drove that disdain, but instead a prolonged period of national mourning. Last week’s total implosion of Les Bleus, champions in 1998 and finalists in 2006, had driven most French fans (and the Parliament) beyond sadness to a Gaullic mix of bitterness and contempt. And as explained by a French friend with whom we were traveling, “no amateur soccer squad from the US would ever be allowed to upstage proud French football.”

On the positive side, by the time we returned to our hotel (which turned out to be the one place we could watch the match), the Americans had managed to equalize, and were pushing hard for a game-winner. Vuvuzelas and beer in hand, we thought we would be rooting home another comeback win from the plucky, though inconsistent, US squad. Instead, we watched in horror as Ghana held back the American attack in regulation, and then just three minutes in overtime, converted the winning goal.

Stunned, we considered that the team had just blown its best chance in decades to return to the World Cup semifinals (last time in 1930). And though we were on holiday in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, the utter impotence of the US offense, the lame defending on routine crosses and the inability of the strikers to finish, had managed to drive us into depression for the rest of the evening. In spite of all the incredible progress in American soccer since the 1994 World Cup, when a critical knock-out game against a beatable opponent was on the line, they choked.

Finally, I understood the cross French barman, the crushed Swiss, Mexican and South African fans, and the spiteful English press. World Cup football is not for the weak of heart.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international affairs columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at

* Turkey and the Soviet Union reached the semifinals, both coming from UEFA, the European confederation.

For a political view of international (and French) soccer, see article from last November.