Dispatches From the World Cup
If you're traveling to Germany to attend a World Cup soccer game, let me strongly recommend a Superman costume. I came to Kaiserslautern to watch the United States play Italy because I wanted to see what it's like to support my country in a sport where we are the underdogs. My friends and I dressed as superheroes—Captain America, a Batmanless Robin, and Evel Knievel were also on hand—because we couldn't think of any costume that was more genuinely American. And I chose Superman because, in these troubled international times, the Man of Steel's quest for truth, justice, and what was once referred to unironically as "the American Way" embodies everything the world once believed we stood for.
In case you have never attended the World Cup in snug tights and a cape, let me sum up the experience. You are destined to appear in thousands of international photo albums alongside screaming foreigners very interested in discerning how you stack up "down there." By the end of the day, your cape will drip with beer, sweat, and bratwurst sauce. In the restroom, you will ask a nice Italian man to help you take off your costume, and when you fall over trying to remove your boots, he will helpfully say, "You are very strong, yes? Very strong, super America!" This will make you feel much better about yourself and the world, particularly when you realize what you just landed in. You will have a great time.
I thought the presence of Superman would inspire my fellow countrymen to believe that Team America could win or lose with dignity. Once I got to the game, it quickly became clear that Americans aren't very good at being underdogs, and we're not practiced at losing at all. The three guys standing in front of us in the stands—all managers at a Washington Mutual bank in Orange County, Calif.—waited only 15 minutes after kickoff before they began speculating, via international sign language, about the sexual orientation of the Italian fans 30 feet away. Many American supporters, such as the elderly couple from Denver attending their ninth tournament, were gracious fans. But the Californian dot-commer next to us started the second half by urinating into his hands, then throwing the result in the direction of the Italians.
"I [had intercourse in a particularly uncomfortable manner with] your mother!" he shouted until an American fan below him, the unintended target of his aerial assault, launched his own beer upward. And all that happened before the action on the field even got heated.
In defense of the ugly American fans, the Italy game was particularly difficult to stomach. The Italian Daniele De Rossi elbowed the American Brian McBride in the face, drawing blood and a red card. Later, two American players got red cards for much lesser offenses. When Captain America shared a flask with some Italian fans, even they admitted their team had played dishonorably and America was the victim of home-continent refereeing.
But even that, I felt, was insufficient justification for what happened in the match's 66th minute. DaMarcus Beasley had just kicked the ball into the Italian goal, a feat that should have made the score 2 to 1. Instead, McBride was declared offside and the goal was disallowed. Mr. Dot Com, the urinator, faced the cheering Italian fans 30 feet away and, as they watched, gave a one-fingered salute and shouted, "If it wasn't for the [expletive] U.S. in 1945, do you [expletive] know what language you would be [expletive] speaking right now?"
The answer, of course, is Italian. But all the same, it seemed a low blow.
At that point, Superman decided to head to the concessionaire. I was a little tired and thought a Coke might perk me up. However, one problem with a superhero costume is that you can't walk anywhere without frequently stopping to appear in photos. The other problem, as I discovered when I finally made it to the front of the line, is that superhero outfits don't include any pockets.
"You need money?" a nice Italian man asked in broken English. My first instinct was to politely refuse. The game was still tied, and I felt that if Superman was to represent gracious victory or loss, I needed to show that we can pay for our own problems and accept the consequences of our own mistakes.
But then I remembered the World Cup motto: "A Time To Make Friends. Say No to Racism." And, I was really hungry and thirsty. So, I gratefully took the guy's euros, thanked him, and explained that I hoped he wouldn't assume all Americans want foreigners to pay for our failings. The guy just smiled at me. He had no idea what I was saying.
Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times, based in New York, and the author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.