On the bus from the train station to the Glückaufkampfbahn, Gelsenkirchen's big crockpot of a stadium in which the U.S. team was about to make its World Cup debut, it took no more than five minutes for someone to ask the question on every American's mind. "Do you guys," one man said to a couple college-aged fellows in the aisle, "have any idea what's happening in the NBA Finals?"
First, a confession. It was my hope to attend Monday's U.S.-Czech Republic match and report back from there. I had even managed to wangle the promise of a reasonably priced ticket from a fellow American, whom I was to meet in Gelsenkirchen. Unfortunately, for reasons that are far too mundane to recount, the ticket did not materialize, and I instead watched a few miles away, at Fan Fest Gelsenkirchen, where ticketless fans massed beneath a Jumbotron and swilled beer in the hot evening sun.
Gelsenkirchen, incidentally, translates very roughly to "Church of Gnats." It was also once known as the "City of a Thousand Fires" because of its preponderance of smokestacks. It is a squat, drowsy little town—an odd place to stage one of the world's signature events. At Fan Fest, I met an American woman who has lived here for the better part of 25 years. I asked her to give me a U.S. analogue to Gelsenkirchen. She shook her head: Nothing compares. I dunno—maybe she's never been to Akron.
Anyone who watched Friday's opening ceremony—all that thigh-slapping and lederhosen—knows the World Cup is where stereotypes go for confirmation. Typecasting is more than tolerated here; it's actually embraced, with everyone glad to play the part of the loutish Brit, the dancing Brazilian, etc. So, it came as a bit of surprise, down there on the dusty grounds of Fan Fest, to find nary an ugly American, especially as the game spiraled into a dull Czech rout. The Americans, in fact, were exceptionally well-mannered, accepting the loss with a smile and a shrug and another round. There were several sweet scenes in which someone—not an American—would pat a U.S. fan's shoulder and assure him, "Two more games, two more games. It's early." No one seemed to pick up the implicit taunt. Toward the end of the night, at the Brauhaus Hibernia, near Gelsenkirchen's central train station, Czech and American fans went so far as to merge their chants. The resulting mash-up sounded something like: "Cheshi! USA! Cheshi! USA!"
Clearly, Americans have a long way to go. American soccer may indeed be a player on the international level, but its supporters have yet to adopt even the outward habits of soccer fandom. The wardrobe, for instance: Americans, for the most part, announce their allegiances not with a Landon Donovan jersey but (scanning the crowd in Gelsenkirchen) with an Atlanta Falcons shirt, a University of Wisconsin T-shirt, and a Greg Maddux jersey. Everyone dresses more or less like a Phi Delt.
More notably, the United States has yet to settle on a decent cheer. The English sing, "Eng-uh-land, Eng-uh-land, Eng-uh-land" to what sounds like the tune of, horrors, "Stars and Stripes Forever." The Czechs have several chants, some of them choreographed, all of them peppy, and all of them involving a great deal of bouncing. The Americans, alas, must content themselves with the artless grunt, "USA! USA! USA!," which sounds merely like a provocation. (I also heard, "Superpower, superpower, superpower." This was probably an ironic gesture, considering that when President Bush's face appeared on a TV screen in a bar near Gelsenkirchen's central train station, a bar that, incidentally, was filled with drunk Americans draped in U.S. flags, all hoarse from yelling "USA!," no one mustered a single cheer. There were, however, plenty of whistles.)
America's debut, in all, proved to be an exceedingly polite affair. I confess this came as a bit of a disappointment, having for years read of the ardor of the international fans. There was one moment, outside Fan Fest, that gave me hope, however. I heard what sounded like an argument between some American and German fans. But then they started hoisting their beers. They had evidently found common ground, and they began to chant together: "Nowitzki! Dallas Mavericks! Nowitzki!"