The World Cup Turns New York into a Model U.N. Conference

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 15 2010 9:42 AM

The World Cup Turns New York into a Model U.N. Conference

Every colorful capital city—every epic Rome or grand London or wackadoo Tallahassee—is a busy circus set. In such a place, the public square is an electric arena of political and cultural performance even on the mellowest morning. Every Diet Coke-fueled breakfast meeting and every bout of park-bench gossip is a moment in a festival. Capitals are great stages of power. Question: What happens in the capital of the world when the World Cup is on? Answer: New York City gets more brazen than usual and pumps up the jam on the drama, producing a vivid civic extravaganza.

Here we discover tribal behavior at its most gaudily theatrical. The streets are bright with football jerseys, the most retina-wrecking of which are the yellows—South Africa’s bold marigold and Brazil’s blazing canary. Some people wear their Adidas tops as if they were party costumes, others as if they were gang colors, others yet as camouflage. Here and there you see grown men holding a soccer balls at their hips, and you decide that, as accessories go, they definitely beat man-purses. A tragic few are out there standing around in public with U.K. socks and shin guards protecting their patriotic tibia.

Identity and status dance around giddily, not unlike the wine-soaked waitstaffs of the livelier brasseries and T.G.I.French bistros. The party brings together immigrants without papers and plutocrats with diplomatic plates, expatriates and vacationers, people rooting hard for the country of their ancestors’ origins and people rooting even harder for whoever the hell's jersey they put on. In these early days, the mood is one of benevolent nationalism and communal celebration, as at a Model U.N. conference where the kids are excited to hang out both before and after curfew. Everyone’s being jubilantly collegial.

On Friday afternoon, just after South Africa and Mexico had fought to a tie, I headed over to a South African restaurant in Brooklyn. I decided not to go in, partly because I was still feeling like a sucker for ordering the ostrich carpaccio appetizer last time I was there, partly because it was so crowded that I would have needed to find a roof entrance. There I was alone on the sidewalk—just me, two local camera crews, and a heaving overflow crowd rejoicing at the tie like it was  V-J Day in Times Square , almost. A marigold circle of fans kicked a ball around. In my peripheral vision, I saw the ball rise with a funny spin and arc toward the side of my face, but someone diverted it with an agile header, and I was spared. With a stretching gesture and a schoolteacher’s smile, a bystander held her hand up for a high-five.

This is, to my mind, the very definition of jubilant collegiality— high-fiving a stranger to celebrate that he did not get hit in the face with a leather ball . There is a party in the streets. Like any good party, it will eventually get out of control, and that’ll be fun too. I can hardly wait until things start to bubble over, and packs of hooligans get to belching at the sunrise, and the traffic thickens with the kind of flag-waving, stereo-pumping, rooting-tooting-horn-leaning motorist who believes that his country’s victory has conferred upon him a license to drive like a goat’s ass. Heads up.

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Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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