Thursday, June 22, 2006

World Cup Notes

By the time anybody reads this, the fate of the U.S. national team will likely already have been determined. But I wanted to convey some thoughts from watching my first World Cup abroad.

As the World Cup started two weeks ago, it was a disaster of epic proportions to discover that the Armed Forces Network was not televising the games here in Iraq! After shaking hands with President Bush, General Casey came over to me to say hello, jokingly asking whether he could get me a mocha (the President's speech was held in the Green Beans coffee lounge in the Palace). I said "No thanks, but if you could do anything to get AFN to start televising the World Cup I think everybody would really appreciate it." General Casey just smiled, and walked away, probably having no clue what I was griping about, I thought.

The World Cup has been one of my favorite sporting events ever since I was a grade schooler participating in the soccer boom of the 1970s. For my 8th birthday my mother took me and five friends to RFK for a Washington Diplomats-Montreal Mania game, and when the players came out during halftime to punt autographed soccer balls into the stands, this birthday boy actually caught one. (Thus proving beyond any philosophical doubt that there is cosmic justice). That same year I was able to go to the 1980 "Soccer Bowl", the North American Soccer League's championship game, in which the New York Cosmos beat the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers 3-0 on two second half goals by Italian national team star Giorgio Chinaglia.

The only compensation for undergoing a wisdom tooth extraction in the summer of 1990 was that I was able to watch the U.S.'s first World Cup matches in 40 years instead of working my summer job. In 2002 I was fortunate to room with two former college soccer players who were as passionate about soccer as me (and, in reality, knew more about the game than I did).

Initially, the only venue within the Palace complex to watch games at was by Saddam's pool, where the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) folks had set up a movie screen and projector so that we could watch games on Arab satellite. So for the U.S.'s disastrous opening match against the Czech Republic (the Czechs won 3-0) I couldn't understand a word of the commentary other than GOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLL!!!! It was an almost perfect setting, underneath the palm trees, as night fell and the oppressive heat broke into a cool, 90 degree evening.

The games at the pool were shown at 8PM Baghdad time, or noon EST. However, the U.S.-Italy game Saturday night was televised at 11PM, past the "quiet hours" for the pool. So for this game they opened up Saddam's movie theater in the basement of the Palace. For two hours I sat next to a burly Caribinari with a shaved head, trading insults and boasts in Italian and English as the U.S. dominated the Italians in every aspect, with only a couple of questionable ejections allowing the Italians to escape with a 1-1 draw. As I said when I arrived in Iraq, there were sure to be some surreal moments in my year here, and this was clearly one of them.

This is perhaps the best part of watching the World Cup in Iraq. Although we are repeatedly reminded that Operation Iraqi Freedom is clearly a unilateral war representing the failure of the Bush administration's diplomacy, I've sat next to Aussies as they lost to Brazil, Ukranians as they routed Saudi Arabia 4-0, and commiserated with British officers at the news of Michael Owens' torn ACL. (The day after the loss to the Czech Republic, I evened scowled at some Czech officers as the walked by, although I'm not sure they understood why I was doing it and that I wasn't just some insane American officer). In all, there are TEN countries in the Coalition besides the United States that have teams participating in the World Cup this year.

In fact, these ten sides have a combined record of 13-6-5, with a +9 goal differential. In other words, social science proves that if you want World Cup success, it is better to be allied with the United States in Iraq. (Iran, incidentally, failed to win a game this year). To test this theory, just watch tonight's game between Brazil and Japan. Japan recently announced that after three years, they will not renew their troop commitment again because the security in the province in which they are stationed no longer requires their presence. I bet that because of their withdrawal from Iraq, the Japanese team will lose tonight's match against Brazil. Don't try to argue with this, it's science!!!

Okay, I have to go. Kickoff is in half an hour, and I have to quickly grab some chow. I will likely be watching tonight's game alone in my trailer, which affords both air conditioning and one of Maj. Carroll-Keay's leftover beers. Fortunately, yesterday we received an email that for the duration of the tournament, what is normally the Pentagon Channel on our cable system is being converted to AFN Extra so that we can watch the World Cup games.

Perhaps General Casey understood what I was talking about after all!