If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them
Updated: Jan 28
Central Bali, early July 2006. The wee hours of the morning - 02:50am to be precise; the shrill ringing of my alarm clock competing with the raucous croaking of the frogs in the rice fields, piercing the peacefulness of my deep, dreamless sleep.
I rolled over and beat my way out of the tangle of my quilt, felt blindly around me for the clock and unceremoniously thumped it quiet. Groggily parting the mosquito net I gazed quizzically out into the blackness, totally unable to remember why I had set the alarm to go off at such an inhospitable hour. Through the mists of my confusion I noticed a text message arriving on my mobile phone. Wondering who on earth would be texting me in the depths of the night, I squinted into the darkness and read,
“Where you? :-) Football starting in 5 mins!” Yusa, Bali brother in the house across the family compound.
Football? 3am? Me? Surely not? Questions flickering across my consciousness.
And then I remembered. In a moment of totally rash foolishness the day before I had promised Yusa and Berni, my German neighbour, that I would join them for the first of the 2006 FIFA World Cup semi-finals. Italy versus Germany. As I clambered sleepily down the stairs, pulling a jumper over my head, I recalled thinking what fun it would be to cheer for Italy. Berni, you see, is German through and through and is an ardent football fan. Nothing like a little verbal opposition to add spice to his viewing I had thought.
Unbelievably, much to my incredulous surprise, World Cup Fever had arrived at my doorstep. There really was nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. As hard as I had fought it, I had finally succumbed to this worldwide rollercoaster of an epidemic.
My infection had started three nights earlier. Myself, Yusa, Berni and his wife, Evie, were in Denpasar listening to wonderful live music. In the corner of the large warung in Renon where we were there was a big movie screen set up in readiness for the quarter-final between England and Portugal.
“Is there no escape?!” I exclaimed in horror as we settled ourselves down at a table way too close to this screen for my liking.
The football was due to start at 11pm. By this time Evie and I had moved to the front of the stage where we were cheering and clapping our friends in the band, totally lost in the magic of their rhythm and blues. The music finished twenty five minutes after the football had started. We threaded our way back through the tables to where we had left Berni and Yusa. They and three dozen others were totally engrossed in the soccer. With eyeballs firmly glued to the screen & the car key firmly ensconced in Yusa’s pocket we were clearly not going anywhere at least until half time.
As we sat down several pairs of eyes fell upon me. The only English person; my nationality clearly evident from my accent. I felt a certain expectation cloaking itself around my shoulders.
Oh well, I thought, you know that old adage – if you can’t beat them, join them.
And so I did. That was the moment I surrendered to World Cup Fever. For the first time in almost two decades I paid attention to a football match. Twenty minutes later, when the whistle blew at the end of the first half, I was there with the rest of the crowd - yelling at the English attack for being too defensive and far too feeble, hollering at the referee for unfair calls and booing at the Portuguese when they came too close to scoring.
Suffice to say that the four of us bundled into the car during half time and raced home. I have never known the journey to pass so quickly. But despite our haste we still missed the first five minutes of the second half. Not that it really mattered because, as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, this rather uninspiring match went through extra time and into a nail-biting penalty shoot out that the Portuguese won.
I will be the first to admit that I screamed myself hoarse at the TV in my efforts that the English team hear my pleas. Berni had cheered himself into the same state for the Portuguese. Yusa, meanwhile, had walked the neutral path. The Balinese way, keeping the balance. I must also admit that my infection was very severe. I had tears in my eyes after the Portuguese scored and took the match, and the World Cup, to the point of no return for the English.
No matter how much I have never liked this game and how I have never followed it, my passion and understanding for it on this occasion brought home to me how soccer really is a part of the English psyche. Somehow knowledge, not only of the game but England’s history in it, had osmotically permeated my memory over the years and regardless of the fact that I have lived outside of the country of my birth for almost as long as I have lived in it and really do not consider myself as English for many reasons, patriotism for my country when it comes to any sport, even one that I don’t like, obviously still runs thick in my veins.
So there I was. In the early hours of a dark, cloudy Wednesday morning back in Yusa’s house watching the football. Strong, sweet Bali coffee in my right hand, creamy chocolate cake in my left, with World Cup Fever burning its way though a Balinese, a German and an Englishwoman. All of us with our eyes riveted to the TV and trying hard not to wake the rest of the household with our chatter and cheers.
The semi-final between Italy and Germany presented the world with superb football. Exciting and enthralling with endless action swinging from one end of the pitch to the other. And as for its finish? Well, what is there to say? The two goals the Italians scored in the closing couple of minutes of the game redefined for me the word ‘stunning’. ‘Stunning’ as an adverb, an adjective and a verb. Poetry in motion. Truly breathtaking.
When the final whistle of extra time blew I honestly thought that football had taken the life of my dear German neighbour. Berni jumped up into the air, fell to the floor, put his head between his knees and clasped his hands behind his neck. And there he stayed for several minutes. Unmoving. Silent as the TV cameras panned across the jubilant faces of the Italian team and their supporters, and the shell-shocked, tear-streaked ones of the Germans.
But at the end of the day, it is only a game. At least to me it was. I consoled Berni, made my promises to cheer for Portugal the following night, bid my goodbyes and left for my house. I walked slowly back through the garden as nighttime disappeared into the cool indigo darkness before dawn.
I returned to my bed with the sky to the east just beginning to show signs of the burgeoning day. Before falling back to sleep I gave thought once more to this epidemic of unity that had cut a swathe around the world. Somehow it had managed to infect even me despite my ambivalence towards soccer. And moreover, I had actually enjoyed watching.
So here, in public, I hold my hands up and say after forty five years of denying it, that there really is something to the game of soccer after all.
First published July 2006