03 July 2012

Euro Cup Runneth Over

We don't often whittle an explanation down to our nationality.  Especially having spent about seven times as much time in Europe than home in the last two years, it has gotten harder and harder to think of things - and people, really - in such certain and separate terms.  However, whenever anyone asks us why we don't watch football, we always respond, "we're American." Sometimes, Merlin can't help himself from working the word "soccer" into his answer.  We both grew up playing soccer, as most Americans do. But watching it? A live televised event with little to no opportunity for commercial breaks? Not our country's style.   So, we actually didn't know Euro 2012 was even happening until we read a news article about violence between Polish and Russian fans.  Once we knew, we made a concerted effort take part in the experience. 
Our viewership began during the last quarter-final match, shown on the ginormous screen at Beer Fest in Pristina.  It was between England and Italy and went into overtime, then double overtime.  Excuse me if these are not the correct terms.  The scheduled 11pm musical performance began to play over the broadcast and we assumed it would end as a draw.  The fact that that can happen is one of the few things I do know about soccer, having been in New York during the 2012 World Cup, when the Post famously printed the headline: "USA Wins 1-1."  As we walked past 91, an English pub just down the street, a television screen alerted us to the much more exciting outcome.  Penalty kicks!  The crowd inside was much less mellow - a group of British expats at the ends of their bar stools (and the ends of their wits).  The mood alternated so extremely between tension and jubilation that beer actually went temporarily untouched.  Eventually, Italy won.
The best thing about watching soccer in Europe, especially in the summer, is that it's an outdoor activity.  Unlike American football, which shuts people into living rooms and neon sportsbars midday no matter how beautiful the weather, soccer brings people out onto the streets.  This is especially true in places like Kosovo, where there aren't too many businesses that can afford a big screen television or ten.  Instead, projection screens are set up where they can be. When all else fails, the side of a building becomes a big screen.  You can walk around all day long and not have any idea where sports theaters will magically pop up after dark. There's usually a bit of finicking with the system.  Getting the picture to line up, synching the sound, a few switches to a blank screen and the words "Lost Feed," "Data Unavailable" or something "Interrupted" and then you're ready to go! 
Then, once it's up and ready, you get to enjoy the summer air while taking in the game.  Sure, there may be competing DJs or call-to-prayers through the broadcast, but it's a little like a drive through movie.  Something special. I can't imagine how well this would work other places.  In Pristina, Rahovec and Prizren, there was never a backlash against waiters or a loss of patience if the sound cut out or a play was missed due to technical difficulties.  The crowds were as far from rowdy as you get. People are laid back here, understanding, mostly sober.  Plus, it's not their own team's pride on the line.   Kosovo cannot take part in the Euro Championship, as they have not been allowed to join the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). 
I'm sure if Albania or even Turkey had been one of the 16 teams who qualified for Euro 2012, they would have been the clear choice for default favorite.  Without them, it was interesting to wonder who people favored to win.  In the case of the final - it was clearly Italy.  The fact that Spain (like UEFA) doesn't recognize Kosovo as an independent country, may have had something to do with it.  For that Sunday night final in Prizren, cars clamored for parking spaces and high-heeled young women searched for a seat (or just a sliver standing room) at a cafe.  There was definitely an atmosphere of festivity, of a big event, but it just doesn't pack the same punch when you don't have a team in the running.  We were just like everyone else, watching a championship our nation had no stake in - but enjoying the heck out of it.
It also doesn't pack the same punch when the match is a blow out.  By the end of the 4-0 final, the bars were almost completely cleared out.  Places kicked up their stereos a little more, people began to make their way back to their cars.  Spain was victorious once again, for the second time in a row.  It will be another four years before anyone gets to strip them of their crown and we will most likely be back in America with more knowledge about the relatively inconsequential NFL summer off-season than this large-scale competition.  Way before then, though, is the London Olympics and I plan on watching the soccer events a little more closely.  I've got some history under my belt now, I know some names and faces.  Super Mario and such.



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