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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Watching the World Cup in Milwaukee

Finding the American melting pot through sport

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Having been born and raised in Florence, Italy, it seems abnormal to me not to follow football, or what is commonly called “soccer” in the United States. Football is so saturated in Italian culture that I didn’t realize just how much it defined the country’s identity until I moved to the States. The ideal of the “American melting pot” has always presented itself mysteriously as the country’s defining characteristic—the romantic myth distinguishing it from any other country. This concept remained intangible to me until recently.

I moved to Milwaukee in late-summer 2008. While walking down Kinnickinnic Avenue I saw the Highbury Pub and did a double take. I could not quite believe that a football bar was literally around the corner. The very existence of such an establishment pleasantly shocked me. In my subsequent, myriad visits, it was impossible to ignore the diversity of people the pub attracted—all ages, all interests, all nationalities, all sharing the same passion.

In Italy, football has even changed the way Sundays are experienced in the Catholic capital of the world: Church is important, but the afternoon match surpasses the sacred. As I grew older—and I grew accustomed to the States after my move to the Midwest at the age of 16—Fiorentina, my hometown’s team, gradually carved its way into my heart and football as a whole has become ritual for me.

Every weekend (and even during the week), first as a patron and now as a bartender, I get to experience a ragtag collection of internationals cheering on their respective teams from all corners of the globe. Spend a few hours, if not a few minutes, at the bar and you will feel like you walked into the United Nations’ lunchroom. You will hear different languages being spoken—Spanish, Polish, Italian, Serbian, German and more—and you will hear people exchanging stories from their own cultural backgrounds.

Highbury patrons encompass the gamut—you will find lawyers, aldermen, nurses, teachers, postal carriers, writers, etc. What could easily become a natural breeding ground for arguments and disputes is instead a fun and comfortable hub of cultural exchange, endemic to Milwaukee’s immigrant history. There is no hooliganism, and there are no bar fights, and when a match is over groups of opposing fans mingle and resume conversation.

The Power of Football

The fascinating coagulation of individuals is telling of the power of this sport. What makes football so distinct is its beautiful simplicity—all you need to play it is a ball, and the rules are few and simple. The emphasis on the quality of the game is what makes this sport unique. Because goals are not easily scored, and the score itself is generally low, each goal becomes something incredibly precious. Scoring is only one theme being developed in this poem. You watch the approach, the style of play, the players—who’s injured, who’s not, who's red-carded and why (just what did that midfielder say about the referee’s mother?). The game is beautiful because it presents an assemblage of moves and tactics—dribbles, eye contact, cunning versatility—that form an incredible mosaic. At the end of a game, 0-0 matters (literally, a team gets one point for a draw), but the final judgment of the match is whether it exhibited the verse and verve that has held the world outside of America captive for 125 years.

I have had not only the privilege of watching “the beautiful game” during work hours, but I have also had the time to observe what football does to people—how it transforms them, unites them, and what it means to them on an intimate level. Their eyes follow the dance of the players as they make their way across the pitch like a paintbrush dances across a fresh layer of canvas. The artistry on the pitch culminates in something ethereal and elegant.

Football is a wonderful teacher when it comes to cultural inquiry. During the World Cup we will see countries come to a temporary peace—a midday truce—to follow the elegant flight of a long cross into the box. If you are just a wee bit curious, I suggest you pop your head into the pub between now and July 11, as you will get a sense of the passion and the camaraderie of the world's most cherished sport—and see with clarity just how football can bridge our differences and heal our wounds.

It is this way that I have seen the American melting pot embody its idealistic sphere and make itself evident. There is something powerful about a sport that traverses the boundaries of cultural and racial identity, and transforms the masses into one—unifying otherness into a universal language that everyone can speak and that all can and want to hear.

Forza Italia!