Greensboro joins the world in fútbol passion

by Jordan Green

As sports spectators from North Carolina’s mainstream held their breath to see whether a homegrown team would prevail in hockey’s Stanley Cup finals, some of the newest North Carolinians in the Gate City rearranged work schedules and crowded around televisions to observe the passion and majesty of the only athletic competition that is really played out on the world stage ‘— the sport known everywhere but here as fútbol.

Sports commentators have chalked up American disinterest in soccer to parochialism. And no wonder: one used the word ‘“savaged’” to describe what the Czech Republic did to the United States team during their match in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Monday, June 12, which ended in a 3-0 rout.

It’s Tuesday, June 13, and Omer Omer is busy with a constant stream of clients coming through his office on the fifth floor of the Self-Help building overlooking Greensboro’s half-finished Center City Park. Though not much of a soccer fan himself, the Sudanese-born Omer is astute enough to appreciate that the World Cup tournament ‘— an event that occurs with the same frequency as US presidential elections ‘— is bound to alter the ebb and flow of his workplace.

‘“In Europe you cannot escape it,’” Omer says. ‘“You say, ‘Who’s that player?’ and people laugh at you and say, ‘You don’t know!’ Now when I hear about a very good game I find a group of people to watch it with. If I watch it by myself I miss a lot.’”

He recounts how he fell behind in his soccer education. Growing up in Sudan, he says, he had the good fortune to be able to attend elementary school, but when school was over at three or four in the afternoon he had to go home and take care of goats and cattle while his classmates pursued extracurricular activities. By the time he took up soccer in middle school, his peers’ passions and talents for the game had been long cemented.

One of Omer’s employees, Paul Ayivon, rented a television and took off the previous Friday afternoon to watch the opening day ceremony and the inaugural match between Germany and Costa Rica. Ayivon’s native Togo, a sliver of a country of 5 million people wedged between Ghana and Benin, is one of five qualifying African countries competing in the World Cup.

On Tuesday France takes on Switzerland. Daniel Ajak, one of three young men described by Omer as ‘“the lost boys of Sudan,’” is supporting France.

The matches, all of which are being played in Germany, are staggered every three hours, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. With Germany being six time zones ahead of the US Eastern Seaboard, the weekday games end up being broadcasted during the prime hours of the American workday, starting at 9 a.m. In effect, fans in the United States are sitting down to watch the last game of the day at the same time the last game of the day is being played in Germany.

After rushing back from the African Services Coalition offices, Ajak flips on the TV in the small apartment off Holden Road that he shares with Daniel Panreng and John Deng. It’s fifteen minutes into the game during the noon hour.

Ajak observes the game with quiet attentiveness. A couple friends stroll in, taking advantage of their lunch break to see some of the game. The guests and the other two roommates regard the game with less interest than Ajak.

Deng steps in front of the TV for a moment and Ajak waves him aside.

‘“Wiltford, Wiltford,’” Ajak chants quietly, watching France’s forward.

The play features a lot of quick footwork in close quarters, frustrated effort, over-abundant caution, and none of the sweeping poetry that characterizes the game at its best.

‘“The French are not playing like a team that want to win,’” says David Abdalla, one of the guests.

‘“Come on, man,’” Ajak protests. ‘“Let’s watch.’”

The French drive the ball towards the goal and one of their players takes a kick. Ajak inhales sharply and draws his hands to his throat. A look of terror crosses his face and a whinny escapes his lips when the ball sales beyond the confines of the net.

By halftime neither team has made any progress. The guests leave and return to work. Ajak excuses himself, returning shortly with a grocery bag full of sliced bread and bottled water.

He sets two white plastic bowls of okra and beef stew, a meal that is the consistency and color of split pea soup, on the table behind one of the couches.

‘“Try it; you never know if you’ll like it,’” he says, tearing a slice of bread and dabbing a section of it in the bowl.

During the second half the three huddle around the television, talking rapidly in Dinka, a language of southern Sudan. One of France’s players tries again to score with a straight, hard shot, but misses the goal by a foot. Ajak assumes a prayerful posture, but the malaise only deepens.

Just as the game ends Ajak flips off the TV without ceremony and the three hurry out the door to their jobs. Ajak and Panreng work at Cintas, a uniform company. They confirm that they came to Greensboro from a refugee camp in Kenya in 2001 and that they were displaced by the civil war in Sudan, but elaborate little on the past they have left behind.

An hour later the plasma TV at Greenland Market on West Market Street is set on an Arab-language channel for the game between Brazil and Croatia. Abu Obida’s grocery store caters to Middle Eastern and Eastern European immigrants. Obida met his Bosnian wife while they were students at the University of Sarajevo, where Obida studied dentistry and his future wife studied veterinary medicine.

Obida says he’s expanding the store to bring in more income while his wife finishes her veterinary studies here in North Carolina. Later, he’ll go back to school to complete his training to become a dentist. In the meantime, he’s brought a pool table into the middle room. The backroom is shaping up as a café. An unfinished work, the walls are painted sky blue but the ductwork remains exposed under the roof. Some loose carpeting is arranged on the concrete floor and the patrons, mostly men, lounge in white plastic chairs. There’s a small wooden bar in the corner and a cooler stocks bottled water and the papery sweet pastry known as baklava.

Most of the Arab Sudanese men in attendance are supporting Brazil. Many of them smoke cigarettes and miniature cigars. Mohammed, a young man who declines to give his last name, passes around a bag of nuts. Hashim Mahmoud, who is originally from Sudan, contentedly inhales the vapors from a shisha, a water pipe widely referred to by contemporary Arab-American users as a hubbly-bubbly. Near the beginning of the first half Obida plucks a pair of hot coals from a metal hotbox and places them in the bowl. The sweet smell of strawberry-flavored tobacco permeates the room.

Brazil, as any serious fan knows, is the top-ranked team and the defending champion. Croatia, ranked 23rd, is considered to be a scrappy, talented team.

Brazil runs the ball aggressively down the field, its team members making sweeping long passes. Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos kicks the ball hard and long but the Croatian goalkeeper leaps into the air and tips it above the net.

Mohammed looks tense. He claps his hands to punctuate moments of action and promise. He swats his right hand in front of him in irritation when the two teams seem jammed up.

Brazil will prevail, securing the game 1 to 0, but the fans at Greenland Market are looking for more a dramatic performance, more dazzling technical command from the champions of the world.

During halftime the conversation turns to other subjects. A woman named Heather, who speaks in a syrup-sweet Southern drawl, brings up her experiences with international travel. She draws a couple conclusions: Middle Easterners are more friendly to Americans than Europeans, and European security personnel more intently scrutinize Americans transiting through their airports from Middle Eastern countries back to the United States than those arriving in their initial flights from New York.

‘“Europeans don’t like Americans, it’s a fact,’” Mahmoud accedes.

‘“In Egypt they were so nice: ‘Oh, what can I do for you?”” Heather says. ‘“Besides, all the guys want to marry you.’”

On Friday, June 16, Javier Garcia cuts out of work at FaithAction International House two hours early to catch Mexico’s match against Angola. A resident of Durham, Garcia has been commuting to Greensboro for about 18 months for his job as immigrant housing program director at FaithAction.

Garcia guns his battered green Geo down Lee Street, following behind a friend, Norma Serafin. Impatient to get to the restaurant before kickoff, she speeds ahead of Garcia.

‘“Christo, señora,’” Garcia swears under his breath, as he nearly runs a red light at Glenwood Avenue to keep up with her.

When they reach Las Jarochitas on High Point Road, Garcia grabs a full-sized Mexican flag from his trunk and a wooden noisemaker painted with the image of the flag. Serafin and her son Luis have already seated themselves at the table in front of the plasma TV when Garcia steps inside the cool confines of the restaurant.

Serafin, who wears a black pinstriped business dress, is soon rapping her knuckles against the table when Mexico misses a shot against Angola. A housing credit counselor and public school teacher, she has put aside a stack of paperwork to catch the game. She works at home in the summer, so her schedule allows her the flexibility to take in some of the games.

‘“I know many people who are very sad because it’s Friday and they still have to work,’” Serafin says. ‘“In Mexico City they’re having big gatherings, big parties.’”

At the table behind them four Hispanic men skipping work have a bucket of iced Coronas brought to them. Garcia turns and hands them some business cards.

‘“If you have any problems with housing,’” he says in Spanish, ‘“give me a call.’”

Fourth-ranked Mexico is enjoying a surge of momentum after besting 23rd-ranked Iran 3-1 in their match on June 11. Given that precedent, it seems reasonable that Mexico should sail past the 57th-ranked Angola today.

Both teams are playing with passion, driving the ball up and down the field with poetic long passes, steals that reverse fortunes in a matter of seconds and aggressive foot-to-foot parrying. Occasionally, the referees call time out when some of Angola’s players go down.

‘“They’re wasting too much time with hurt people,’” Serafin complains. ‘“Vamanos. Arriba, arriba.’” When one of the Angolan players tumbles in the field, she protests: ‘“Uh uh, he hurt his own self.’”

She says she didn’t care about soccer until her adolescent son started playing for a school team. Luis, who prefers to keep night hours during the summer break, rests his head on the table through much of the game.

During half time Serafin and Garcia discuss the newly acquired assertiveness of Hispanics in North Carolina, and their perplexity about resentments expressed by native-born whites and African Americans. The two of them have a measure of stature in Greensboro’s Hispanic community due to their organizational affiliations, economic attainment and intellectual acuity, but Garcia insists that the May 1st demonstrations were an expression of popular will.

‘“We didn’t make this happen,’” he says. ‘“People came to us and asked us, ‘What can we do?””

Both teams attempt to score in the second half, to no avail. A scream goes up in the restaurant when Angola’s goalkeeper snatches the ball after a valiant kick toward the net by one of Mexico’s players. Serafin pounds the table not long after the waitress has cleared her dishes.

‘“I’m glad she took away my plate,’” Serafin says. ‘“It would have gotten messy.’”

She notes that there are ‘“mostly guys’” in the restaurant, although an elderly woman soothes a baby lying in a car seat set on a table in the back corner booth. The female servers walk slowly back to the kitchen with their eyes on the television, and a female cook periodically peaks from behind the partition to catch some of the action.

As Mexico tries and misses one last attempt to score in the final moments of the game a low growl that builds to a grievous shriek goes up in the restaurant. Garcia laughs when one of the men at the table behind him sobs theatrically.

The two teams held to a draw, Garcia picks retrieves the never-unfurled flag and heads for the door.

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