Watching the World’s Game in American Paradise

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It was never the plan to watch the World Cup final match in Hawaii, on a 40-foot screen until, all of a sudden, it was. I assumed I’d watch on my couch or in my office as I did for every other match during the titanic, month-long celebration of sport, country and passion. But plans change; everybody knows that. And, sometimes, we’re all the richer for it.

To most Americans, Hawaii, the fiftieth and most recent state to join the United States of America, is more of a dreamy tourist location than it is a part of their own country. This is primarily because it’s been depicted as such in commercials, on television and, especially, in film. But it’s also because Hawaii (or Hawai’i, as it is known in the Hawaiian language) is so intangible to Mainlanders. It’s made up of a chain of eight main islands – most Americans couldn’t even tell you that much– and it’s incredibly remote. Hawaii isn’t just far away from the Mainland (2,390 miles from California); it’s far away from everything (3,850 miles from Japan). It’s truly difficult to comprehend its complexities when it’s so out of sight and out of mind.

During my recent one-week stay in Oahu (the most populated of the islands), I quickly learned that there was far more to America’s most misunderstood state than the stereotypical sandy beaches, hula dancers and tropical drinks. Though all of these elements are present, they’re a gross simplification of a far more fascinating and unique world that is rich in scenery, history, commerce and culture. Commercially, it’s indeed a thriving tourist attraction. Physically, it’s a mishmash of breathtaking ocean and mountain views, with a skyline in the Waikiki-Honolulu area that rivals that of any major American city. Historically, it takes a little bit longer to grasp, but one visit to America’s only royal palace, the ‘Iolani Palace, will reveal some of the scars left from when a proud and advanced culture was stripped of its system of government by American and European business interests, before the territory was illegally annexed by the United States. (Which, hey, doesn’t that sound kind of familiar? It never ceases to amaze that “history” – American or otherwise – is nearly always synonymous with some horrific combination of pain, violence and destruction.) It may be paradise, but it certainly hasn’t always been pleasant.

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Oahu’s cultural blend, however, is what made it such a fascinating and life-affirming place to watch something like the World Cup. In America as a whole, soccer is not exactly the most popular sport – it pales in comparison to American football, a behemoth that is routinely viewed in record numbers – but it is growing. When the U.S. Men’s National Team played Portugal in the second game of group play, 24.7 million viewers tuned in, and that’s not including all of the viewing parties at people’s houses, or the bars and the giant stadiums that showed the game. When I returned home from Hawaii, I learned via CBS Sports that 26.5 million tuned in for the World Cup Final, a larger audience than the deciding game for the most recent World Series on Fox (19.2 million), the most recent NBA Finals on ABC (18.0 million), and even the BCS Championship game in college football on ESPN in January (25.6 million). When I was there, though, I didn’t really know how interested this secluded corner of the country was in the game. With balmy weather all year around, to me it would seem like a waste if Hawaii weren’t a soccer-crazed region. However, what I found in my experience was that a large portion of the people there had only a passing interest in the sports and the pop culture world in general that so many of us obsess over. They seemed more or less content with filling their leisure time with trips to the beach, hikes and connecting with nature. With the environment they have, who can blame them? Be that as it may, though, I was still intent on finding passionate soccer fans while I was there.

The bar that I picked out was one advertised in a local newspaper. It raved of good drink deals and a large viewing party around a 40-foot screen. I had no idea where it was located; I’d have to take a cab. Sure, it would have been fine to go to Buffalo Wild Wings, but that’s the sports bar equivalent of McDonald’s. To me, it seemed like going to a random bar to watch a soccer game at 9:00 A.M. would paint a more authentic picture of who actually cared about the World Cup in Honolulu, even if it was only a representation of who cared about it at that exact moment.

When I walked in, it didn’t take long to realize that this viewing experience was going to be different than what I had previously envisioned in my head. For one, droves of people didn’t appear to be coming out to see which country would be crowned world champion. It turned out that closer to forty people were interested in finding out if Lionel Messi would once and for all silence his critics, or if Germany would capture its first World Cup in 24 years. Oh, and that 40-foot screen? Well, the screen might have been 40 feet, but the projector didn’t produce that large of an image. Inside there was a bar, a couple of TVs on the wall and a few tables scattered around the main room. To the right of the room, though, was the aforementioned viewing party, which featured a handful of couches and low-sitting tables arranged in front of the aforementioned projector. The waitresses came to you so you could order and receive your food and drinks without interrupting the flow of the game. It wasn’t all that fancy, but it was practical.

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The small crowd that I found myself amongst didn’t quite line up with the state’s race demographic percentages. As per the 2010 United States Census, Hawaii is 38.6% Asian (14.5% Filipino-American, 13.6% Japanese-American, 4% Chinese-American, 1.8% Korean-American, .7% Vietnamese-American, .2% Asian Indian-American and 3.8% other Asian-American), 24.7% Caucasian, 10% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (5.9% Native Hawaiian), 1.6% Black or African-American, .3% American Indian and Alaska Native, 1.2% some other race, and 23.6% mixed race. At this particular bar, there were representatives of every one of these races present. But, whereas the Mainland of the US has long described itself as the cultural “Melting Pot,” Hawaii prefers to be known as a “Salad Bowl,” because each ethnicity and culture comes together to form one product, all the while retaining their own unique taste, culture and identity. At the bar, some people were Asian – like an Argentina-worshipping family from Taiwan who sat next to me. Some were white – like a group of tourists from Pittsburgh who also found the game in the newspaper. Some were black – like a large, partially crippled man who sat in front of me. Some seemed to be from the Pacific Islands – like an even larger, more imposing man who watched the game in silence behind me. Looking around, this bar was clearly a microcosm of the greater Hawaiian Salad Bowl.

Although Hawaii has no ostensible connection to either Argentina or Germany, the crowd, aside from an American couple who met in Germany, was overwhelmingly in favor of Argentina. All, however, watched with the same level of interest and intensity. In the first half, ten minutes after just missing from right outside of the 18-yard box, Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuaín put the ball in the back of the net, throwing the room into a mini-frenzy. That is, until he was called offside. The majority of the room shook their head in frustration as the aforementioned Germany fans in the front hugged and screamed and cursed excitedly. The man, it turned out, was a young serviceman who was stationed there. Another serviceman sitting behind me, a Kenyan-American, was also rooting for Germany. (I don’t think there was a discernable connection between the two, but I found it interesting nonetheless.)

Throughout the game, Germany seemed to have more control, despite only narrowly leading Argentina in possession (59.4% to 58.5%), but Argentina created more chances. Each opportunity was an electric moment in the bar. Every human, despite allegiance or ethnicity, was living or dying with each chance and each miss. It was the unifying power of the world’s game at work. It was the magic of the World Cup in full bloom. In the second half, the two uneven sides of the fans grew more and more tense. The few – and obviously proud – Germany fans yearned for their squad to transform into the ruthless and efficient goal-scoring machine that decimated Brazil a few days prior. The Argentina supporters held on to hope for some of the late-game Messi magic that the diminutive superstar had produced in spurts over the course of the month. But the game remained scoreless.

I spent the majority of the second half, as well as the thirty-minute extra-time period away from the group, chatting and watching the game with a friendly Hawaiian native named Ka’ili. He was also an Argentina supporter. As we watched together, we talked about the game, of course, but he also told me a great deal about Hawaiian culture and his experiences growing up playing the game on Oahu, and I explained to him the intricacies of how Landon Donovan got left off Team USA. As a former goalkeeper who loved defending penalty kicks, Ka’ili wanted to see the game go to a shootout. He was gravely disappointed in the 113th minute, when Germany’s Andre Schuerrlé played a beautiful ball to Mario Göetze, who chested it and reached out with his left foot to place the ball into the far-post side netting.

Everyone in the bar seemed to know that it was going to be the game-winner the moment that it happened. The party would disperse and the people would be going their separate ways in a matter of minutes. We’d almost certainly never see each other again, but for a short period of time, we were people from all over the world who were brought together by our love for a simple game. As I took it all in, I was unexpectedly moved, but I was also filled with a delightful sense of irony. I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and yet I chose to watch sports and drink beer in a darkened bar that wasn’t all that different from one I could find in central Illinois. But, moreover, I had to travel to the world’s most isolated place to be reminded of how vast, diverse and wonderful the world truly is.

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Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 

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