With the FIFA World Cup taking over televisions everywhere, I can’t help but remember my own partaking in a similar festival two years ago, when the EuroCup was being held in Poland and Ukraine, and I was living in Gdansk, one of the host cities.
It was phenomenal being part of something as multi-cultural as the EuroCup, but more importantly, it was also an opportunity for the country to learn, improve, evolve, and do some serious armchair travel.
The whole town changed. Poland had changed – whole stadiums and full highway systems were built, expanded or upgraded for the occasion, improving infrastructure throughout the country.
Gdansk was already a tourist coastal city hotspot, but the Old Town, with its cobblestone streets and pastel painted village, filled to the brim as tourism soared and visitors from participating countries came out to support their teams.
Bonds formed immediately. There was a sense of community as supporting groups found each other. With the spirit of the games, interaction was easy, rivalries friendly. The host country proudly paraded its culture, and in turn was able to see it with fresh eyes.
Everyday was a celebration, filled with hope, joy and merriment. Whichever team was playing that day, those fans, decked out with flags, jerseys and costumes, spilled out of the restaurants and pub patios to dance, and cheer their way over the cobbles in their various rivers of colour, their fan chants, identical melodies with different lyrics, in different languages, providing a soundtrack to the party in the streets.
Each time it was an opportunity to breathe in snippets of culture, tiny pieces of those participating countries: the flags, the language, the historical or stereotypical costumes, the personalities – each visitor providing a little more insight into the character of that country.
The World Cup
And now, with the World Cup, pre and post game segments discuss current social and economical situations that give at least a glimpse of context for the country in question, particularly what soccer means to them. There are countries within Africa and South America where soccer is everything, not only as a passion, but as a release. It is everything, because there is nothing else.
These are all tiny glimpses into important cultural realities. The buskers and balloons, face paint and afros, souvenir booths and beer gardens might sound awful, noisy, and touristy, but the atmosphere of what is essentially a festival of futbol offers a fresh perspective on the country, and an opportunity for cultural exposure so necessary in this world.