From squares in Buenos Aires to streets of Seoul, fans revel in World Cup

By Bridget Huber, AP
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Work suffers, parties thrive during World Cup

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Leonardo Munoz, wearing a foot-tall blue-and-white wig, is ready to bare it all for the glory of Argentina.

Before the start of the World Cup that is keeping billions glued to their TV sets, Diego Maradona — Argentina’s greatest player and now its eccentric national team coach — vowed to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if his team wins the title.

Following Argentina’s 4-1 win Thursday over South Korea, it seems many of the team’s fans are ready to follow him.

“If Maradona runs naked, I’ll do it too — I’ll be painted blue and white!” said Munoz, adding he “screamed like an animal” from his desk at a call center during the game.

World Cup fever hits every four years, and fans around the world bring their own particular flavor to watching the spectacle. In Germany, known for its strong work ethic, some firms are allowing employees to watch at the office. Iraqis are enjoying a decrease in violence that, unlike in 2006, lets them gather in public and cheer. In isolated North Korea, the government has allowed some foreign broadcasts of games — albeit on tape-delay — and residents even cheered rival South Korea.

Argentina has endured a decade of political feuding, national insolvency and no soccer titles. But after Thursday’s victory, there are signs of hope that this year might bring a much-needed win on the global stage.

“These are critical moments for Argentina, politically and economically, and this provides a bit of relief for the people,” said shoe store owner Eva Garcia, 56.

Daniel Roman, who watched the game with 1,000 other fans on a huge video screen in the downtown Plaza San Martin, said the love of the game unites his nation unlike anything else.

“It’s what brings Argentines together, this passion,” he said.

Neighboring Brazil never needs an excuse to party. And 10,000 people gathered on Copacabana beach Tuesday to watch their team’s 2-1 win over North Korea. They gulped beer, blew whistles and ushered in the general mayhem that sweeps the nation during the tournament.

“It’s football and Carnival combined!” exclaimed 26-year-old Rodrigo Nobre, his Brazil shirt and shorts covered in sand. “It’s a time for coming together, forgetting our worries and cheering on our national team!”

Brazil — the global superpower of the Jogo Bonito, or “the beautiful game” as the sport is known around the world — will host the next World Cup, in 2014.

There is no beach party in Somalia.

Islamic fundamentalists who control stretches of the African nation have banned watching the World Cup.

“We don’t want our people to be preoccupied with seminude, crazy men jumping up and down who are chasing an inflated object,” said Sheik Mohamed Osman Arus, head of operations for the Hizbul Islam insurgent group.

“We don’t want them to waste their precious time and resources on un-Islamic matches, especially during prayer time,” he said.

Hizbul Islam, just like its ally, the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab group, has imposed a strict version of Islam in areas under its control in southern and central Somalia.

Arus said that his group, contrary to earlier reports, is not arresting people for watching the World Cup or taking any other action against them beyond chasing them away from TVs.

He said militiamen chased dozens of fans from a video hall in the western town of Afgoye, where men and women mingled Saturday to watch the Argentina-Nigeria match in the first World Cup tournament held on African soil.

In Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, fans have been forced to relocate temporarily to the slice of the city under government control, where they can cheer without fear.

Perhaps no country has gone through more change since the last World Cup than Iraq, where in 2006 the tournament played out as the nation was gripped by intense sectarian bloodshed.

This year, about 50 men sprawled on plastic chairs, smoked water pipes and sipped tea as they watched the Brazil match on an overhead TV at a central Baghdad cafe.

Private generators worked overtime to make up for frequent power outages and to keep the TV and electric fans running as the nighttime temperature soared above 90 (32 Celsius).

Only one glitch: an interrupted satellite signal forced everyone to miss the first 10 minutes of the game.

“We sat with our heads in our hands until they fixed it,” said Ali Hatem, 24, with a laugh. “But it’s worth it. This place is better than sitting at home where there isn’t any electricity.”

Cafe owner Ahmad Nouri scooped ice cream and ordered waiters to work faster as the sound of cheers mingled with that of dominoes slapping against tables.

“It makes me so happy to see people feel comfortable and enjoy the game,” Nouri said. “We were deprived of this luxury during the last World Cup.”

Four years ago, Iraq was ridden with sectarian warfare and people largely avoided public venues, fearing bombs or ambushes.

Lighting a cigarette, Emad al-Zubaidi, 54, said, “People can breathe and see what’s out there now.”

Violence has dropped sharply, although Iraqi security forces stood guard nearby, evidence of the continued danger.

“Don’t worry!” Hatem said. “One day Iraq will be in the World Cup, and we will even host it!”

North Korean fans got the chance to see their team in the World Cup for the first time in 44 years — but had to wait almost a day after the game was played.

The Tuesday afternoon starting time in South Africa translated to 3:30 a.m. Wednesday in Pyongyang. So the state-controlled TV station — the only one in the nation — delayed the broadcast of the game with Brazil until a more popular time slot Wednesday night.

Two announcers provided mostly dry and matter-of-fact commentary. But there were hints of excitement in their voices when North Korea scored in the second half, leading them to note their team was playing “on equal terms” with mighty Brazil. A group of diners watching in a Pyongyang restaurant cheered and applauded Ji Yun Nam’s goal.

On the Korean peninsula, divided since the 1950-53 Korean War, the sport is doing its part to unite the North and the South: it is the first time teams from both nations are playing in the same World Cup.

The Japan-based Choson Sinbo newspaper — considered a mouthpiece for the North Korean government — reported earlier this week after South Korea’s 2-0 win over Greece that citizens of the communist country “cheered the South Korean team with no exception.”

Malaysia-based Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union came to an agreement with FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, to beam the games into North Korea free of charge. It’s up to the state network, however, to decide what to show.

“We want them to see what life is on the other side of the curtain,” said John Barton, sports director of the broadcasting union.

Across the border in South Korea, police estimated 1.5 million fans nationwide massed in public squares, stadiums and other sites to watch the loss to Argentina.

Cheers roared across Seoul, a city of more than 10 million, when South Korea scored its only goal. Afterward, some fans were philosophical. “We just didn’t have luck,” said businessman Kim Jong-hwan.

South Korea’s Justice Ministry turned a blind eye to a 9 p.m. curfew for the nation’s 50,000 convicts on game nights, and monks held World Cup parties in Buddhist temples.

Serbian economists estimated up to $28 million in lost productivity for every World Cup match the national team plays due to absent workers.

Despite the widespread poverty and sour economy, Serbia’s cafes are packed with people during the games, no matter who is playing.

Some say a poor showing by Serbia could return employees to work, but 42-year-old lawyer Blagoje Ciric, sipping a beer on a hot Belgrade morning earlier this week, has his doubts. Especially since Serbia plays powerful Germany on Friday.

“I have little hope now that Serbia will beat anyone if it didn’t beat Ghana,” he said. “Still, I’ll watch other games. Football is football!”

In Germany, known for its industriousness and strong work ethic, the great debate was whether employees will be allowed to watch while on the job.

Companies from Alliance to GRG Services GmbH say they will allow people to watch, and even project the game onto screens set up in conference rooms.

“Those who aren’t interested in football are, of course, welcome to keep working,” Stephan Schwarz, head of GRG Services, told the mass circulation daily Bild.

Even Berlin’s prestigious JFK school organized places for students to watch on campus — provided they finish their work.

Berliners on the city’s public transit system can follow the game because the capital’s transportation authority BVG will announce the goals in buses and subway trains and flash them on signs at bus stops and in stations.

Betty Koumba didn’t have electricity in her home in Libreville, Gabon — at least not until the World Cup.

Koumba was desperate to watch the games in her new house, which had yet to receive electricity nine months after she moved in. But the Gabonese civil servant finally secured a $3,000 bank loan two days before last week’s opening ceremony to buy her hookup.

Getting power in this West African nation isn’t as easy as simply calling up the electric company. The nearest power line was a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, and Koumba was told she would have to buy the cables to link into it herself.

Her brother pitched in with another $3,000, Neighborhood youths swarmed in to help connect the lines, slinging it across makeshift power poles made of scrap wood.

And just a few hours before the opening match Koumba’s 20-inch TV — formerly nothing more than a piece of living room furniture — roared to life with the broadcast.

“We’re celebrating two events: the World Cup and the arrival of electricity in our house,” said her brother, Armand, who lives in the same powerless part of Gabon’s capital.

Koumba’s home has since become so packed that she had to move the TV onto her terrace outside to accommodate all the visitors.

Just one rule: They must bring their own chair, because Koumba doesn’t have enough for all.

Contributing were Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro; Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya; Hadeel al-Shalchi in Baghdad; Kwang-tae Kim and Sangwon Yoon in Seoul; APTN in Pyongyang, North Korea; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Todd Pitman in Dakar, Senegal; Melissa Eddy in Berlin; and Yves Laurent Goma in Libreville, Gabon.

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