Two years ago, I found myself walking past ground zero with a young woman in her early 20s from St. Petersburg, Russia. It was her first time in New York, and in America for that matter, and my job to show her all the sites and sounds of this city in the span of an afternoon. No small order for even the best of tour guides. But it was at the site of the plane attacks where she asked me, "Are you a patriot?" It was the first time I was asked such a thing, and wasn't sure how to respond. I racked my mind over what to say. What lasted 5 seconds felt like 5 hours. Finally, I settled on something and told her this: "I don't know if I'm a patriot. But I know I love my country." All I could think of on such short notice, but short and to the point nonetheless.
Inching closer to the theatre about to unfold in South Africa, her question has entered my mind daily as I watch continuous ads and commercials pour across all media outlets. Am I a patriot? Are we all patriots? Do we even know what it means to be a patriot? I wish I could provide you with an answer for any of those questions, but I can't. I can tell you though, that patriotism in this country is unnatural. It was forced after the terrible events of 9/11. The American flag pin became common for all politicians - as though we had to prove to people that we really do love America and we will stand proud after these attacks. You could just see that everyone here was doing something they didn't know how. Something alien. And even now, somebody saying "I love my country" around here sounds foreign.
I remember the summer of 2008. USA men's basketball storming through the Olympic tournament ultimately defeating Spain in the gold medal game. I don't remember who asked which starting player - so I won't make it up either -but the question was asked of him during a post-game interview, "Does it feel weird or strange to say you love your country right now? After getting your medals and listening to the national anthem?" I almost fell off my chair. THIS is the United States I know?!
We are not the rest of the world us Americans. Often times we find different ways to do things. And perhaps we need to be with the 3rd largest population in the world and a melting pot of ethnicity and race unlike no other. Sport is no exception. Here, there are scores of amateur and professional leagues for every sport imaginable. Elsewhere you'll get anywhere from 1-3. Here, sport is entertainment for the masses - a spectacle. There, sport is a way of life - sometimes even a guardian from death.
I never truly understood this last phenomenon until I studied in Barcelona back in the Spring of 2006 - the year they won La Liga and the Champions league. It was there that I learned sport's, and more specifically football's power. After Francisco Franco took power in the late 1930's, he immediately ordered the dispatching of the Catalan intellectual community in an alleyway behind Universitat de Pompeu Fabra. Speaking Catalan was outlawed, punishable by imprisonment or execution. A dictator ruling with an iron fist. However, there was one ray of light for the people. Barcelona FC became a public symbol of Catalan pride, as they continued to win league titles and battle Real Madrid over the next 40 years. They wore the Catalan flag on their team patch. And at the Camp Nou for home games, spectators found the only safe haven to speak Catalan freely. They became "Mes Que Un Club." "More than a club." It was in Barcelona where I learned how to love my country.
Football. A rather simple game at first sight. But peel back a few layers and you will find a much different reality. It's more than just a game. It can put wars on hold. It can put uprisings on hold. It can bring enemies together. It can push political agendas. But above all else, it is the source of my national pride. I see those 11 players on the field wearing the stars and stripes, and they are OUR ambassadors to the world at that moment. No politicians or media or scandals. Just 11 guys kicking a ball around. But with nothing else as important to everyone worldwide, football is the only outlet for me. I can embrace the national team and feel proud about who they represent and where they come from. A goal from Jozy Altidore isn't just a 1 on the scoreboard. It's the kid from northern New Jersey bringing a nation to it's feet in ecstasy. How could you not hold your head high after that?
So when you watch the games this coming month, do me a favor - don't skip over the national anthems. Take two minutes and listen to the thousands of fans singing on the top of their lungs. Take note of the traveling supporters with tears in their eyes. Take note of the passion and pride shown by the 11 men standing arm in arm. And maybe ask yourself how you love your country. You never know -- by the time this tournament is over, you'll have a better idea how to answer that.