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Normalcy Returns to Global Village

The guy’s name was Ray--or so it said on his work shirt--and he was loading 1,400-pound bins of mackerel onto a truck. It was the middle of a workday in the middle of the week at the Port of Los Angeles. “What’s the score?” he was asked, though there was nary a TV or radio in sight. “Cero-cero,” he reported, cigarette hanging from his mouth.

Up the street, outside the San Pedro Croatian American Club, Mike Bubalo of Bubalo Construction paced in a Hawaiian shirt. Again, middle of the workday, middle of the week. A hundred employees in his company, all supposed to be down at Alameda and the 405, working. Hah. Not even Bubalo showed up. “Vat is money?” he scoffed as a cheer went up among from the bar full of immigrant longshoremen. “Money don’t mean nothing today.”

This was last week, the final week of the planet-wide soccer extravaganza that ended yesterday. If traditional American sport fans don’t “get” the World Cup--which they don’t--then Southern California, for once, was America only less so. For the duration of the games, this place was a metropolis subtly but equally divided between people who were focused on their usual routines and people who were obsessed with that guy shouting, “GOOOOOOOOOAAAAL!!” on Spanish-language TV.

Unlike most divisions that involve immigrants here, this one was actually fun to contemplate. How could so many people be so involved with something that was so utterly dull to so many others? Or, from the soccer fan’s perspective, how could so many people be so bored with something so full of thrills? At home, the sitter shrieked until she was hoarse, cheering for Argentina one afternoon. At work, my sports-nut colleague from Philadelphia, when asked if she was watching the World Cup, snorted: “Sorry, babe. It hasn’t rocked my world.”

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The split was interesting, both politically and from the mass leisure event perspective. This is, after all, a place that has never met an extravaganza it didn’t like. And yet millions tuned out. Some blamed the low scoring; I blame the boring, opera-like histrionics. The phony head butts! The faked injuries! The dreaded red card! The guys who looked like Sting and Milli Vanilli, flinging themselves face-down on the field!

Folks who listen to sports-talk radio don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of hooey, especially not out here. (Europeans claim this exposes us as shallow and soulless. Evidently forehead-smiting is some international symbol for soul.)

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Politically, though, there was a different kind of drama, one that could take even a hard-core American by surprise. We tuned in one day. I think it was France vs. Italy. We found ourselves mesmerized. Something about the crowds, the announcer, the fancy footwork felt so global. We felt worldly just tuning in. How long had it been, we wondered, since we’d seen something so big and yet so bereft of American influence? How many things are left in the world that are less about us than about them?

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This is a disorienting thought to carry around in a place where the us-and-them thing has been such a big political deal. Soccer is the least of our local divisions; we bounce from siege mentality to merry melting pot with enough forehead-smiting to constitute our own opera here.

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From noticing the World Cup, it was a short step to noticing the peculiar way the games were shaking out locally. Abroad, soccer is famous for exacerbating national rivalries; here, nationalism bowed to a kind of general expatriate camaraderie. Mexicans rooted for Italians. Germans rooted for Brazil. One colleague reported his neighbor, a British real estate agent, hadn’t left his big-screen since the opening day. An Egyptian trucker told me he’d had to brush up on his Spanish because he couldn’t find an English-language radio station that broadcast all the games.

For the American-born sports fan--so used to U.S. domination and now so pitifully out of the running--the situation evoked provocative questions. For example, what about the broader definition of “home team”? With the U.S. eliminated, should you root for the South Americans because they’re geographically closer? Go with your grandparents’ nations of origin? And what did the “home” in home team stand for, exactly? For what is Southern California but the new home of a big crowd of people who have come from someplace else?

So many questions! So much drama! And all from a bunch of ballgames that are just a memory now. The world turns. The global metropolis gets back to less friendly divisions. Us and them. Cero-cero. Same old game, same old score.

Shawn Hubler’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com.

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