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A cheer for fellow North Americans

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, June 21, 1994

WASHINGTON — By a score of 1-0, Norway upset Mexico on Sunday in the first game of the World Cup played at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. The festive opening ceremonies were followed by a terrific soccer game — the best I’ve ever seen.

The game was played on a steamy afternoon before a capacity crowd of 52,000 chanting, raucous, flagwaving soccer fans — many from Norway and even more from Mexico.

The 1994 World Cup is being hosted by nine U.S. cities between now and July 17, when 2 billion futbolistas are likely to watch the final championship match from the Rose Bowl, an estimate of global “reach’ not lost on consumer-oriented sponsors such as McDonalds, Sprint, MasterCard, American Airlines and General Motors.

My first exposure to soccer came when I was a 23-year-old Fulbright student living in Oslo, Norway. Everyone I knew was a soccer fanatic, so during my two-year stay in that stunningly beautiful country, I saw a lot of soccer games.

About a month ago, a friend called to tell me he had a block of tickets for the World Cup games at RFK — and would I like to go. “Of course,” I said. When he read off the pairings, I immediately picked the Norway-Mexico game — not because it was first and would have all the pageantry, but because of my good memories and many feelings of affection for Norway and the Norwegian people.

But on Sunday afternoon, I had an eye-opening experience. As we approached the stadium, my pre teen-age children asked me, “Who are we going to cheer for, Dad?”

“Norway,” I said. “Remember, I used to live in Norway. Your Mom and I have visited there many times. We have a lot of Norwegian friends. Let’s root for Norway.”

Well, my kids kind of gave me the RCA dog look — like “What planet do you come from?” Since I am quick to sense a problem brewing, I said, “Don’t tell me you are going to root for Mexico?”

“Yes, of course,’! my daughter said. “If the U.S. isn’t playing, we’ve got to be for the North Americans. They are North Americans, just like we are.”

My son said, “Mexico is our neighbor. We’ve got to cheer for them.”

I looked at my wife for support. She gave me that “As you sow, so shall you reap” look and said, “Who got them Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” — the computer geography game for kids. And, “Remember all that talk about NAFTA and Mexico around our house last year?”

Well, by the time we got inside the stadium, my resolve to cheer for Norway was subdued. When I discovered the people right behind us had traveled by car all the way from Monterrey, Mexico, and said, at one point, “With NAFTA we are now with you,” I began to realize that I was also a North American, just like my kids and my new friends.

I have to admit, I jumped to my feet and gave a spontaneous cheer (alone in my section, like a fish out of water) when the Norwegians scored after 85 minutes of play.

I was happy for them — and felt good that they had won a hard-fought struggle. But as I looked around at the lot of dispirited faces — including my kids — I felt a twinge of sadness for the Mexicans. I think I became a North American last Sunday. And I feel pretty good about it.

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