There is one hour left until the Game of the Century starts and there is no electricity anywhere in Livingston, Guatemala. Belgium’s national football team will play its first semi-final since I was five days old, possibly (let’s not get too entitled) the last one in my lifetime. And I’m going to miss the game because a thunderstorm has left the whole town without power?
I want to cry – this can’t be real!
A month earlier, the World Cup started just after we left the Stardust Sanctuary Farm. The reader has to know that I love the World Cup. I watch more TV during those five weeks in early summer than I do during the rest of the year combined. It’s not just watching, it’s definitely binging. Camping in front of the television with enough beers in the fridge and enough frozen pizzas in the freezer to make it through three games a day.
This year, it was a little harder to get my daily fix of World Cup football.
I consoled myself with the thought that I was travelling. And travelling is exciting as well, right? So instead of watching Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Spain, or Croatia’s 0-3 shock win over Argentina, I was wading through waist-deep water in an ancient Mayan cave, chasing waterfalls in Belize’s beautiful national parks or sampling Marie Sharp’s famed hot sauces. Not bad, I know, but it still pained me to think that those caves, those waterfalls in those national parks and that hot sauce would all still be there the next day, but those games wouldn’t.
I almost didn’t see a single minute of the first round. But I obviously made an exception for Belgium’s games. I didn’t want to miss the journey towards glory of my own Red Devils, no matter how convincingly Belize’s natural wonders tried to allure me. It wasn’t easy. As it turned out, the whole world isn’t necessarily interested in the achievements of a small European country.
The game against Panama was a relatively trouble-free affair. We were stationed in Hopkins, where a café was turned into a gathering spot for marooned football fans, all united in the fact that they were stranded a long, long way from home.
The following match, against Tunisia, proved more difficult. We landed in Dangriga, Belize’s Garifuna capital 30 minutes north of Hopkins. There were no expats, fewer tourists and absolutely no cafés that turned into playgrounds for displaced football fans. And, more significantly, the game was played at 6 am local time.
We found shelter in a bungalow on the beach, a shack owned by a colourful Garifuna called Ruthie, a fat and loud black lady in a muumuu. Ruthie was the type that commented loudly that “these Estonians love it here” whilst drinking Belikin stouts in a restaurant, ignoring our presence at the next table in the very same restaurant.
The good thing about Ruthie’s cabañas was the little television in our room. The TV was barely the size of a napkin. But it worked! The day before the game, I figured out that a very cloudy channel showed the football. Great! At 5.45 am, my alarm went off, I turned the TV on and… snow. Goddamnit! Only at 7 am, when the neighbouring restaurant opened its doors for breakfast and I switched on an internet stream, I found out that Belgium was already 3-1 up.
Switching countries, from Belize to Guatemala, didn’t improve the situation much. In Livingston, I found a comedor with a TV. A comedor is a small inexpensive canteen that serves food at quick-fire speeds. The whole village came here for lunch. 10 minutes before Belgium’s game against England, I checked the TV but nothing yet.
“Football?” asked the Garifuna man at the counter, spotting the lost and increasingly desperate look in my eyes.
“Yes, Bélgica! Do you know which game they’ll show?” I asked. I had already walked past another comedor which showed – there is absolutely no way to explain this – Panama versus Tunisia.
The man looked through his wallet in search of his schedule, but couldn’t find it. “I seem to have lost it”, he finally sighed.
“But do you know which game they’ll show here?”
He thought for a minute. “Inglaterra against… uh.”
“Panama, I think”, he offered.
“Ah, yes! Belgium! Where are you from, amigo? England?”
“No, I’m from Belgium.”
“Ah, yes! England! Big Ben!”
After the first round, I made a decision. I might’ve missed many of the games so far, but I would try to watch as many games of the following rounds as possible. We were going to stay in Livingston for a while, anyway, to write and sort some stuff out.
Pro-tip if you ever want to watch the World Cup on the road: don’t forget to check the schedule and don’t forget to put your alarm for France-Argentina, or you’ll end up missing ‘one of the most unforgettable World Cup games of recent history’. Sigh. Here are two more things that I had to learn the hard way from watching the World Cup on the road:
1. No matter how good the wifi signal seems, never rely on an internet stream.
Admittedly, I’ve watched plenty of games in my hotel room in Livingston. But here’s the football variant of Murphy’s law: any stream will freeze and it will freeze at the worst possible moment.
It happened time and again that the stream would stop working, I’d frantically refresh and the next thing I’d see would be celebrating players. Yes, I had missed a goal once again. It occurred at least three times. I call it Modric’ law. When Luka Modric was about to take a penalty kick during the extra time of Croatia’s game against Denmark, the stream got stuck in the midst of his run-up. Arrrgh.
Imagine the amount of cursing and shooting and wanting to throw the laptop off the balcony that would be a reasonable reaction to such an ill-fated event. Now quadruple that amount and you’re probably close to the outburst that happened in my little cubicle.
And one more thing, you think penalty shoot-outs are nervous affairs? Try watching one on an online stream using a wi-fi network that drops every other minute. I’ve witnessed shout-outs in which I missed more penalties than I actually saw.
2. No matter how boring the game is, the Spanish commentary in Central America is bound to prove you otherwise.
With such a big lung content, you’d think they’d choose different career paths. You’d think they’d be long-distance runners or deep sea divers. I’m talking about the commentators. I always thought it was a cliché, an exaggeration. That nobody would actually shout ‘goooooooooooooooooooooooooool’ for three minutes to announce a consolation goal in a game that’s been decided for quite a while. But I obviously underestimated the good folks at Tigo Sports, who must get free cocaine as a fringe benefit. Same with rattling at speeds I thought humanly impossible.
It’s all rather fascinating in the beginning. But it gets tiring quickly. There is no longer a way to distinguish exciting moments from the umpteenth risk-free pass between Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos, especially considering my lack of Spanish knowledge. If you guys thought that Belgium’s final group game against England didn’t really matter, you should’ve seen the game in Guatemala: even the smallest chance sounded as if the goalkeeper had scored the winning goal in the dying seconds of the World Cup final by smashing the ball into the net with his hand and subsequently stripping naked. I’m all for enthusiasm, but enough is, really, enough.
As the Red Devils progressed throughout the tournament, kicking out Japan and raising the moods in Belgium, things got more excited in Guatemala as well. I watched the game against Brazil in the lobby of our hotel. When Belgium scored the second goal, I jumped up and down and shouted loudly. The Garifuna owner of the hotel stuck her head out of the kitchen, wondering if the place was on fire or if a madman was breaking it down. I didn’t care. These damn Garifunas had kept me from sleep often enough with their drumming and loud parties in the evening. Now it was my turn, my own little personal revenge.
It was the first time since our departure that I’ve wanted to be elsewhere. When the final whistle blew, I wished I could simply be home, fall into the arms of my compatriots, drink until everybody’s shitfaced and chant Kevin De Bruyne’s name until the moon becomes a sun, rather than opening a crappy Gallo beer all by myself in the lobby. Supposedly, there’s a time for everyone to get homesick and weirdly patriotic, and that game surely was it for me.
Onto the semi-final against France, in the town with no electricity. The power has gone off the previous evening after a thunderstorm has passed over Livingston. The next morning, there is still no sign that it will be restored any time soon. And judging by the apathy of the locals, that’s a normal thing to happen here. How long can a blackout last? The only one I experienced, in Yogyakarta, brought people together around candles in warungs and barely lasted four hours. It’s been more than 12 hours here and time is ticking. Will my nightmare become a reality? Will I really miss the most important national team game in my lifetime?
Some of my worries are relieved when I walk through the city and I hear the generators buzzing everywhere. That’s why the locals don’t bat an eye, they’re used to it. I ask a waiter from a tourist restaurant if there will be football. Yes, he says, if there is a signal. Half an hour before the game, I’m restlessly twisting on my seat. I almost have to puke because of nerves.
The restaurant people don’t turn on the television until just before the game. Of course, there is no signal. I dig deep into my memory for Spanish curse words – puta madre rings a bell – but instead of wasting energy on frustration release, I do the only thing I can think of. I switch on another hopelessly bouncy internet stream. After a while, the waiter has figured out as much and after connecting his computer with the TV, we can finally watch on a big screen.
There is a huge group of gringos, with one girl wearing a France T-shirt. She is not French. Grmbl. I don’t like watching football with other supporters around. Especially not during the World Cup, when the big teams attract fans who didn’t know the ball was round until a couple of weeks ago, and who still can’t distinguish a throw-in from a free kick. Who choose a team with the most fashionable kit or the most handsome player, so they can post selfies of themselves in a jersey on Instagram. Who typically clap their hands on the table and shriek every time the ball goes near the goal.
I’m not proud of it, but that’s when Angry Tom comes out. The one who’d propose a ban on watching football for anybody with a high-pitched voice. Or at least the obligation to duct-tape their mouths. It’s the Tom that comments loudly and says things such as:
“Giroud, you’ve fooled enough people into thinking you’re a footballer. Go find some sewers to clean.”
“Hey Deschamps, I know a couple of nice gardens with an open vacancy of garden gnome.”
“They’re afraid, those French weasels! Hey connards, maybe you can pile up players in front of the goal if you don’t want to concede.”
“The referee has an assignment – to ensure a final with big teams! Nobody in FIFA wants commercially uninteresting small teams.”
And when the final whistle blows, and the group with the greatest France supporter has already left five minutes previously (!), some spectators are cheering for the cynical team, for the team that killed football a little bit. And so FIFA is proven right, that they don’t really need Belgium in the final, that they don’t need the team that tries to attack fluently, not if they can have France, ugly, cynical France, the team that has destroyed the soul of a 19-year-old boy but still manages to attract the neutral supporter.
My moment of justice comes when my body takes over and I find myself standing up and, all of a sudden, I can speak Spanish, or rather shout it. Because these are the words blurting out of my mouth in front of the whole restaurant: “FIFA QUIERO FRANCIA Y INGLATERRA EN FINAL. NO QUIERO PEQUEÑO BÉLGICA. SOLO EL DINERO ES IMPORTANTE, NO EL CORAZON.” I can’t even give a flying fuck that I’m not making sense, for it offered some relief. As well as the ultimate knowledge that, come next big tournament, I’ll be in Belgium, where shoulders are broad and words of consolation a-plenty.