The general hoopla around the World Cup — especially here in Paris, where I am spending the week — reminds me of the window that soccer opened in my own life. It was 1994, the year that Brazil barely edged out Italy to win the championship, which happened while I was spending some months in Sao Paulo. Needless to say, by the time I got back to NY I was completely immersed in all things soccer (or, as almost everyone in the world calls it, football).
It was the first time Brazil had won after a dry spell of 24 years, and several months in that atmosphere had converted me from a mere clueless Americano to a fan. When I returned to Manhattan, I wanted to share the excitement with everyone in my research lab at NYU. Yet the people in our lab at that time fell into two categories: Americans and Italians. The Americans had no idea what I was talking about — they just looked at me blankly when I started talking about the greatness of the Brazilian team and its achievement. The Italians were even worse. They all just gave me a tragic and baleful look and pretended to not know what I was talking about.
But that was the year that I discoved the other New Yorkers. Not my fellow intellectuals in their ivory tower, but the guys at the coffee shop, the taxi drivers, the men behind the counter at the greek diner. Everywhere I went, ordinary working New Yorkers — immigrants from just about every part of the globe — were excited that I had just come back from Brazil, and were eager to talk about the World Cup and its dramatic outcome.
There was one man — a really sweet guy from Greece who worked in the deli down the block — who had asked me, months before, to bring him back a soccer shirt sporting Pelé’s retired number 10. I had remembered the request, and upon my return from Brazil I presented him with the coveted shirt. For years after, that guy was my best buddy — he would light up in a huge smile whenever I came into the deli.
And so, thanks to the magic of soccer, I learned the shared language of the vast network of immigrant New Yorkers — the ones I had never before thought to get to know — who form the life blood of the city where I live.