The Art of the Game: the Aesthetics of World Cup Soccer in San Francisco

Bethany Barker roots for England at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11, at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Even if you don’t watch soccer, you’ve probably heard it referred to at some point as “the beautiful game.” While the exact origin of the phrase is in some dispute (like “beatnik,” there are a few claimants), it’s become one of the default phrases employed to describe the sport as a whole. And while beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, one need only watch a replay of the first goal scored in the England-Croatia World Cup semifinal match by English defender Kieran Trippier—a swooping arc flying first over the heads of Croatia’s defensive “wall,” then soaring above goalkeeper Danijel Subašić to smash into the back of the net—to get a sense of the game’s potential for beautiful moments.

In fact, there’s so much potential for beauty in soccer, especially at the World Cup level, that it can move an arts journalist such as myself to spend the better part of a month lurking in dark bars at 7am. As the games have progressed from knockout rounds, to the final sixteen, the final eight, the quarterfinals, and the best of the best (or sometimes just the luckiest) inching their way to this weekend’s finals, I find I can hardly resist the very theatre-like qualities of the World Cup and, particularly in large outdoor public screenings, its fans.

Warren Jackson roots for England at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco.
Warren Jackson roots for England at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Soccer has so much happening that it could be said to encompass a wide variety of art forms within its sweaty bosom. The almost balletic precision of Spain’s “tiki-taka” passing game as contrasted with the spontaneous improv of a lucky header such as that of Belgium’s Jan Vertonghen against Japan, a literal long shot turned unexpected goal. The physical beauty of athletic bodies in motion, without giant helmets or baggy trousers to mar the view. The high drama of high stakes leading to shoving matches and shouted epithets on the pitch (to say nothing of the stands), some inspired by fresh insults, some by deep-seated rivalries stretching back generations. The low humor of a ball planted squarely in England defender Kyle Walker’s bollocks and the unabashed emotion on the faces of the Croatian team after cementing their winning goal in the 109th minute of play, particularly as captured by Salvadoran photojournalist Yuri Cortez, who was buried in the middle of their celebratory dogpile.

The crowd at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco.
The crowd at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez )

At Sue Bierman Park, a grassy knoll sandwiched between Drumm and the Embarcadero, a crowd gathered Wednesday to watch an outdoor screening of the World Cup semi-final match between England and Croatia, a courtesy provided by San Francisco Parks and Recreation (the final will be screened at the Civic Center on Sunday, July 15). Unlike many of the bars that show World Cup games in San Francisco, these outdoor screenings have a way of drawing supporters of both teams, and yet none (that I’ve been to) have had any serious altercations. We are civil "football" fans in SF, it seems, but that doesn't stop the pageantry, people wrapped in flags, facepaint, team colors, or the palpable tension and anticipation that rises with each unpredictable twist in plot. Folks from all walks of life come to represent and be represented. For them, as well as for the players looming on the giant screen above us, a World Cup soccer game can be emotionally challenging, physically demanding, and potentially transcendent.

The crowd at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco.
The crowd at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez )

Although at first glance, and second count, supporters of England appeared to outnumber those of Croatia at the screening, as the game progressed and Croatia’s chances improved, those few appeared to swell in number, or at least in appreciative vocalization. And while it might be inappropriate to make such sounds at a particularly stirring Symphony performance, it would certainly not be out of place after a beautifully improvised jazz solo or a fan favorite rock anthem played third on the set list at the Independent. The groans and “come ooooooon”’s of fan frustration might just as easily (though not as publicly) come out of a stage-builder’s mouth at a wayward flat or a misplaced drill bit.

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And what other high-stakes sporting event in San Francisco could bring groups of friends (such as SF Hibernian teammates Carly Andler and Bethany Barker, supporting Croatia and England respectively), and even families (such as that of the Takhars, England supporters, save for grandmother Dori Jafarieh, holding out for Croatia), out in force to sit together while supporting different teams, yet still maintain conviviality and an appreciation not just for results, but for the experience of the game as performance?

Dori Jafarieh attends the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party with her grandson Rohan Takhar on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco.
Dori Jafarieh attends the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party with her grandson Rohan Takhar on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez )

England-born Napa resident Nicky Robert might have come out ostensibly to support Gareth Southgate’s scrappy underdogs, but really, she was just glad for a day in the sun watching them go as far as they could in enthusiastic company. As for Croatian-born Ivana Zubonja however, nothing but a Croatian win would do. Her pride for her team radiated from her checkerboard jersey, and her cheers could be heard from halfway across the park when they equalized. And do any of them find beauty in the “beautiful game”? Not everyone seemed too sure about that, but England supporter Paul Griffith, “old enough to remember when the phrase applied to the Brazilian attacking game,” certainly did.

“I know it’s really physics, and all that. But watching the ball curve (into the goal) seems magical.”

The crowd at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco.
The crowd at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez )

And what a performance it was. With England up a point the entire first half, it felt like Croatia was having to chip away at their strength with Sisyphean struggle, one step forward, two steps back. But their practiced slog yielded the intended result in the 68th minute, as Croatian Ivan Perišić landed a controversial goal that fired up not just the patient Croatian supporters at Sue Bierman park, but the National team, who seemed in the moment to shake off any lingering dejection to dominate the rest of the game. England’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford often seeming like the only player really standing between Croatia and the ball, as England’s defense appeared uncertain how to stop Croatia from shooting at a goal—save for that aforementioned Kyle Walker bollock-block, a sacrifice soon forgotten as Mario Mandžukić drove in a second goal for Croatia three minutes later at the 109th minute of play. A moment that seems to burden the English team with an extra 10 years' worth of haggard lines (though the younger team by far), just as it washed the fraught exhaustion from Croatia’s faces as they mobbed each other, and Yuri Gomez, in their beatific joy.

Ivana Zubonja, Julia Wu and friends celebrate Croatia's win at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco.
Ivana Zubonja, Julia Wu and friends celebrate Croatia's win at the World Cup Semi-final Viewing Party on Wednesday, July 11 at Sue Bierman Park in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez )

And then, like any performance, it was over. And the assembled audience, with all of our assorted reasons for being there, fair-weather fans and diehard supporters alike, rose almost as one, and began to file out of the outdoor theater of the park. Back to home or offices or Napa or whatever other obligations awaited our afternoon. On my way out, I ran into Ivana Zubonja and her friends again, and we exchanged high fives. “See you at the final,” she confirmed, as we dispersed our separate ways.

Definitely.

Catch the public screening of the World Cup final at the Civic Center on Sunday, July 15, at 8am. Details here.

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