Soccer Mania

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

In the 1980's I had the great fortune to work on a documentary in the interior rain forests of Borneo. We were to live for six weeks among the tribes of the Dayak Indians, formerly the famous and fierce head-hunters of Borneo. At the time we arrived these were considered one of the last truly remote people on Earth. Except for one Englishman who had broken his leg hiking in the jungle, this particular tribe had never seen anybody but themselves. Gangrened, hallucinating, and barely conscious, this Brit desperately threw himself onto a log in a river and when he floated by this tribe, they rescued him and nursed him back to health. Before the Brit, they had never seen a book, a photograph, a toothbrush, or shoes before. They had no idea that millions of people were living all around the globe. Their feet were splayed, the big toe separated very far from the others, as in the case of the apes, because they still hunted by nimbly scurrying up high tree trunks.

I've often joked that I would no doubt have become wealthy had I recruited a couple of the men to come back here and dart down a field with a football tucked under a wing. I will never forget standing at the edge of the rain forest, the insect din so loud that you could yell at the top of your lungs to a person just a couple of feet from you and not be heard. The young men of the tribe were hunting a wild boar at the inside edge of the jungle. Within the thick mass of trees, canopied so as to allow through very few rays of sun, they darted left and right after that slippery quick boar with bursts of speed and lightning cuts the likes of which I had never witnessed at an NBA or NFL game. And all these athletic moves while gripping a fairly long blow gun to their mouths, ready to spit a poison dart to the boar's flesh.

Of course, they didn't look at themselves as athletes. They were hunting for their subsistence. But the younger boys and girls did run up and down a clearing in their village, kicking a roundish mesh of banana bark and hardened mud. The field was rough, with large divots and hilly mounds. There were no actual goal demarcations but you didn't need to speak their language to see that, even though they had no reference to the game known in every corner of the globe, they were playing soccer. And the Brit told us it wasn't him who taught them how to play. It was a game of their own invention.

I've always contended that soccer hasn't become the rage in this country in part because we relate to the more instinctive urge to handle and throw a ball with one's hands. But that experience in Borneo opened my eyes to the even more natural instincts to run and kick a ball. And I've been privy to the Borneo scene in many remote places. On a tributary of the Amazon, on the Peru border, I canoed into a small village a couple of years ago and followed the sounds of cheering and clapping to a dirt-floor hut where the people had rigged an elaborate antennae from their beat-up television. The picture was sketchy, the sound even worse, but the Peru national team was playing Argentina and the frenzy in the hut was akin to our wildest Super Bowl parties.

So the long-anticipated World Cup begins in South Africa tomorrow. And it's both true and terribly exciting that many, many of the six billion people on our planet will be watching, on state-of-the art flat screens….and makeshift dinosaur sets….from big –city sports bars to English country towns to jungle villages.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: South African children watch their colleague's football game during an opening ceremony of the Dream Stadium for children at Ikhwezilethemba primary school in Pretoria on June 9, 2010 ahead of the start of the 2010 World Cup football tournament. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images



Diana Nyad