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Steve Christilaw: Local ties built enthusiasm for national soccer teams

China’s Wu Haiyan, center, gives the thumbs up after China ties Spain 0-0 at the end of regulation play of their Women’s World Cup Group B soccer matchat the Stade Oceane in Le Havre, France, on Monday. (Francisco Seco / Associated Press)
China’s Wu Haiyan, center, gives the thumbs up after China ties Spain 0-0 at the end of regulation play of their Women’s World Cup Group B soccer matchat the Stade Oceane in Le Havre, France, on Monday. (Francisco Seco / Associated Press)

A person can tell a great deal about people by the jokes they like to tell.

It’s not just about what that specific person finds funny, although that’s a great insight. Humor can be a regional thing. It’s definitely a cultural benchmark. Humor is funny only if someone else laughs.

If you tell a joke in a forest and no one laughs, is it still a joke?

Julie and I spent a week and a half touring Beijing and Shanghai in January – a fascinating trip full of incredible memories.

I have seen pictures of China for as long as I can remember. I was a kid when President Richard Nixon went to the Forbidden City, an adult when the world gasped at the video from Tiananmen Square. To visit both spots as a tourist was an eye-opening opportunity and an unforgettable experience.

And so was finding a restaurant that specialized in the most incredible roast duck just a few blocks from the square.

The places we visited on our trip were just part of the experience. The Great Wall, the Olympic Village, the mountains where green tea is grown and the factories where silk is turned into everything from pajamas to shirts to bedding – all once-in-a-lifetime memories.

But it was also full of insights into a culture literally a half-world away.

A smile and a kind word, it turns out, needs no translation.

Tour guides, we discovered, all go by Americanized names – a nom de tour, if you will – which makes sense when you realized that out of 50 people on your bus there are 50 different mispronunciations of the Mandarin words for “thank you.”

At one point, our tour guide, Charlie, told us a joke about Chinese soccer.

It goes something like this: A Japanese soccer fan, a Korean soccer fan and a Chinese soccer fan all die and enter heaven. When they get to the Pearly Gates, the Japanese fan implores St. Peter to tell him when his beloved national team will win the World Cup. He’s told he will have to wait 12 years. Crushed, the fan walks into heaven in tears.

The Korean follows suit and asks when his beloved national team will win the World Cup. St. Peter tells him it will be 24 years. He breaks into tears and walks through the gates.

The Chinese fan begs St. Peter to tell him when his national team will win the cup. This time, St. Peter breaks into tears and walks into heaven.

Charlie laughed at his own joke. “We suck at soccer!” he roared.

I was a little taken aback. Hello? Brandi Chastain’s iconic penalty kick in the Rose Bowl sealed the United States’ win over China.

“Your women’s team is really good,” I said. “They’ve placed in two of the last three tournaments. They were in the 1999 World Cup final.”

He waved my comment away like a mosquito buzzing around his nose. Not worth mentioning, silly American.

The Women’s World Cup does not generate the worldwide buzz that the men’s game fosters. No surprise there. But having your national women’s team be more popular and more successful than your men’s team is something we have in common with China.

I mean, when an American soccer fan approaches those pearly gates, St. Peter just breaks into peals of laughter and points. There are tears, yes. Tears of laughter.

I will readily admit that I was not initially drawn to the United States Women’s National team because of its outstanding play. Then again, I can say the exact same thing about the men’s national team.

I started watching the U.S. women because one of its most outstanding players came from my backyard. Michelle Akers was a terrific midfielder from Shorecrest High School in north Seattle. She’d moved to the University of Central Florida and had a stellar collegiate career and became one of the best players in the world – the engine that powered the women’s national team, feeding iconic forward Mia Hamm.

It was a similar local connection that drew me into being an avid follower of the men’s team. I covered former Cascade midfielder Chris Henderson for four years of prep soccer. He went from being a two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year as a junior and senior in high school to being a member of the men’s national team for the 1990 World Cup tournament in Italy.

Either way, come for the local connection, stay because you enjoy the beautiful game.

Trust me, it’s easier to be a fan of the women’s national team – still a heavy favorite to win the tournament now unfolding in France.

No offense to Charlie, the frustrated soccer fan/tour guide in Shanghai, but the U.S men’s team isn’t that far ahead of China. We didn’t even make the last World Cup tournament. The women’s team is working on a second straight title.

And that points out something encouraging about THIS country.

Some of us, long ago, embraced women’s sports. Others have been dragged, kicking and screaming – often by our daughters and granddaughters.

Some places around the world, some places here in this country, look down their nose at women’s sports. Their loss.

If the men’s team had a few players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe and, my personal favorite, nutmeg artist Tobin Heath, the United States wouldn’t be part of soccer’s backwater.

More importantly, and more universally, you can see the breadth of the appeal of women’s sports growing year by year. Girls high school sports are first-rate fun. We’ve had state champions galore here at home – even a national champion. Getting a ticket to a Gonzaga University women’s basketball is a tough get – almost as tough as the GU men.

We can do better – like getting behind the U.S. women’s push to get paid the same as that mediocre men’s team.

No joke.

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