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Work, Family or World Cup? Hmmm …

Categories: U.S. Views
Kicking and Screaming will be posting occasional views of the World Cup from the United States. Here is the first, by Tania Menai, a Brazilian journalist based in New York.

NEW YORK – This month, Leonardo Zraick considers himself the luckiest man in Manhattan – at least while he is at work.

“All my colleagues are either Latin or European,” said Mr. Zraick, who works at a Swiss bank. “There are five World Cup bets going on there.” It was Sunday. He was at home staring at a televised game with his 2-year-old daughter on his lap, but he lovingly described his office. “There are televisions throughout the office floor airing the games, at low volume. Whenever someone shouts ‘goal,’ the only thing I have to do is to roll my eyes towards the screen.” In case he was not clear, he added, “During the Brazil games there is no chance of any client requesting anything.” He has already advised his boss to expect some screaming during game hours.

Soccer is sacred in many countries, but for the most part, not in the United States. Here in New York, though, there are exceptions: the thousands of foreign-born men, alien beings who this month will do anything to watch as many World Cup games as possible. Of course I know plenty of non-American women in New York who are soccer fans, but the men … The men have the matches scheduled on their palm pilots. They have MapQuested bars that are showing the games. They know the scores, in real time, of every match and every team. They see nothing but ball and net. For the month, they leave the rest of their lives behind – including their soccer widows, and sometimes orphans. Their bosses, it seems, tend to be more forgiving.

Marcello Hallake, a Belgium-educated lawyer in New York, said that it was difficult “to make American clients understand why we set up meetings juggling around the matches.” Mr. Hallake, who is married to a Brazilian woman, points out that the schedule of this current World Cup, which runs from morning to afternoon Eastern Time, is really inconveniencing local clients, as well as his family. “Unlike baseball or even basketball, we have to pay full attention to the games. There is no socializing or hot dogs. We need to focus,” he said. “I can’t even baby-sit for my own two kids on the weekend – I am unable to deliver the attention they require.”

The New York branch of a German bank, WestLB, is keeping a separate room with a TV for the countless foreign employees – from Togo to Croatia. “You won’t see any foreigner around the bank while their own team is playing – especially when it is Brazil,” said Moses Dodo, the general manager. “However, we can count on the Argentines who don’t care about watching a Brazilian game.” The bank is also sponsoring a space with a large screen for its clients at the German consulate. Born in Morocco and raised in Brazil, Mr. Dodo will also take some clients to Germany to watch a few games.

André D’Alessandro, one of the Brazilians at WestLB, won’t be going to Germany, but he is also enjoying the World Cup-friendly environment at work. Nevertheless, he faces a challenge at home. Every weekend he gets into a hostile negotiation with his wife, Beatriz, to come up with a schedule that balances the games with the needs of his two little daughters. “Saturday my wife asked me to pick one of the three games to watch,” he said. “I picked the first one: this way I stretch my chances of watching the following two games. This is a military strategy.”

In Brazil, my native country, companies and schools let go employees and students at least two hours prior to the national game. There is no law; it is just common sense. People paint their faces, wave flags and wear bizarre wigs. During the match, bustling cities turn into ghost towns. “Once, a policeman stopped me to ask what I was doing by myself driving in the streets of Sao Paulo during an ongoing match,” says Camila Fontana, a Brazilian financial correspondent based in Manhattan. Mrs. Fontana is at peace with the fact that she won’t be released one minute early from her Nasdaq office in Times Square to watch any game. But the story is quite different for her husband, Pedro. Since the couple has no cable TV in their Brooklyn apartment, Pedro spends endless hours at a dry-cleaning store where a TV shows the games all day long to futebol worshippers. “The store owner has never seen so many men concerned with laundry,” his wife notes.

What might be considered a worst case scenario comes from the Norwegian-Pakistani Amar Bokhari, a United Nations employee who carries the print schedule of the games in his briefcase. Mr. Bokhari sent out an e-mail message to his wife’s female friends inviting them to a surprise party for her at her favorite Manhattan restaurant. It reads: “When we arrive, you’re all there to surprise her (and I leave her to you - and rush off and watch the football World Cup!!!).” Had it been a joke, it would have been funny.

— Tania Menai

[ copyright © 2004 by Tania Menai ]