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Summer of Soccer, Studies, and Canine Companions

By Benjamin Neblock ’11 / Czech Republic and Beyond

I
 experienced a fortunate coincidence during the summer of 2010, when my Thunderbird study-abroad modules in Europe and China overlapped with the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. This month-long, storied competition ran as a concurrent heartbeat to my global adventure, and reverberated through most of the activities I engaged in with my fellow T-birds. Wherever we went from June until July, whatever we did, the dull roar of fans was never far away.

Running parallel to my travels in 2010 was the subtheme of dogs. Present in each memory, trotting through these international escapades, were dogs somehow attuned to my presence. My summer abroad became a journey filled with furry, canine accompaniment.

Czech Republic - My friends and I watched the United States/England match from a lakeside tavern in Cesky Krumlov, an enchanting vacation town in the Czech Republic. International visitors overran the tavern, all jostling for prime seats to watch the event. I watched the game without really caring about the result, more excited at the prospect of viewing the match in this idyllic town than in the final outcome, despite one of the participating teams being the United States.

One of the first and most useful lessons I learned about sports, and life, is that it is important to recognize your surroundings and act appropriately. From my experience growing up in the United States, the level of violence inherent to an American sporting contest is dependent upon the participant. Those who root without belligerence receive a certain amount of accommodation. Fans can cheer with impunity, whatever their allegiance, so long as they do so tactfully, without provocative swagger. Philadelphia, the city I’m from, has a reputation for spawning an especially unforgiving breed of fan, the kind that views fisticuffs as an appropriate response to perceived disrespect. 
So it was with a modicum of anxiety that I watched my Thunderbird friends, although from many countries, displaying their allegiance to the country where the main campus of their school is located by eagerly cheering for the United States’ team. At the same time, I observed a throng of British fans lurking perilously close to us as the match started. The Brits had a sullen, predatory gleam about them, in direct opposition to the T-birds who were raising their glasses at inopportune moments, offering guttural howls of celebration disproportionate to the actions of the game, and behaving without appreciation of consequences. 
As the match progressed, I began to care less about the performance of my team on the field and became more concerned with avoiding a confrontation with these apparent hooligans. I might have been the one American in the world that day actively, earnestly, silently hoping for a draw.

As the game clock ran down, the Brits’ mood worsened. When the final whistle blew, and the game ended in a 1-1 tie, a glass shattered. I readied myself for a fight and turned to face them. The once angry faces of the British fans seemed more confused than furious—the cause of the broken glass was not it being used as a makeshift missile, but soon presented itself in the form of a dog plodding heavily in my direction.

A long, muscular tail was swinging in its wake, slapping the arms of sulking Englishmen, knocking mugs to the ground. I realized with surprise and some horror that this big, slobbering thing was heading straight for me. I again readied for a fight, holding my beer with one hand while the other clenched into a fist.

“Look at it,” one of the suddenly cheery Englishmen said. “Came all this way for a poke!”

The animal was indeed poking my thigh with its snout. I relaxed, unclenched my fist and brought my glass of beer down to have a sip. The creature was persistent; I lowered a hand to pat its scruff. No sooner were we level, than it moved to the side quickly, knocking my beer to the floor. Then it lowered its head to slurp.

The fans in the room erupted into a loud roar, not because of the now concluded World Cup action, but because after the dog licked up the last drop of ale on the floor, it staggered outside, tipsy, apparently in search of another beverage. Never was I happier to have spilled a drink. 
Czech Republic – Later that same week, our T-bird group enjoyed a spate of afternoon games and had assumed a comfortable array in the yard of a local brewery, providing the perfect vantage point for a relaxing, unencumbered view of the television just inside. I soon noticed that I was under the observant eyes of a mottled shepherd sitting about a meter away. The squinting mongrel had arrived unheralded, and simply sat there, glaring at me.

It was a remarkably disconcerting thing, absorbing an unabated animal gaze, so after a short while I decided to visit the restroom, and to encourage that the beast exit. I hazarded a halfhearted nudge of my foot while walking by. The dog didn’t leave; it followed me into the building. Canine patronage was apparently acceptable, since no one gave a second-look at the furry beast trotting past. One of the waiters even held the door open for it.

Upon returning to the table I noticed that, somehow, the dog had resumed its pointed observation. The day turned into a constant shuffle, with me in perpetual transit. My actions mirrored those of the players, but with less conditioning; by the third game my legs had grown weary. Whenever I paused for more than four minutes, the dog would reappear, peering at my face. No manner of conversation, passersby, or enthusiasm could distract it from glaring directly at me.

For the last match of the day, we moved inside. As I sat at the table with my friends, I felt a slobbery, wet strike connect with my left ankle, like the slap of a gigantic fish. The dog had somehow snuck under the table and shared a salivary compliment. I bent to attempt to pet it, but for the first time all day it avoided eye contact. My friends erupted in laughter again, and the dog just trotted off into the dusk without a backward glance, apparently fulfilled.

Paris, France – Afforded a slight break in studies, I took a brief journey to Paris. Due to an ill-timed flight to Paris I was only able to see the final moments of the U.S./Ghana match.

A feeling of dissatisfaction, of righteous outrage at a blown call, still hung in the air as I approached a group of men huddled around a television screen in an airport café.

“It is criminal!” a man howled. Another was kneading his head, repeating in a sort of mantra: “First the Blues, now this...”

One bushy-haired fellow noticed me attempting to divine the winner through context, the screen being completely obscured by objecting viewers. He signaled to me with a theatrical leer, striding forth to clasp my shoulder and snarled, “It appears we have a citizen!”

The crowd rose, exclaiming wordlessly in unison, hands rose. It felt like Cesky Krumlov all over again, and I began to back away. But instead of being pummeled by this mob, I was subjected to a flurry of convivial pats, meant to console, meant to buffet the hurt away from the U.S. team’s loss. Faces cringing in commiseration were kissing both my cheeks, and still I felt a little startled when I felt a wet pinch on my forearm.

Crammed under the bicep of a mustachioed man with tears on his cheeks, was a pumpkin colored small Pomeranian. It had softly bitten me during the owner’s embrace.

Venice, Italy – A short detour in Venice found the heat too oppressive for anyone or anything to watch the soccer tournament without shade. Every bar or restaurant in the lagoon city seemed full to occupancy, with many interested patrons being rejected at the door and reduced to watching the games through windows while sweating in the street. Even in a semi-subterranean restaurant beside a heroically sputtering air conditioning unit, it was difficult to muster enthusiasm for the teams vying to make the finals.

That is where I sat when a local Venetian asked me in three languages about the score. Each time I responded by pointing at the screen, too weary from the heat to speak. He took offense to my persistent ingestion of water, even though it was not free.

The echoes of the steady stream of travelers suffering outside quieted whatever retort or indictment I considered leveling his way; I was not about to risk being expelled due to a temper tantrum.

Visitors did intermittently enter the room, having escaped their families for a brief period to check on the score. With each new entrant the already cramped room grew hotter. I was preparing to leave the uncomfortable confines when out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of an oblong shape detaching itself from the shadows to burrow beneath a nearby stool. The critter was a glorified sausage that spent the next few minutes writhing under the bench for relief from the discomfort of the heat in a quest for earth.

I empathized with the wee thing, and helped it stay cool by continuing to accidentally drop water on him for the next half hour.

Beijing, China – My second module abroad studies were in Beijing, China. I had been studying so much during the trimester that I felt as exhausted as the actual contestants from Spain and the Netherlands, who were competing in the World Cup final. I just wanted my long march to end.

I watched the final match of the soccer tournament at 3:00 a.m. local time. A group had gathered on a street corner in the Beijing heat. Matching the local Chinese men around me, my shirt was off, my chest bare. We were viewing the game on a television that had been placed precariously on a stool in the doorway of a local grocer. I never actually deduced what the delicacies offered within were because I was too concerned with the enormous, leonine animal squatting to the right of the stool. It was the first dog with a mane I had ever seen, more bear or lion than hound. The beast seemed like a statute due to its unresponsiveness to human exultation, remaining rigidly erect despite repeated cheering from the group.

“This one is going to hurt,” I mumbled to the proprietor of the place, rubbing my leg in phantom anticipation. The man abandoned scouring pots on the curb for a moment, and considered me. The dog peered from the dark- ness, and licked his lips with a bristling, purple tongue. The proprietor finally noticed me staring. With a solemn nod, he escorted the dog inside. I could still see it, pawing the glass, when he returned to continue cleaning up.

There was no language necessary by the end of the match. Something symbolic had transpired; some long journey was at an end. The crowd dispersed slowly as visions of the winning Spaniards collapsing in a writhing heap upon the field were broadcast from many miles away.

Wanting to repay this kindness for taking the dog inside, I began to gather the trash discarded around the restaurant door by my fellow viewers. The owner displayed a broken toothed smile and waved me away. Then he unplugged the television, and went inside. 

Benjamin Neblock is a 2011 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management and has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Rutgers University in New Jersey. He completed a summer 2011 internship with Liberty Mutual Insurance Group in New Hampshire and worked previously with Elsevier Publishers in New York.