Season of cheer in D.C.'s embassies, enclaves

June 28, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- On a steamy workday afternoon last week, the doors to the Brazilian Embassy were locked. The halls were empty. The parking lot was deserted. The grounds were quiet.

But in a darkened room down a cool granite hall, about 20 staffers in business suits sat before a large-screen TV set, screaming.

"Gol!" Klaber Batista cheered in Portuguese as the Brazilian soccer team scored the first goal in the first round of the first World Cup finals to held in the United States.

The Brazilian ambassador declared June 20 a soccer holiday and closed the embassy for the game, in which Brazil defeated Russia, 2-0. Staffers filled an auditorium alternately with nervous silence and jubilant cheers.

"Each minute, I pray for Brazil," said Batista, who grew up playing soccer there. "My heart is pumping. I am so happy."

At embassies across the city, the scene is much the same. Televisions are appearing on desktops, and workers are vanishing at odd hours. Staffers are donning winning colors over business clothes and dropping discussion of exports, imports and visas for talk of "corner kicks," "dives" and "headers."

The World Cup games at RFK Stadium have been sold out. But the soccer frenzy is not limited to diplomatic employees and fans fortunate enough to have tickets.

The city's immigrant communities are experiencing a four-year epiphany. In many ethnic enclaves here, the lifelong zeal for soccer culminates with the World Cup.

"Do I love soccer?" asked Vladimir Tolstoy, a Russian. "It's like asking, 'Do you love your mother's milk?' I sleep soccer. I drink soccer. I breathe soccer. I do everything soccer."

To celebrate the World Cup, he called his Russian friends together in his northwest Washington home and threw a party. A waiter named Sasha served caviar and borscht on dishes emblazoned with the Tolstoy family crest. Guests drank gin and sang Russian folk songs to live accordion music.

And then it was game time. Tolstoy plopped everyone in front of his TV, and they all cheered for Russia.

Greek fans are going to great lengths to see the games, which feature their national team for the first time. Spiro Kaldis has propped a TV set on the counter of his barbershop to catch glimpses while he cuts hair. But the game gets him so excited it makes him nervous about his work. "I'm worried I'll cut an ear," he said.

So he keeps his back to the television while he snips, and swivels only when the room erupts in cheers.

Washington's reaction may be tame compared with the carnival atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro on the night of a soccer win. But in many ethnic communities here, the games are not really about wild parties. They tend to stir deeper emotions. They are a reminder of home.

"It is my youth," Sergei Moskalev, a Russian photographer, said through Tolstoy. The two men said the World Cup's arrival in the United States made them feel closer to the families they had left behind.

Compare that with some reactions of native-born Americans in Washington, where dyed-in-the-burgundy-and-gold Redskins fans were slow to catch soccer fever. Even when the U.S. team is playing well, it can be a bit hard to find fans waxing poetic about the game.

"I've been involved in sports my whole life, but I could care less about going to a professional soccer game," said Allen Furst, a sports fan and a partner at D&F Group, an agency that helped sign up advertisers for the World Cup. "People have called me and asked me, 'Do you want tickets to [the] game at RFK?' and I said, 'I'm busy.' It's not that important."

Not so for Dutch fans. Adrian Stok, who works at the Netherlands Embassy, watched the narrow win by the Dutch over Saudi Arabia last Monday. "It's a kind of fever," he said. "You get a little bit contaminated."

Usually Dutch have trouble finding each other in this city. But now they must only keep an eye peeled for orange, the color of the royal family, to spot a countryman. "So we will find each other, and we will feel very much Dutch," Stok said.

William Meda, a Kenyan soccer fan, is rooting for Cameroon because the players are African -- but as he watches, he becomes nostalgic. He wishes his own team were playing. "It would be like Jesus has come back maybe from wherever he went. That would be crazy."

But a soccer lover from Sierra Leone said it hardly matters that his team is not playing. The fan, a pastor, is so devoted to soccer that he even skipped church last Sunday to watch the games.

"When it was all over I felt terrible," said the fan, who would not give his name. "I felt so guilty, so ashamed of myself. . . . But watching soccer is not sinful."

Fans without teams probably envy people such as Beatriz Kirchiro, a Brazilian. Her team already has clinched a spot in the round of 16.

Kirchiro drove three hours from her job on Rehoboth Beach to watch last Monday's game with fellow Brazilians in Washington. "If Brazil is playing, everyone is like one huge team," she said. "We make songs. It's a unity."

Nevertheless, Kirchiro yearns for home when she watches soccer here. So she planned to fly back to visit her relatives in Brazil and watch the next round on TV.

"I will feel closer to the team by being there," she said. "Watching the World Cup here, it's like watching the Redskins game in Brazil. It's not the same."

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