File this under friendship
By Chris McKendry
Page 2 columnist

I have always been a soccer fan.

Park Ji Sung
Park Ji Sung celebrates his goal in South Korea's 1-0 victory over Portugal.
But only recently did I really begin to understand the phenomenon of World Cup fever -- and for that, I have to thank my nail salon, La Palais Nails, where the only thing French is the name.

The salon is pure Korean. In New York City and the surrounding areas, Korean nail salons outnumber even Starbucks and are as common as traffic lights, both averaging one per city block.

My particular salon charges less than $10 for a quick file and polish, appointments aren't necessary, and while I have never made one, I have gone to the same manicurist for more than a year.

That would be "Susan," according to her name tag, although I'm pretty sure that's not her real name. (Every woman in the shop, all of them Korean, has an All-American name.)

Anyhow, conversations between me and Susan had never ventured beyond: "How are you?" "Seeing family for the holidays?" "It's finally getting warm (or cold) outside."

I mean tiny talk.

True to my journalistic calling, I have always been incredibly curious about her childhood and move to the United States. But she's never offered information, and I would have felt nosy asking. I do know that she's smart and bilingual -- I have seen her reading books in English to pass the down time at the salon. And when we make our small talk, her English is strong, which is a lot more than I can say about my Korean.

I have no idea if she knows what I do for a living. But she's never asked, either.

Last week, though, was different.

I walked in and Susan quickly waved me to her chair. (I don't go through the "pick out a color" routine; I use the same color each time.)

I said hello, and she instantly blurted out a simple question: "World Cup"?

Finally, after a year of smiles and meaningless chatter, we had discovered common ground -- World Cup 2002.

This all occurred last Wednesday, just after the United States and Korea Republic teams had tied 1-1, putting them both in a position to advance, depending on what happened in the USA-Poland game and the South Korea-Portugal game that was coming Friday morning.

We did not talk about the Brazilians' footwork, David Beckham's healed foot, the Germans as a declining super power or Senegal being this year's Cameroon. It wasn't a sports discussion, at least not as I'm used to them. Our conversation was more about national pride and the fun that comes with simply being part of the game.

"Yes, I am watching the World Cup," I said, in answer to her question. "Our teams tied."

Yes, but "tied" did not mean equal to Susan. She went on to complain that Korea would now be forced to play the "hard" team, Portugal, on Friday, but that the Americans would get to play the "easy" Polish team.

I insisted that this was only fair, since we had already played Portugal. Susan said, "Yeah. But USA got Portugal on a bad day."

"Be a good host," I told her. "We need the help."

  Is it because we don't understand the sport, I wondered? Because it's not "our" sport? Or because traditionally Americans aren't very competitive in the World Cup? Or is it because, when it comes right down to it, Americans are all about -- and only about -- winning?  

I asked her opinion on the Apolo Anton Ohno and Kim Dong-Sung 1,500-meter short-track speedskating incident in the Salt Lake City Olympics. The Koreans felt so robbed of a gold medal over Kim's disqualification over blocking that they used the incident as motivation for the United States vs. South Korea World Cup game. (This, by the way, is the same incident that U.S. coach Bruce Arena insisted happened in snowboarding! Talk about focused.)

I asked if she understood short-track speed skating. I told her Americans, for the most part, could not figure out what all the people were doing on the ice. Susan couldn't, either, but she was still upset "her" skater didn't win the gold medal.

"But you and I don't even understand the sport!" I said.

"I don't understand soccer, either," she admitted, "but I cheer for my country and the players working for it."

Interesting perspective, pretty much foreign to our consciousness. Americans don't cheer simply because Team USA is representing our country in the World Cup ... Americans cheer when the team wins or when other countries that are supposed to be better than us lose.

Is it because we don't understand the sport, I wondered? Because it's not "our" sport? Or because traditionally Americans aren't very competitive in the World Cup? Or is it because, when it comes right down to it, Americans are all about -- and only about -- winning? Whatever the reason, I had to admit to myself that I admired Susan's willingness "to cheer for my country and the players working for it."

I learned that she has spoken to friends "at home." She says kids are getting out of school and shops are closing. It's like a carnival or holiday, she said.

Susan likes to watch the Spanish-speaking station, Univision, because of the announcer. I agreed that Andres Cantor is one of a kind, and very good at what he does, which is to say, "GOAAAAAAAL"!, making the word sound like it has six or seven syllables.

"Can you imagine getting rich and famous for saying one word funny?" Susan said.

U.S. fans
Koreans proved to be good hosts for many U.S. fans at the USA-Mexico game.
Boo-yah. I was now convinced that she had no idea where I work.

I asked if she watched the Women's World Cup three years ago. Shaking her head no, she said, "You're going to tell me that's bad, right?" I smiled and said she can watch next summer.

As I was leaving, Susan told me to cheer for Korea and promised to cheer for Team USA. "To be a good host. You need help," she said, teasing me about what I had said earlier.

Friday rolled around and not five minutes into the USA's 3-1 loss to Poland, I was sincerely cheering for Korea to beat Portugal (in my gut, I was hoping the two weren't in on a deal to play for a tie).

As it turns out, Korea was a very good team ... and a very good host.

Susan's country and mine have shocked a couple of "soccer" nations -- Mexico and Italy -- to advance, improbably, to the round of eight. (I bet Korea's golden goal against Italy in the Round of 16 on Tuesday simply rocked La Palais!)

We will talk about this for a long time, and I'm glad.

The World Cup ... bringing women of the world together.

SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry is a regular columnist for Page 2.



Chris McKendry Archive

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