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Washington Embassies Catch World Cup Fever

Netherlands' Arjen Robben, right, is challenged by Spain's Fernando Torres during the World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands, June 13, 2014.

Netherlands' Arjen Robben, right, is challenged by Spain's Fernando Torres during the World Cup match between Spain and the Netherlands, June 13, 2014.

A red sea of about 100 diplomats, family and embassy friends wearing their national color, packed into the Korean cultural center to cheer on their team in a World Cup match against favored Russia last week.

It was just a brief stroll down Washington D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue from the Korean embassy to the affiliated cultural center, which had set up giant TV screens in two rooms. But it was a big Embassy Row leap from the normal diplomatic routine, as some Korean embassy officials abandoned their formal reserve and thrust their hands in the air to cheer when team Korea scored a critical goal.

Some diplomats shed their suit jackets, opting to put on over their shirt and tie, bright red T-shirts emblazoned in Korean with words “Korea Fighting” for the soccer game.

Perhaps no group of officials here in the American capital has embraced World Cup fever more than the diplomatic community. Televisions are turned on during national games, even during the work day. Diplomats speculate around the water cooler about competitors in their nation’s group and follow the action on computer monitors and smart phones. Some surreptitiously listen to games of interest and obsessively check World Cup scores.

This summer, Washington’s diplomatic community has collectively come down with World Cup fever. Their workday soccer enthusiasm is reminiscent of American office workers, who are famous for office pools, internet game monitoring and lost productivity during the “March Madness” of the NCAA college basketball tournament.

Aiding the diplomatic World Cup mania, soccer is also increasingly popular among the local population in Washington and featured in many restaurants and bars. American fans in the nation’s capital area sport red, white and blue American flag apparel and chant “USA! USA!” during games against Ghana and Portugal.

For those assigned to represent their nation in a foreign capital, the World Cup is a source of national pride far away from home. For example, this game where Korea accomplished an unexpected tie with Russia.

That was good enough for one embassy diplomat to take to heart. Korea has been rocked by the drowning of high school students in a horrific ferry boat incident. The nation has long been “saddened,” a Korean diplomat noted, but the World Cup provided a momentary lift from tragedy. “We had a good game,” the diplomat said. “Now we are very happy.”

All of a half dozen embassies queried for this column about their World Cup activities reported staff would be watching or monitoring the matches.

At the Netherlands embassy, diplomatic staffers wore orange ties, socks and other items to mark their World Cup games. At half-time of one World Cup game, ambassador Rudolf Bekink retweeted a picture of a flag that declared, “Our Roots Are Orange.”

With some initial success, the Dutch national team’s embassy fans became especially captivated by the Cup. “In the midst of other regular work,” reported embassy press officer Carla Bundy, “there are people at the canteen and at the coffee [station] and the office and the cooler, talking about the Dutch national team.”

In fact, the Netherlands Embassy played upon the World Cup excitement to promote their nation in Congress. The Dutch actually built a miniature indoor soccer field in a Capitol Hill office building, complete with artificial turf. Congressional aides were offered famous Dutch Heineken beer, as well as American ice cream and widescreen TV’s showing the Netherlands vs. Spain match.

As for Spain, its diplomatic personnel watched another midday game last week in the basement of the embassy on a “big, big TV,” according to spokesman Gregorio Laso.

Some Spanish embassy staffers even started work at the very undiplomatic hour of 7:00 a.m., Laso explained, so “they could finish their job and watch the match.” Though Spain has been known for its leisurely mealtimes, Laso skipped lunch so he could watch the 3:00 p.m. game versus Chile.

For Chile, “I think we are not going to be working at the time of the game,” a Chilean diplomat admitted honestly, but privately. “We get very patriotic” over the matches.

“I think everyone is taking the time to watch their country play,” she observed. “This whole month everyone’s going to be talking about soccer.”

At the Mexican embassy, the World Cup “can bring out a lot of passion and enthusiasm rallying behind our national team,” deputy embassy spokesman Vanessa Calva noted. “Some of our colleagues have been wearing our Mexican decorations…My mind has been rather busy about talking soccer.”

Were Mexico to get past the first round, she said, “then things will get very interesting and nervous for us.”

Fittingly, perhaps the most extreme World Cup diplomatic celebrant in Washington was Brazil, the host country and a major soccer power at the start of the competition. The Brazilian ambassador in Washington threw a huge party for the start of Brazil’s Cup play, with the signature national caipirinha drinks.

But that was just the beginning of Brazilian diplomatic devotion to their World Cup matches. For those dialing the embassy after 1:00 p.m., a couple of hours before Brazil’s game with Mexico, the phone went unanswered. It seems the entire embassy was closed: for the soccer holiday.
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    Lee Michael Katz

    Lee Michael Katz is an award-winning journalist, analyst and author.

    Currently a prominent freelance writer, Katz is the former Senior Diplomatic Correspondent of USA Today and International Editor of UPI News Service.He has reported from more than 60 countries.  Katz’s expertise includes foreign policy and diplomacy, peace talks, national security, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction policy, foundation grants, business and financial topics.