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Time to be joyous, defiant, bizarre

RECIFE, Brazil: After Pablo Armero of Colombia scored against Greece, he and his teammates broke into a raucous dance routine that evoked the ‘Shout’ scene from the film Animal House. After Joel Campbell of Costa Rica scored against Uruguay, he dedicated his goal to his pregnant girlfriend by stuffing the ball under his jersey and dropping to his knees. After Tim Cahill of Australia scored against the Netherlands, he pummeled the corner flag as if it were a punching bag until it slumped to the turf.

The World Cup in Brazil has produced a dizzying number of goals – 136, the most in the tournament’s first round – and a dizzying number of unbridled celebrations. By turns joyous, defiant and bizarre, the celebrations have become a sort of shadow competition among the teams. (Mexico’s coach, Miguel Herrera, who bounces around the sideline as if on a pogo stick after each goal, has been declared an early winner.)

All this naked passion can feel like a refreshing change of pace from the staid culture of sports in the United States, where a common mantra is “Act like you’ve done it before.” When Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs recently won his fifth NBA championship, he barely broke into a smile.

There is little leeway in most American sports. The NBA considers players who hang on the rim for too long after a dunk to be guilty of taunting and subject to a $ 500 fine. The NFL has a 15-yard penalty for “excessive celebration” – a rule that the Puritans would appreciate.

Football’s joyous outbursts, in contrast, have been collected on YouTube videos, shown on late-night talk shows and imitated on playgrounds around the world. Some have clearly been planned – Colombia’s varied dance routines have surely taken much coordination – while others appear to be spontaneous and raw. Some celebrators look as if they are sharing out-of-body experiences with the world in real time. “Scoring a goal in a World Cup is one of those surreal moments where even the player doesn’t realise that they scored – at least I didn’t at first,” said Clint Mathis, who scored for the United States at the 2002 World Cup. “It’s something that I dreamed of all my life.”

Major League Soccer has its share of elaborate hoopla, but the United States team’s celebrations in the World Cup have generally ranked among the least creative. This month, fans witnessed Clint Dempsey sprinting in joy after each of his two goals and John Brooks collapsing in disbelief, face down on the grass, after scoring against Ghana.

Football players have wide latitude when it comes to celebrations, but not everything is allowed. Robbie Fowler, a former striker for Liverpool in England’s Premier League, was once barred for four games for pretending to snort the chalk lining the field as if it were cocaine. David Wright, the captain of the Mets, said he was jealous of the players allowed to show unbridled joy at the World Cup. Such displays would be inconceivable in Major League Baseball – a slugger who merely tracks the flight of a home run can face retribution in the form of a fastball to the body.

The NFL probably has the most celebrations in Amer-ican sports, but the rule book discourages nearly all of them. It is considered excessive celebration if “two or more players engage in prolonged, excessive, premeditated or choreographed celebrations.” Individual players are strictly barred from “prolonged gyrations.”

Ghana’s World Cup team was guilty of gyrating after Asamoah Gyan scored his second goal against Germany this month. He and his teammates got together, dropped their arms to their sides and executed a choreographed, stuttering dance step. Not to be outdone, Miroslav Klose of Germany tied the score a few minutes later and did a running front flip – nearly botching the landing.

Trevor Pryce, a former NFL defensive lineman and a soccer fan, said goals in soccer elicited a different level of passion because of their rarity. “Even you’ve done it before, it’s soccer, so more than likely you haven’t done it that often,” Pryce said.

Pryce, whose sister, Nandi, has played for the United States women’s national team, has a favourite World Cup celebration, and it was one of the least acrobatic: Brooks’s fall to the ground after his goal for the United States. Soccer celebrations are so appealing because they reveal players’ personalities, values and passions, said Mathis, who scored in a 1-1 tie against South Korea in 2002. “You see what people care about the most when people score on such a big stage as the World Cup,” he said.

Players often acknowledge their families, as Costa Rica’s Campbell did. In 1994, Bebeto of Brazil formed a cradle with his hands and joyously rocked it back and forth to recognise his newborn son, a move that became famous. The son, Mattheus, now plays for the Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo.

In this World Cup, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Nani of Portugal have sucked on their thumbs after goals to acknowledge their children. Countless players kiss their ring fingers to acknowledge their wives.

Rod Thorn, the NBA official who decides whether players will be fined for taunting opponents or overdoing celebrations, said he had been watching the World Cup closely. He said celebrations like those in the tournament would lead to a flurry of technical fouls in an NBA game.

But that would never happen – basketball rules have become so ingrained, he said, that “it’s almost gone the other way, and the prevailing feeling is don’t act like you’ve never scored before.” But he appreciates the cultural differences between soccer and basketball.

“That one goal, it can mean everything to you,” Thorn said. “There are so few goals scored that each one is like the end of the world, and the celebration is just part of it.”


© 2014 The New York Times

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