During the past month, we’ve been part of a quintessential European experience: World Cup fever. I’ve mentioned the World Cup games in passing a few times, but now that the final is almost upon us, I thought perhaps this particular mania deserves a little more attention.

It’s no secret that football (aka soccer) is a much bigger deal here than it is in the States. That, we knew. But just how big a deal is a constant matter for amusement. While Portugal was still in the running, every time their matches were on, the city came to a complete standstill. When my friend C and I went shopping during the epic match against North Korea, we were shocked at how few people were around. Sure enough, as soon as the game ended, the streets were flooded again. Later on, our landlord refused to come by and do a preliminary inspection of our apartment on the night Portugal played Spain, claiming that everything south of the Pyrenees would be shut down that night. (I’m sure he was right.)

Same for the Brazil games, of course, as there is a huge Brazilian population here. But even when other teams have won, we’ve heard partying in the street, horns honking, the whole deal. No matter who wins, there are fans here in Lisboa.

Take for example the herd of Spanish fans we ran into with Gabe’s family last week — they were dressed to the nines, in costumes none of us really understood, but which seemed to feature both drinking and the color red quite prominently. One girl had a fake cast on her hand with a glass built into it, and another was dressed as Obelix, with her friends all in white. The significance was lost on us, but their zealotry was not. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

Even if you’re not a zealot yourself, you literally cannot get away from the games. Every tiny little cafe has a TV on, with the bigger ones attracting huge crowds, all of them glued to the television. Last weekend, we went to the upscale wine bar down the street, and even they had a huge projector screen on the wall so that you could watch the game while drinking your expensive wine. When I went to the gym the other day, at least three of the TVs were tuned to the semi-final game, and at home, every game is broadcast on at least one of the four or five main network television channels.

Just a guess, but I have a feeling that in the States, you’d have to tune to some obscure sports channel to find World Cup coverage. Here, you can’t avoid getting sucked into it, even if you’ve never watched a game before in your life. World Cup soccer truly is a national pastime here, in a way that American football or even the Olympics, which is just as global in nature, just can’t compare to at home.

I can’t say that I’ve become a soccer convert, but I’ve enjoyed watching the games, and even bought myself a souvenir Portugal World Cup T-shirt the other day. Most of all though, I’ve enjoyed watching and hearing the people watching the games, from the Obelix girls to the Brazilian waitress down the street, with whom we shared Portugal’s tragic final game last week. This was truly a great year to live in Europe, if only for the cultural experience of the World Cup.

Really looking forward to the final game on Sunday! In the meantime, entertain yourself with this: Germany has an octopus that has reliably predicted the outcome of every major sporting game they’ve had for the past 3 years. Including last night’s, to their chagrin. Discuss amongst yourselves!