Suns international players share perspective on scope of World Cup
PHOENIX — Once Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams expanded his passport, he realized the scope of the world’s game, soccer (sorry international readers).
“It wasn’t until my first trip overseas when I realized basketball’s not that big,” he said Saturday.
The man who has been around basketball and football his whole life just always thought those were the two biggest sports around the globe. That is not the case, though, and soccer’s biggest tournament (and the biggest sporting event on earth) began Sunday with the 2022 World Cup.
To provide some perspective on how big of a deal this really is, I spoke with Croatia’s Dario Saric, Australia’s Jock Landale and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Bismack Biyombo on what this type of year is like in other countries and continents. This is something, as Williams observed, that is impossible for us to grasp as Americans who see the event unfold from a country that has other sports that mean far more.
There is nothing bigger in almost any other country.
“I grew up and I played soccer before playing basketball,” Biyombo told Arizona Sports Sunday. “And I think we always love soccer and it’s the number one sport in Africa, especially around this time. It’s the World Cup, so people are trying to get together almost every night to watch soccer, who is your favorite team, who are you rooting for. So this always been a special time back home.”
Even for someone like Landale, who isn’t much of a soccer fan himself from a country that has its own larger sports, there is an undeniable sense of unity that goes into effect across Australia when it’s this time of year.
“Any sport I think where there’s representation for Australia, the whole country rallies around them and really locks in on what the team is doing,” he told Arizona Sports Saturday. “I think it’s just a cultural thing where we’re so proud to be Australians and we’re so pumped for anyone who is kind of doing well in their sport. … It’s always big. All my mates are talking about it in the group chat and stuff.”
Saric’s Croatia finished second in the 2018 World Cup. When the national team returned to the capital of the city after falling to France, a crowd estimated in the range of 200,000 to over half a million welcomed it back.
For reference, if we cut that down to 350,000, that is nearly 9% of Croatia’s entire population!
“People need to work every day, people have their own problems every day, so to see the national team play in the final of the World Cup, it was just amazing,” Saric told Arizona Sports Sunday, noting he was back home for that World Cup and was even able to travel to Russia to watch the final.
It sounds like Williams could be tuning in to the most World Cup action he has in his life this year. He watched a few documentary series that followed some of the top teams in England, naturally gravitating toward the coaches to see how they operate and growing a liking for some of the huge personalities like Jose Mourinho. Williams wants to go to a Premier League match in the future to see how the “cities go mad.”
It’s such a simple game. I was talking to Biyombo in the locker room, and he pointed to a pair of shoes on the floor and said those could be our goal posts to make a goal, so all we need now is a ball to play.
While Biyombo’s country has only one appearance in a World Cup and isn’t in this one, he and his fellow countrymen will be rooting on the five African nations that will be competing. One of Biyombo’s best friends is Didier Drogba, an icon and legend from the Ivory Coast, and everyone was excited for opportunities like that to cheer for an African contender.
When the World Cup was hosted by South Africa in 2010, it can’t really be quantified how much it meant for Africa.
“The attention that Africa received, I don’t think we’ve ever seen it before,” Biyombo said.
Australia and Croatia are in the field of 32 this winter.
Landale’s squad has only made it out of the group stages once, so it’ll be a tough go to make a run. But that won’t diminish at all how much support will flow in from down under.
“It’s awesome,” he said of how Australia rallies around the team. “And half the time it’s just a good excuse to go down to the pub with your mates and have a few cold ones. It really shows the camaraderie of Australians and the togetherness we have as a culture.”
Landale, better than anyone else on the team, can understand the magnitude of representing his country. He won a bronze medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the men’s basketball team, the first-ever medal for Australia in that sport after finishing fourth four different times.
“We went out there not for our own glory but for the glory of the country,” he said.
Landale returned home last summer for the first time and could still sense the huge amount of buzz around for their accomplishment.
“I’ve won three championships in my four, five years professionally but nothing’s come close to winning that medal,” he said.
Croatia is at the tail-end of a second run of what’s called a golden generation in soccer, when a few world class players come up together in the same age range to elevate a nation’s chances. It will likely be the last go for 37-year-old midfielder Luka Modric, someone Saric said might be the biggest sports star in the history of Croatia.
Saric, of course, has a season to go through with the Suns since the World Cup was moved out of the summer this go-around. He won’t be able to assemble at some of the city squares and watch on a big screen with tens of thousands. But he knows those crowds will be there, as will all the Croatian jerseys around the street with every single television having the games on.
“Everything kind of gets on pause. … (The) main [conversation] is about soccer,” Saric said. “Especially now during the World Cup.”
Over these couple of weeks, I’m sure those three will loop in their teammates and share some of this, how much it matters. In the grander scheme of things, it’s another small tidbit of the experiences these guys as professional athletes can gather from their peers, something Williams beautifully elaborated on.
“It’s a huge part of who I am because of the impact that I’ve felt and experienced with so many of my teammates and colleagues and players I’ve coached that come from not just different countries but different cultures,” he said.
“And listening to their historical perspective. Because I think in America we tend to think that the whole world revolves around us. As an African-American, I tend to look at inequality from only an African-American perspective.
“When I listen to Dario’s story about his country and the civil war that they had there — it blows you away. You didn’t think civil wars happened anywhere else but America. You sit and listen to Biz talk about the things that go on in his country and how he wants to have an effect on what he’s done by getting in political vocation. I don’t think like that. It never even crossed my mind ever. Getting involved in politics and putting up silly signs on Tatum and throwing mud at somebody. It just doesn’t register to me. But Biz is like, he has to. And it’s like his calling.
“So when you hear those stories it just speaks to how different we all are. That wouldn’t have happened had I not been in the NBA and experienced all these people from different cultures and countries.”