The State of Aloha

I play soccer. Not professionally, of course, but for recreation and for fun. I’m not alone. The game is cherished by many here on Maui. In fact, despite our long distances from the gray brick streets of Northern England, the sunny plazas of Latin American cities or even the monstrous concrete squares of the former Eastern bloc, the Valley Isle has a vibrant and thriving soccer culture.

It’s a game dominated by immigrants. The earliest evidence of the beautiful game played in the islands goes back to the early 20th century. It was believed to have spread by the Scottish, English, Portuguese and Spanish workers on sugar plantations.

After that, it has probably remained on the island in some form or another, but no one is absolutely sure. On our little island in the middle of the Pacific you can find representatives of the great soccer traditions around the globe. Men and women from all walks of life gather on fields to play on the breezy north shore, in sweltering hot Kihei and Lahaina parks, or under the lights in Makawao.

They bring their style with them. The unmistakable confidence exudes from Argentine players. Brazilians attempt that impossible pass or shot. Mainlanders play with speed, strength and simplicity. Italians play their conservative, defensive style. And the English are physical, tough and appreciate a good knockabout. It’s all here.

Locals hold their own too. Homegrown players who played youth leagues and high school on the same fields return to spend a Friday afternoon or a Sunday morning kicking the ball around and having a good time.

For its size, Hawaii has done very well. Over the last 20 years, local players have played for professional teams on the Mainland and all over the world. Honolulu’s own Bobby Wood even scored against the mighty German national team back in 2015. But soccer in America has taken a back seat this summer. We didn’t make it to the biggest tournament in the game.

This Sunday we will witness the single most important match of the most popular sport on the planet: the World Cup final.

France’s team is a story of redemption. The last and only time the French took the title was in 1998. The team came from diverse races, ethnicities and religions. They were the shining example of a post-colonial France with players hailing from places like New Caledonia, Ghana and Armenia. They earned the nickname, “Black, Blanc, Beur” (black, white and North African).

But despite their triumph, their ethnic makeup drew sharp criticism. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right leader of the National Front, lamented that the champions of the world just didn’t look French enough. He wasn’t alone.

The conservative nationalists were on the rise in France. Then came the terrorist attacks all across the country. Fear gripped the nation. Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, made a dangerously close run to leading the nation. In 2010, the French were in shambles. One player was thrown out of the game for making a nationalist salute akin to old fascist movements that once plagued Europe.

Eight years later they have changed their tune. The majority of the team are again people of color. They once again represent the diversity in the French people. And it seems that all of France is united behind them.

Their opponents are also remarkable. Croatia has never made it this far in the World Cup, even though the former Yugoslavian nation has produced world-class stars. They have fearlessly taken on and beaten countries that dwarf their size and population: Russia, Argentina and, most recently, England.

Unlike France, they are a young country. Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Before that, the best Croatian players were united on the national Yugoslavian team with Bosnians, Serbs and Slovenians.

After independence came a vicious war with their neighbors. Refugees streamed out of Croatia. My favorite on the team, the long-haired dynamic midfielder Luka Modric, was one of those refugees. He and his family fled their town. He lived in hotels for seven years. In order to escape the death and destruction that surrounded him, he would kick a soccer ball around the hotel parking lot. Now he’s a superstar playing in Spain alongside the world’s greatest players.

This is the furthest any former Yugoslavian team has advanced in the World Cup. They are surely the underdogs in this, but don’t count them out. They are hungry for a star to be placed on their jerseys.

So, who will prevail? Will France’s multiculturalism dominate the pitch? Will Croatia’s dogged tenacity pull them through? I invite you to join the rest of the world and the rest of us who have the privilege to play the game here on Maui to get up early and watch the final this Sunday.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”