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Muggles Take Manhattan for the Quidditch World Cup

New York City residents are used to seeing all kinds of crazy on a Saturday morning, but a parade of hundreds of screaming Muggles crossing the West Side Highway can really draw a few stares.

It’s the Quidditch World Cup. Forty-six teams — mostly university squads, with a few high schools and club teams mixed in — have come from across North America to Dewitt Clinton Park to run around with brooms between their legs and throw balls at one another. Quidditch — or Muggle Quidditch, as it’s technically called — is a glorified mash-up of dodgeball, basketball, and rugby. Players run down the pitch trying to toss the quaffle (a kickball) through the goal (a hula hoop taped onto a jerry-rigged PVC-pipe stand). This is made more difficult by the ever-present danger that someone is going to tackle you to the ground. The sport may be too geeky for non–Harry Potter fanatics to fathom, but the best Quidditch players are recognizably athletic — broad shoulders, strong arms, quick feet. They can lower their shoulder like LeBron James on offense, and tackle like Bart Scott on defense.

They’re doing all of this more or less one-handed. The other is always on that phallic piece of wood they’re straddling. (If your broom touches the ground, you’re taken out of the action for fifteen seconds as you simulate the time it would take for a wizard to fall to the ground.) It’s inconvenient, but it ups the degree of difficulty — the best teams are the ones who can catch quaffles one-handed on the fly.

Like any good tournament, the Quidditch World Cup starts with an opening ceremony. Thus the parade. Everyone, per tradition, needed to scream “Quidditch!” at the same time. So all 46 teams — hundreds of athletes — cram into a circle around one of the pitches. They looked like summer campers taking their color wars very seriously. Every team is in matching uniforms — most with customized shirts. (UMass: “Because Hogwarts didn’t accept FAFSA.”) Carleton College brought along thundersticks.

Within an hour, several people have already been carted off the field with injuries. Two players collided so viciously that one spit out his mouthguard along with a few tablespoons of blood. The woman on the other side of the collision was lying on the ground with her head split open. Volunteer medics rushed over, chanted a Ferula spell, and bandaged her forehead. The audience clapped in relief.

Amid the games, hundreds of fans milled about. Some are wearing shirts that say, “I got 99 problems but a snitch ain’t one.” Two women, one Swiss, one Australian, both au pairs, had taken a 4 a.m. bus from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, just to be here. They’re giddy. “It’s awesome.” “I like the fact that he’s out there to be thrown to the ground.” I ask if they had seen all the movies. They nod dramatically. Multiple times? More nods, this time with nervous laughter.

Meanwhile, vendors are attracting more business than a Diagon Alley clearance sale. The International Quidditch Association will go on to sell nearly 1,700 official World Cup T-shirts at $20 a pop. (Twenty percent of the proceeds are donated to Book Aid International.) A table for HP Fan Trips, a tour company specializing in Potter excursions, is hawking a $899 Quidditch trip to the U.K. “Actually, you’re playing in front of a castle,” Toni Gras, who came from Cleveland, told me. They average 100 to 200 people a trip.

David Wedzik, the owner of specialty Harry Potter–inspired merchandise retailer Alivans, is selling Quidditch brooms ($60 or $75, depending on whether you wanted the Scarlet Hawk or the Scarlet Falcon) and wands ($20 to $40). Wedzik’s 9-year-old son, Matt, is with him, and in the midst of the seventh and final Harry Potter book. “I want to start a Quidditch club at my school,” Matt tells me with the prepubescent shyness of a young Harry Potter.

After a full day of matches Saturday, 24 teams advance to play on Sunday for the championship. By the time the final two teams face off on Sunday afternoon, over a thousand people are in the park to watch. Michael Emerson, who played Benjamin Linus on Lost, is in attendance, a fanboy confluence sure to fuel Voldemort and Smoke Monster slash fiction.

The final match is between Middlebury, the second seed and defending champion, and Tufts, who earlier in the day scored an upset win over No. 1 seed Pitt (the announcer deadpanned, “Do you believe in magic?”). Middlebury is sporting blue soccer jerseys with matching athletic shorts. They look like an athletic team. Tufts is wearing T-shirts over a ragtag collection of shorts and tights. They look like a fan club getting some exercise.

The match is close at first, with Tufts’ keeper playing immaculate defense against a charging front of Middlebury chasers. But Middlebury is relentless, with precise passes, juke moves, and fierce tackles that Tufts can’t keep up with. Eventually Tufts Avada Kedavras itself, grabbing the snitch (a speedy strong guy dressed head to toe in yellow) and ending the match even though they don’t have enough points. Middlebury is your 2010 Quidditch World Cup champion.

After the team mobs one another, they’re presented with a flimsy trophy (which promptly falls apart), a set of fourteen new brooms from Alivans, and the adoration of hundreds of strangers. One woman even asks a Middlebury player for his autograph. And then it’s time to party. The PA system starts to blast Middlebury’s anthem, a song called “Midd Kid.”; Phil Gordon, a Middlebury player, grabs the mike and raps his verse:

So don’t cross me bitch, I’ll just chuckle as you struggle /
cause I’m a Midd Kid, and you’re just a f*cking Muggle.

Photo: Jim Kiernan