U.S. Against the World: Game 1
OK, so that U.S. 1-1 World Cup draw with Wales on Monday was disappointing. I mean it wasn’t THIS disappointing, via The New York Times:
"The sting of the defeat — not just a defeat: an embarrassment, a shame, a stigma being carved into Argentine skin in real time — will burn all the more because, by the end, it was nothing if not warranted, ample punishment for Argentina’s inability to pick its way through the Saudi resistance, to keep a cool head, to leverage all of its experience and talent to its advantage.”
Yes, that’s the Times’ recap of Argentina’s stunning 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia this morning. A stigma being carved into Argentine skin in real time. Um, yikes.
There really is nothing on earth quite like the World Cup. The Olympics does have some of that flavor. There are two questions from my years of covering the Olympics that I think about all the time. The first may or may not have happened, but it has been much discussed in the sportswriting community. The question was put, I believe, to a Hungarian water polo star and was translated roughly as such: “You’re a national disgrace. Please respond.”
And the other definitely happened, I was there. It was a question of the brilliant Moroccan long-distance runner Hicham El Guerrouj after he stumbled in the 1,500: “How do you explain to 30 million Moroccans your failure, your shame?”
El Guerrouj broke down in tears, by the way.
Still, none of that reaches the thundering, over-the-top, awe-inspiring, breathtaking — and, yes, at times dangerous — passion that people have for their World Cup teams. When I went to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 — one of the most amazing experiences of my life — I came in with what I thought was a pretty complete understanding of World Cup intensity.
I mean, as a sportswriter, I’d spent my entire life around fervor, zeal, I’d been woken up by the early morning chants of Kentucky basketball fans at the Final Four, I’d been in the massive celebration when the Phillies won the World Series, I’d been to Ohio State-Michigan, I’d watched the U.S. and Russia play hockey. I was pretty sure I knew.
I wasn’t even close. I sat back in awe — each game was like a combination of a packed-house political rally, an Auburn-Alabama football game, a televised Congressional hearing, a seventh-game Stanley Cup final, a Muhammad Ali championship bout and a PTA meeting where something really controversial is being decided. Every emotion went to 11. In the next moment, at every moment, people would feel the happiest they ever felt in their life or the saddest they ever felt in their life or the angriest they ever felt in their life.
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And it all depended on the bounce of a ball or the view of a referee or an instance of brilliance or a fateful misplay.
It is mesmerizing to see that sort of passion up close.
I can’t say I felt quite that level of passion when the United States’ Tim Weah scored a gorgeous goal on a beautiful pass from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead over Wales. But it brought me out of my seat. Years ago, I wrote something for Sports Illustrated about the sheer impossibility of a soccer goal …
A goal at the highest level of the game is a miracle. Consider the odds. You have to move a ball across a large field, eluding 10 obstinate foes, without using your hands. You cannot legally pass the ball to a teammate who has raced past the last defender. Once you approach the goal, you must put the ball into a net eight yards wide and eight feet high, guarded by the one man on the field allowed to use his hands. It is, when you think about it, an impossible task.
But it is not impossible. It happens. And this, the lovers of the sport will tell you, is why soccer soars. What it takes to score a goal goes beyond hitting a home run, beyond scoring a touchdown, beyond slipping the puck past the hockey goalie. It is something beyond athletic skill, something that transcends ball handling and deft touch and a powerful shot. It takes, for lack of a better word, magic.
This is how Weah’s goal felt to me. Magical. Look, I will say this right up front: I don’t know soccer. If you want to read about soccer from someone who knows, someone who can dive in and tell you about formations and strategies and such, there are plenty of good choices out there and, as always, I recommend reading my friend Grant Wahl, who is the best in the business, as far as I am concerned.
For me, watching the World Cup is purely about feelings. It’s a tournament of the heart. Christian Pulisic — the latest soccer player to be called “Captain America”* — is the most exciting U.S. player I can remember. Through the years, I’ve wondered why there wasn’t an American player who could do sorcery when he got the ball in space. Oh, there have been plenty of good U.S. players through the years. But there never seemed to be one who, in the words of a South American journalist who befriended me in South Africa, was “touched by angels.”
*Am I wrong about this, or isn’t there always a soccer “Captain America”? Like, I can remember pretty clearly people calling Claudio Reyna “Captain America.” And I think Carlos Bocanegra was called “Captain America.” And I seem to remember at least some people called Landon Donovan, “Captain America.” Maybe John Harkes, too? I think there were others.
Anyway, Pulisic made a beautiful run and then flipped a splendid pass to Tim Weah, who punched the ball with the outside of his foot past the goalkeeper for the goal. You probably know this, but Weah is the son of George Weah, who was (1) Perhaps the greatest soccer player in the world in 1995, when he played for AC Milan, and (2) The President of Liberia. George never got to play in a World Cup, so I can only imagine the emotion he felt watching his son not only play, but score a goal.
Fun fact: Tim Weah is the first player to score a goal against Wales in the World Cup since Pele in 1958. This was Wales’ first appearance in the World Cup since 1958 so, you know, SOMEBODY was going to be the first since Pele. I’m glad it was Weah.
The U.S. had a couple of other very good chances to score — their closest chance, I think, was a near Wales’ own goal which, look, more than anything else in this tournament, I am rooting against own goals. I want the U.S. to win, sure, but not if it comes on an own goal.
Anyway, it really did look like the U.S. would win 1-0 … and then came the second half, and Wales picked up the intensity, the U.S. toned down the intensity, and in the 82nd minute, the United States’ Walker Zimmerman made a poor challenge on Gareth Bale, a penalty was called, and Bale ripped his penalty shot into the upper right-hand corner to tie the match. Thankfully, the penalty was widely accepted as fair, because watching the U.S. players and listening to the FOX team whine about the officiating all game long was a whole lot.*
*Look, I’m sure the officiating was questionable, but don’t we know that going in? I mean, this is a sport where ONE PERSON runs up and down the field and makes pretty much all the calls. It’s not a system designed for precision.
Bale might have scored the go-ahead goal in the last seconds of stoppage time — he got to the ball at midfield with U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner way out of position. Bale was lining up a long shot toward the empty net when he got purposely fouled from behind by the United States’ Kellyn Acosta (who plays with Bale for Los Angeles FC). That got Acosta a yellow card and a lot of praise from the announcers and his teammates. It seems weird to celebrate a purposeful yellow card tackle, but Acosta might have saved the World Cup for the U.S. A loss here probably ended all chances of the U.S. advancing.
From Grant Wahl, I learned that the United States has won only five World Cup matches in the so-called Modern Era. They beat Colombia in 1994; that’s the one with the tragic own goal. The U.S. won twice in its magical run back in 2002; they beat Mexico and Portugal that year. They beat Algeria in 2010; that was on the wild Landon Donovan goal in the 91st minute. And they beat Ghana in 2014. That’s it.
In other words: It’s damn hard to win World Cup matches.