I took a nap around 4pm. The game was at 6. Woke up at 4:30, the room hot and dark. I had that electric calm, the kind I imagine boxers get before a fight. Shaved close and careful to a soundtrack of slow, heavy beats, taking all of it too seriously and loving it. Pulled on my favorite jersey: red and white hoops, The Fighting Waldos. Game day had arrived.
Roused my compañero Javi, and while he got his facial hair and jersey situation in order, I kept the beats going while shooting hoops at our hotel. I was nervous, and it was the worst kind of nervousness, where you know that your emotions are about to be played and there’s nothing you can do but take it. I don’t feel this way too often anymore, but that’s the genius of the World Cup: four years is just long enough that the pain is forgotten but the desire undiminished. Hope springs eternal, and that’s what kills you.
Javi is ready to watch. I’m ready to watch. But is the game on? Of course not. Colombians like to pretend that the US doesn’t play soccer, which willfully ignores the last time that the two countries competed in a World Cup: USA 2, Colombia 1. However since a player was killed shortly afterwards, I don’t bring it up. The point is, Colombian cable companies have no incentive to broadcast USA-Ghana. We need a bar with DirectTV. And we find one. But we’re the only sorry souls looking for a piece of this action, and it’s going to cost the barkeep good money to order the game. We’ll buy beers, we say. He shakes his head, and proposes an unusual bargain: he will purchase the game if, and only if, we buy at least a half bottle of Aguardiente. Just so we’re all on the same page, Aguardiente is licorice-flavored Colombian firewater. Not entirely my idea of a good time. But he had us over the barrel, so we exchanged 30,000 pesos for two Dixie cups, a half-liter of local hooch, and two seats near the TV. Game time.
Most of you know what happened next. Deuce (Clint Dempsey) went through a Ghanaian defender like a wet paper bag, and the US was up 1-0 before a minute was through. It was, as the British say, a bit dodgy from there. Ghana had all of the ball and all of the pressure, and we just sat back and took it. When Jozy Altidore blew a tire in the 17th minute, I suspected we were in trouble. When we finally reached halftime, I had just witnessed 45 minutes of the worst soccer America has played in a while…and we were winning. But this would not do. The Yanks were dropping like flies, the Ghanaians had what appeared to be a warlock among their supporters, and the Aguardiente was going to my head too quickly. We needed American counter-magic. I ran to the nearest grocery store and found some: Oreos. We had no choice; Javi and I were forced to demolish the entire pack in the second half. For America.
Not much changed after half time, until everything did. It was like watching a game of tennis, with the USA as the wall. And then, with a twinkle-toed back heel and a mighty lash, Ghana tied it up. I hit Javi. He hit the table. Despair threatened. And yet…still time. The USA awoke, nudged its way forward. A corner, won cheaply. A perfect ball. A Germerican head to meet it.
People looked at us from the park, stuck their heads in to see if the gringos were carving each other up. Perhaps they expected a cockfight or some gunplay. What they saw were two Americans, dressed in equally ridiculous jerseys, hugging each other, jumping up and down, and screaming into the night. A win. Is a win. Is a win.
We celebrated like Yankees should: found the only BBQ joint in town, ordered a pig slathered in sauce. Had a beer, shook our heads, still in disbelief. Started walking home, encountered three tiny youths playing a game of street soccer. I mostly played the enforcer to Javi’s playmaker, but I have not had that much fun chasing and flicking and juggling a soccer ball since I was wearing a bright blue shirt with a soccer ball on it, lo these many years (Wallenpaupack youth soccer reference). We made it home, stayed up till all hours, were shushed twice, and fell asleep with grins on our faces.
I know I should have a more complicated relationship with the World Cup. John Oliver’s rant against FIFA was spot-on. These sporting mega-events (World Cups, Olympics) are devastatingly costly for the host countries, with only fractions of the promised benefits. Over 60% of Brazilians are opposed to the World Cup, according to a Pew poll. The new stadiums in Manaus and Brasilia are white elephants, with no clear future use. Promised infrastructure upgrades never came. FIFA just spent $27M on a film about itself, while thousands of Nepalese and Pakistani workers are dying in Qatar to build more white elephants. I know all of these horrible things, and I’m disgusted by both FIFA and the host countries which kowtow to its demands. And yet…
…and yet, my squad is my squad. I can deplore world inequality, and wish that the passion for soccer in Honduras and Ghana and Tanzania was met with commensurate resources. I can applaud Costa Rica as they knock off Italy, a country with vastly greater resources dedicated to kicking a ball around a field. I can do all of those things and STILL shout my head off for America when it takes the field. There’s some cognitive dissonance involved, to be sure; more and more of it every year as immigration and globalization transform the notion of a “national” team. But I’ve spent enough time outside the country to realize how fundamentally American I am. I can root for competitors who share my norms and values and language, while still wishing that the competition did more good and less harm.
Two stories, then I’ll shut up: I watched the first Colombia match in Supia’s central plaza. We watched the second one at our hotel, mostly because we couldn’t handle the air horns going off next to our ears. It was a good decision: for the second match the supports apparently brought a cannon. When Colombia qualified, the fans spent all day driving up and down the streets, waving flags, singing, fiercely proud of Los Cafeteros. For every goal they were out of their chairs, hugging, dancing, and spraying fake snow. The same people, when asked, have given me a litany of complaints about their government and their society. But when it’s game time, they root for the guys who are from where they’re from.
Second story. On June 23, ten days after reporting for Peace Corps, I was basically thrown out of a moving van. In front of me was a mud-brick house with a decaying Acura in front. I spoke maybe 20 words of Swahili. My homestay father knew less English. But luckily, he had a football poster up, and when he saw I liked it, he said we would watch some that night. As we walked to the game, I was quite literally overwhelmed: red dirt, mud houses, stars stars stars, a strange new world. We arrived late, maybe ten minutes left. The village had one TV and a generator. We men sat on the floor and watched the play flow back and forth. 80th minute when we arrived. USA vs. Algeria, 0-0. A win meant everything, a tie meant going home.
I’ll never forget that night, as long as I live. It was utterly dark. We sipped coffee afterwards while old men told old stories and I looked at the sky. I don’t believe that I’ll ever feel that far away from home again, and writing that makes me both glad and very sad. I wouldn’t have come home early if the USA had drawn the match and left the World Cup. I wouldn’t have been a single mile farther away from my life and my wife. But it mattered. When Donovan crashed that goal into the back of the net, and I started yelling and the Africans started cursing, it mattered to me, in a way that sports rarely does. I forgot, for a moment, that this was all wrong and I didn’t belong. I know it’s ridiculous; I know that Seinfeld was right and we’re just rooting for laundry. But we all get to choose absurdities to care about, and mine paid me back one lonely night in Africa. For that, for ever, I will say: Go Go Go, USA.