It’s been around 8 months since Spain was crowned FIFA World Cup 2010 champions, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. Not Spain winning, but the U.S. Mens Soccer team, which made it to the quarter finals before losing to Ghana. Even if you are not a sports or soccer fan, bear with me.
The World Cup in soccer is truly a unique event. 205 countries participate in qualifying matches in the four years between the Cup Finals. That’s two hundred and five countries! Can you even name 205 countries? I highly doubt I can. Out of those, the best 32 qualify for the tournament. In 31 out of those 32 countries, soccer players are like rock stars, but better paid. They are the Michael Jordan’s, the Derek Jeter’s and the Tom Brady’s all rolled into one. They are dogged by the paparazzi and cannot go out in public without being mobbed by adoring fans (or threatened by fans from opposing teams). Their celebrity is so great that those around them become famous by association. The WAGS (wives and girlfriends) of star players in Europe are as well known as Paris Hilton or the Kardashian’s are here.
And then there is the U.S. Men’s Soccer team. With the exception of Landon Donovan, most people in the United States would be hard pressed to name any of the players on our national team. Most of them started out in MLS (Major League Soccer) making about what A and AA minor league baseball players make and coaching girls soccer teams on the side, because living on 18K a year is pretty tough. Some of our national teams players still toil away in MLS. Guys like Edson Buddle and Robbie Finley. Others, like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, have played well enough to win the golden ticket, which is a contract with a European team (in both their cases, they play in the English Premiere League). Even so, the Americans are always viewed as slightly (or sometimes not so slightly) inferior on the world soccer stage. This is partly due to the fact that we do not have a rich history in the sport and have never performed particularly well in international competition. In the 2006 World cup we finished dead last. 32nd out of 32 teams. Our players are as awed by guys like Wayne Rooney, who plays for Manchester United in England, and Leo Messi, who plays for the mighty Barcelona, as many fans are. Add to that the fact that no one, including the referees, expects our teams to do well, and the U.S. enters the World Cup tournament at a distinct disadvantage.
But the team of 2010 didn’t seem to realize this. They had, in fact, defeated Spain’s National Team (and eventual World Cup Champs) almost exactly one year earlier in South Africa in a friendly tournament. It was Spain’s first defeat in something like 30 matches. Green and untested our guys were not. Still, despite a draw with England and another with Slovenia, the team struggled, always having to come from behind just to get a draw.
Their last match in the first round was against Algeria, who, for all intents and purposes had a major home field advantage, being an African team. All of Africa was cheering for them, and rightfully so. The match was excruciating, because no matter what our guys did, they just couldn’t break through the Algerian defense, and heading in to the the final minutes of the match, the score stood at 0-0. If the game ended in a loss or even a draw, our team was heading home. They needed a win. And, in the improbable world of soccer, a win would propel them into U.S. soccer history, because it would mean they’d won their group; something no U.S. men’s team has ever done before in the World Cup. It also meant advancing to the quarterfinals.
What you are going to watch is the brilliant video put together by a Purdue University student, showing those last few minutes from the fans’ point of view. I watch it every now and then because it makes me want to weep and cheer and generally make a fool of myself. Maybe you’ve all seen it before. Watch it again. I always think about the U.S. players, who saw this video when they returned to their hotel after celebrating their win. What must it have made them feel? These guys who go unrecognized for the most part, even in their home country, and who play for the love of the sport because they sure don’t make enough to play for the money.
I also love this video because if you saw the game, you can tell exactly what is going on by the fans’ reaction. Especially the first long clip which fades in to a bar in Lincoln Nebraska. And if you didn’t see the match, this is what was happening as the fans watch: When the clip starts, Algeria has the ball and you can hear and see people react to a shot Algeria takes that was saved by Tim Howard (the U.S. goalkeeper). There is a smattering of applause. Then Tim throws the ball out and our players make a break, flying down the field. At this point you see people in the clip start to wave their arms and half-standing, yelling ‘Go!’. The tension mounts and then there is a cheer that turns to a groan as Clint Dempsey’s shot is blocked by the Algerian goalie. But the ball rebounds out, and about 1 second later Donovan scores for the U.S. And the fans go wild. It doesn’t matter that our team lost in the quarter finals to Ghana. It doesn’t diminish what they accomplished. This is the best 5+ minutes of video on the planet, in my opinion.
This morning when I was watching, Maya looked over and said, “You’re watching that again?” Yep, just one more time. Or maybe two.