The game of their lives

Trip Start Jun 07, 2010
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of South Africa  , Gauteng,
Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The greatest sporting event I've ever attended in my life, Better than the two Super Bowls I went to the 1990s.  Right up there with scoring the winning goal against Haverford's freshman team in overtime back in 1978. 

After the first two matches of the group stage, the U. S. soccer team had two draws and stood on two points.  Ditto England.  Slovenia, with a win and a draw against the U. S., had four points.  Algeria had one point after a gallant draw against England.  England was playing Slovenia and the U. S. Algeria.  When the two matches began at 4:00 p.m. South Africa time, any of the four teams could earn one of two places in the knockout round.  ("Go through", in football-speak.)   A win would put the U. S. through.  A draw might, but only if England lost or tied.

We sat in a section of mostly U. S. fans.  We had our face paint on,  I was wearing the lucky wig (now liberally shedding paint flakes and strands of polyester).  Alex had his vuvuzela.  We had our big flag, ready to be deployed for inspirational or celebratory purposes.  Our fellow Americans were also bedecked in patriotic finery.

The game almost started disastrously.  Less than five minutes in, an Algerian player got free just outside the box and unleashed a thunderous shot that rattled the crossbar.  Two inches down, and the U. S. might have been going home early.  Then the U. S. defense settled down. The U. S. had a bit more of the run of play, and several good chances.  Midway through the first half, a shot-rebound-shot sequence saw Dempsey of the U. S. score.  Cheers, celebration, dismay.  The ref waved off the goal.  The flag was up -- someone was offsides.  (Later video review showed the goal was good.  Jobbed again.)

Halftime with no score.  The scoreboard showed England leading Slovenia 1-0.  We now needed to win the game to go through.  The second half, the U. S. was attacking the goal right in front of us.  As the clock advanced toward the full ninety minutes, the U. S. turned up the pressure.  A Dempsey shot off the crossbar.  Two sitters in front of goal shot over an open net.  On the opposite end, the Algerians had several breakaways, each ending with Tim Howard stopping a good shot.  With England winning, the Algerians had no chance of going through, but they played like heroes, with incredible heart and intensity.

75 minutes, 80 minutes.  The scoreboard showed a live shot of Sepp Blatter sitting beside ex-President Bill Clinton, watching the match.  A new chant began:  "Yes we can, yes we can."  Now 85 minutes.  "How much injury time?" asked the fellow next to me.  Someone started singing the national anthem, and everyone joined in, The Star Spangled Banner rose up from ten thousand U. S. throats, amid the honking of the vuvuzelas and the screams from the crowd.  Then we were at the full ninety minutes, with no score.  The England score had held up 1-0.  Only a win would put the U. S. through.  The assistant referee held up the board:  four minutes of added time.  We were all standing.  Alex and I were holding up our flag.  A foul.  Red card!  An Algerian player is ejected and the U. S. has a man advantage.

The first minute gone.  Then, a sudden change of possession.  Landon Donovan in space on the right, a four-on-two U. S. advantage for the first time in the match.  A pass to Dempsey, a hard shot, the keeper blocked but couldn't cover, the ball loose in front of net...and Donovan slotted it home. 

The stands went insane.  Beer sprayed everywhere like champagne.  Total strangers hugged each other, everyone yelling until they were hoarse.  Flags waving in a sea of red-white-and-blue.  Tears, laughter, disbelief.  The last minute of injury time expired, the ref blew the whistle, and it was over.  The U. S. was through.  The cheering continued.  Donovan threw the game ball into the stands.

For ten minutes after the game, the United States fans remained in place, cheering, crying, waving flags.  The rest of the fans began to leave, Algerians, South Africans and other neutrals filed out, but the Americans remained standing.  The U. S. players visited each quarter of the stadium, waving and acknowledging the cheers.

Alex needed the bathroom, so we began to make our way out.  In the stands behind, the celebrations continued.  As we walked through the tunnel, we were passed by South African riot police in full gear, with faceplates down and shields in hand.

After the bus dropped us at the carpark, the boys and I began signing God Bless America.  A few other voices joined in. 

A fabulous result, an incredible night.  After we got back to the Youngs, we watched the Germany/Ghana game.  Germany won 1-0.  Both Ghana and Germany go through.  The U. S., first in its group for the first time since 1930, will play Ghana in Rustenburg on Sunday, a rematch of the game that Ghana won in 2006, putting the U. S. out of the last World Cup.

We'll be there.  We'll be ready.  Go U. S. A.!
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