wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Saturday, March 04, 2006

My Favorite Year: USA 2002

One of my favorite pieces of soccer writing is Roddy Doyle’s account of following Ireland in the 1990 World Cup. I first encountered it in My Favourite Year, one of many fantastic collections of soccer writing done by the British outfit When Saturday Comes. It reminds me a little of what it was like to have the World Cup in the US in 1994. Even in our soccer-unsavvy nation, people were thinking and talking about the tournament. I even got the afternoon off work to watch the second half of the Nats’ famous 2-1 win over Colombia. But even that pales in comparison to the footy-mad Dublin that Doyle describes. The packed pubs roaring Ireland on, the flag-festooned streets, the euphoric madness in the city when the team beat Romania on penalties to reach the last eight…

It sounds wonderful, and it makes me insanely jealous. Compare, for example, my experience of the 2002 World Cup in Washington. DC is, by American standards, a good soccer town. DC United has arguably the best support in MLS, and the US used to have lots of games at RFK Stadium because they could rely on strong turnouts.

Still, when our opening game against Portugal rolled around in June 2002, there was little in the way of buzz. Sure, Sports Illustrated had Clint Mathis on the cover, and people seemed vaguely aware that the World Cup was happening (in the same way they’re aware that the Olympics are happening), but there was no buzz in the streets, no growing sense of national anticipation, certainly nothing to match the way I felt at 4am that morning when we kicked off against the team of Figo and Rui Costa that was surely going to run circles around us.

I watched the game in my apartment in the dead quiet of pre-dawn in Woodley Park—partly because it was so damned early that I didn’t think any place would be open—and so the setting was strangely dead for the sporting miracle that unfolded. When John O’Brien scored in only the fourth minute, I fell off my couch and onto the floor in excitement, though I had to be careful not to disturb my cranky downstairs neighbor (he had already complained to the management about the volume of my celebrations when the US beat Canada on penalties to advance to the finals of the CONCACAF championship earlier that year).

When Donovan and McBride added two more, I couldn’t stand being quiet. I looked online and found that the Diner in Adams-Morgan was televising games for free. I set out on a dead run and arrived to see the start of the second half (and having missed Beto’s goal that reduced our lead to 3-1). Finally, there was an atmosphere. People packed the Diner and spilled out into the street. The support was intense but subdued, save for the stomach-churning moment when Agoos blasted a spectacular goal into the upper 90—of our own net. When the game ended, predictable chants of USA! ensued for about fifteen seconds, then people cleared out. I ate breakfast at the counter, and by the time I left, it was as though the game never happened. No one celebrated in the streets; hell, no one even seemed to know that this massive event had even taken place. I was at work by 9am and an uneventful, if sleep-deprived, day ensued.

I ended up watching the regrettable Poland match and the miraculous Mexico match with a group of friends, and then the quarterfinal versus Germany on the Jumbotron at RFK Stadium with several thousand other fans. When it ended, we applauded the great US effort, and then went home, silent.

It’s not as though I think the US should be in the grips of soccer madness like other countries are. Nations, much the same as people, are free to love what they love. And American doesn’t love soccer; they like it, in much the same way that you like a vague acquaintance that you’re happy to run into every now and again but don’t think about when he’s not around. What I miss about watching soccer in the US, and what makes me jealous of Roddy Doyle’s Dublin, is the sense of being part of something. It’s strange that something that seemed as earth-shattering a national event as the Portugal match had so little impact on the nation it involved. Or perhaps it’s less of a geopolitical issue but just a matter of feeling unfulfilled; the Portugal match made me want to go out and party, but instead I had to go into work.

Hence the trip to Germany this summer. Win or lose, I’m going to be in a place where the atmosphere outside matches what’s going on inside.


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