USA-ITA I: the game
BERLIN--I haven't written about the Italy game in Kaiserslautern because I'm just now getting over it, but it turned out to be without reservation one of the most extraordinary experiences I've had watching soccer live or otherwise.
I'll be posting separately about the fan scene and the sixteen hours of train travel to and from Kaiserslautern, so this entry will be about the game alone, or more accurately about the experience of attending the game, since there's already a surfeit of quality analyses about the contest itself, which FIFA's Technical Study Group rightly termed the most exciting game of the World Cup so far.
So I'll begin as we walked up the utterly packed approach to the stadium, which was jammed to such an extent that I feared we'd miss kickoff even though we had over an hour before gametime. As things turned out, we made it into the game with just enough time, and our tickets were near (though not exactly in) the VIP area (meaning that we couldn't get free drinks and food but could watch others enjoy them).
Surveying my position before the game started, it was clear that the US fan presence at the Fritz Walter Stadion was substantial--more pervasive than at any other international game I'd seen outside the US, and perhaps even outnumbering the Italians. By contrast, I was one of a handful of Americanos in a sea of mostly calm, demure Italians. Immediately on my right was a Swiss-Italian guy who casually disparaged the US in an accent that reminded me of the Italian chef from the Simpsons. ("The Americans---they not-a so good. They-a gonna lose. I wanna salami pizza. Shaddapa you face.")
Then the game began, and something about the desperate situation and the incredibly high stakes kicked in. Normally, I'm a fairly voluble, enthusiastic rooter. On this particular day, I was a straight-up madman. Especially when it became clear within the first five minutes that the US was playing the polar opposite of the game they played against the Czechs, the crowd--self included--got behind the team with enormous intensity. Every run, every tackle, every foul, every moment seemed infused with more drama than I'd ever experienced at a sporting event.
When the Gilardino goal happened it proved a bit of a shock, especially because took place entirely against the run of play. But in contrast to their scattered reaction to the early Czech score, the US seemed inspired by going down a goal. The equalizer came within five minutes--followed on by the straight red to de Rossi--and sparked celebrations so intense I don't really remember them. When things settled down, everyone's drinks had spilled, I was standing in the row behind me (not entirely sure how I got there), and the Swiss guy next to me had vacated his seat for more neutral ground.
I love watching a game live and in person because of the proximity to the action and the intensity of the fan experience, but it exacts costs as well--most notably missing details that would be clear from a TV broadcast. So I remember the rest of the game in disjointed moments of clarity: Mastro's red card foul (which seemed pretty rough and entirely unnecessary); the Pope sending-off, which sparked wild Italian remonstrations (those people loooove to gesture); the Beasely non-goal, which I never really thought would count (just pessimism, didn't notice McB offside); a hatful of brilliant Keller saves toward the end; and then a weird strange silence at the final whistle. Especially coming from the US, it's hard to know just how to react to a draw. The result left us with a reasonable chance of qualification, but it also could have been better--we had the best of play and could readily have gotten all three points.
So wild celebrations were not in order (though I did my fair share anyway), but as I left the F-W Stadion for the long, crowded march back to the train station, my overwhelming emotions were relief and pride. I felt relief that the US were still in the tournament, and that they hadn't been embarrassed as they had been against the Czechs. But more than that I felt enormous pride in how hard they fought even when down a goal, and then down a man. At the very least, this tie banished the notion--which so many fans and pundits seek to perpetuate given the barest scrap of support--that the US is a terrible soccer nation. Results may or may not happen, but on Saturday in Kaiserslautern, the US MNT earned the respect--however grudging--of the soccer world.