Sunday, June 27, 2010

Highest highs: US 1:0 Algeria

It’s taken me a long time to get to this topic, broad readership, but that’s because I wanted to take the time and do it right. And now that I’ve got a momentito, relaxing in my Rigiviertel room high above Z-town, watching the Uruguay-SoKo achtenfinale and resting up for the fury that will undoubtedly characterize the Ghana game, I will tell the tale of how DF experienced the greatest goal in US Soccer history.

There are some days on which you look back and say, “that was a great day.” But this day was different insofar as immediately upon waking up, I sensed greatness. And why not? It was my first day in a new and awesome foreign city. The weather was great. And all the US had to do was beat Algeria to reach the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

Early signs were good: I managed to navigate my way from my hotel in the hills above Zuerich down to ETH without much trouble, though the walk was steep and gave my newly rebuilt tibia some challenges (not in a bad way at all—it was like having physical therapy all over again). I ate with some colleagues at the school cafeteria that overlooks all of Zuerich, and the city looked spectacular.

So three-thirty or so rolled around, and I dragooned a reluctant US expatriate and made for Paddy Reilly’s pub, which I’d scoped out long beforehand. The venue was, unsurprisingly, dominated by Brits watching their game against Slovenia. The US contingent was relegated to a small side room with a single TV. In attendance were DF and his compatriot, plus about ten other US supporters (and I could tell who was who when I walked in because Americans really do talk louder than other folks).

There were early technical jitters, as the pub crew didn’t seem able to make the US game appear on our TV, and I was briefly deeply concerned about having to find a backup venue. But it all worked out, and we were off. I won’t relate the game’s details, because you already know them and if you don’t you should. The first half was nervy. Hearts were in throats when Algeria hit the bar, and I was reminded of the endowment effect when Dempsey’s goal (later shown to be perfectly valid) was called back for offside.

The atmo was tense in the way only a WC game can really produce, where every kick and miss and pass is fraught with extra tension. The tension in this case was, of course, ramped up because it wasn’t just a WC game but a crucial and decisive WC game. The second half grew even more fraught, as the lapse of time, all scoreless of course, gradually twisted the thumbscrews of anxiety. DF was, of course, cool as a cucumber throughout, head in hands, fingers in hair, head on table, swearing and yelling and generally freaking out.

And then it happened: just as the game was nearly lost (or, more accurately, tied 0-0, which would have felt like a loss, as Switzerland’s 0-0 draw did last night to my poor Schweitzer compatriots), a miracle happened. Donovan and Buddle and Dempsey broke down the right, and after Dempsey shot, and the Alg goalie—who had been great all day—gave up a rebound. The ball seemed to lie in the box for ages, all alone, surrounded by acres of space, until Donovan sliced into the scene and lasered it into the back of the Algerian goal.

Madness ensued, and I mean that pretty literally. Some good writers—Bill Buford (Among the Thugs), Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch)—have described the feeling of seeing your team score a crucial goal, and they both do a pretty good job. My take is that it’s a period of manic, joyful unselfconsciousness unlike anything else, one that makes us do and say things totally out of character because we’re incapable of expressing our joy in traditional, familiar ways. To wit: I hugged a burly US fan (a stranger) so hard that my poor sunglasses (which were hanging on my chest) got crushed; I shouted “Oh Jesus” repeatedly (which is uncharacteristic given my coolness towards organized religion); and I jumped on and climbed over about every piece of furniture in the tiny roomlet dedicated to US fans.

In that moment, Donovan had propelled us from a frustrating and gutting early WC exit to group C winners, ahead even of England. It was, easily, one of the most joyful sporting-related moments of my life (and I do not want to stop and consider whether it’s one of the best overall moments of my life, because of the very real risk that the answer may be yes).

More absurdist hijinks ensued: DF exited the bar and broke into various US songs and chants (entirely alone, and bedecked in a US soccer jersey, so that you’ve got the visuals down), and at one point even threw in a loud public performance of a Beastie Boys rap because it seemed distinctively American. I kept saying “This is the Mannschaft” and pointing at my jersey. I greeted several bald, large and threatening looking English fans, and they seemed amused by me much in the same way you might be amused by a younger sibling who finally beat you at something and was overly excited about it (which is not far off from what was happening, I guess).

I dropped into an imbiss and had a snack and beverage, where I ran into a couple I recognized from the pub (and the woman—admirably bedecked in jersey and US flag) remembered me as the guy who kept saying “Oh Jesus” when the US scored. Did the Zuerchers appreciate or hate DF for wandering through their streets early on a Wednesday night chanting “U S A”? Hard to say. Some were likely taken aback and/or annoyed, some were supportive (various passing cars shouted “Oo Ess Ah” at me), but I’d wager most were merely puzzled. The WC doesn’t seem to be much on the radar screen of the locals here, even with their own team well in the mix of it, so I suspect most of the locals just thought I was a crazy obnoxious American (i.e., they had it exactly right).

I went back to the office, and spent a couple hours posting incoherent things on soccer boards and watching goal replays. Eventually, I adjourned with new friends and new friends of friends to have a drink and watch the Germany game at the ETH student pub. I was able to cheer with real feeling when Germany won, as it had the salubrious effect of allowing us to avoid them in the next round (though the matchup v Ghana brings up sour memories of 2006).

And just about then I realized that I was really, really tired. It wasn’t jet-lag really, but just exhaustion brought on by emotion and hours of frenetic activity. And so I took leave of my Germanic amigos and was funiculared up into the Zurich night to sleep a well-earned and victorious sleep.