Friday, June 11, 2010

Four years later...

(AP/Anja Niedringhaus)

It's hard to believe that a shade under four years ago, I was watching, through watery eyes, the dying minutes of the USA's final World Cup match against Ghana at the Joyce Kilmer Rest Area off the Jersey Turnpike.* Yeah, that’s how I rolled that day. Eleven minutes to time, and the Yanks were struggling mightily with possession, pathetically scrambling to orchestrate something that resembled a half-chance. Ten minutes…five minutes…stoppage time. Fin.

(*It’s fairly obvious by now that my luck always seems to take its vacation around the World Cup. In my previous post, I mentioned that I won’t be able to watch the USA-England match due to a wedding. For the USA-Ghana match, I was accompanying my godparents down to Baltimore – easily one my favoritest cities in the world – for an extended-weekend vacation. We left at 9am. The match, I believe started at 10am, and we had to be down there by mid-afternoon because we had tickets to that night’s Orioles-Marlins game. What could I do? The only thing I could think of: I employed my brother, who doesn’t follow soccer at all, to watch the game for me and text me updates. Now, I’ve never experienced Chinese water torture firsthand, but I suspect that following a World Cup match via text messages could be just as painful.)

It was my first World Cup as a die-hard soccerhead. As a baseball-loving teenaged boy, I watched USA ’94 with passing interest and completely overlooked France ’98. Somehow, through the wonderful mixture of my undergraduate sleeping habits, Taco Bell, and 44 oz. Mountain Dews, I managed to catch a few matches while the rest of the house was asleep. It was an experience, sure, but I didn’t feel like I’d been kicked in the cookies after Germany stole the result in the quarters. For me, it was back to baseball and NASCAR the next day.

Germany ’06 was the first World Cup I planned my vacation time around. At that point, I knew: yeah, I had become one of those fans. I took a two-hour lunch for USA-Czech Republic, and had to pop a handful of Tums shortly thereafter. My skin sizzled under an unforgiving sun while I watched USA-Italy on the big screen at Gillette Stadium. And for the Ghana match, I found myself on the road receiving text updates from my brother who, lucky devil, was able to watch that entire match from the comforts of the couch. That, in a nutshell, was Germany ’06 to me.


Today, the tournament of tournaments returns. This time, the drama will transpire on a continent that has begged to be part of the global conversation for decades. What better way to help remedy that than hosting the World Cup?

Granted, I'm not Miss Cleo, but I predict it will be an exciting tournament. Though Germany ’06 will always hold a special place in my heart, a majority of the non-USA matches were, in hindsight, pretty dull. Maybe it was because the calcio-minded Italians dominated and everyone tried to copycat. Maybe it was the heavy-handed referees who booked everyone within ten kilometers of a foul. Maybe it was that tricky Teamgeist ball.

My hope, first and foremost, is that the security concerns remain just that: concerns. No matter who walks away with the Jules Rimet trophy, this proves to be the safest tournament ever.

I hope that the Yanks make it out of their group. Germany ’06 was a disaster in light of the strong showing at Korea/Japan ’02. Advancing will prove that 2006 was an aberration.

I hope that, should the Yanks fail to win this thing, Argentina overcomes the albatross that is Diego Maradona and takes it back to Buenos Aires.

I hope that Stephen Pienaar and the Bafana Bafana defy expectations and shock a few teams along the way.

I hope that Italy, France, and Germany all fall by the wayside and bow out by the end of the month.

I hope Algeria advances, but not over the US.

I hope Spain plays as remarkably as they did at Euro 2008.

I hope Holland goes far.

I hope England sputters.

I hope that the lasting image of the tournament is of celebration rather than controversy (see Zidane, Zinedine)

I hope that Brazil plays beautifully.

I hope that underdogs win and favorites lose.

I hope that a one-armed Didier Drogba drags Ivory Coast out of the Group of Death.

I hope Cristiano Ronaldo shows up.

I hope the refs keep their cards in their pockets.

I hope that talk of instant replay doesn’t get a chance to rear its ugly head.

I hope that South Africa ’10 is remembered as one of the best tournaments to date.

Hope. It is a universal human emotion, and that is why so many people of wildly different beliefs, cultures and occupations follow this spectacle. The World Cup offers us great theater. But more importantly, it offers us a chance to hope. A chance to dream. A chance to escape to the innocence of a simple ball dictating our pulses.

To me, that is what the World Cup is all about, and that is why I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the final whistle blew on the US four years ago.

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