Time Wonderfully Wasted: Detroit Lions & USMNT

>> 6.28.2010

 1994_world_cup_usa_italy_nigeria It was 1994, and I was twelve years old.  My uncle, a sales something-or-other at M&M Mars, invited me to come out to his house in New Hampshire for a week—by myself.  I couldn’t believe it; I’d never gone anywhere by myself!  The furthest beyond Michigan’s borders I’d ever been was northern Ohio.  I’d never set foot in an airport, let alone flown in a plane.  But it didn’t stop there; he let me draw up the itinerary.  I did so with zeal: the ocean, Boston, Fenway Park—and, since he’d pulled some strings with his bosses, tickets to a World Cup match.

I was only dimly aware of the World Cup—but I was then as I am now, and I immediately absorbed everything I could about international soccer.  Without the Internet, this was slow and painful, but I figured out what I needed to know: the US was a perennial weak sister, and FIFA had given America the tournament to get us to realize the sport existed.  I didn’t need long to find a real side to get behind: the ancestral homeland of my mother’s family, the perennial powerhouse, the Azzurri: Italy.

As the only grandchild of a proudly Italian-American family, I’d been well-trained.  America first, yes—my grandfather served in WWII—but Italy a fierce second.  I read about Roberto Baggio, the reigning greatest player in the world, and how totally amazingly awesome he was.   Incredible, superhuman, without flaw—I lapped it up, owned it, revelled in it with the all-consuming shallow understanding of a geeky twelve-year-old.

I thought nothing could top the exotic wonders of air travel—if only jaded business travelers could experience O’Hare layovers with my twelve-year-old-eyes!—but the World Cup match did.  Whether by arrogant design on the part of my uncle, or supremely fortunate accident, my uncle and I saw Italy take on Nigeria in a quarterfinal match.  I didn’t understand the significance of this; the round-robin/knockout format more-or-less escaped me—but I did understand that both teams’ fans wanted to win like they wanted to keep breathing. 

Just the parking lot was an experience unto itself; Nigerians, Italians, and Americans were laughing, singing, playing soccer, and talking smack.  I remember a group of a dozen-or-so Italians walking to the stadium, singing and bearing a long Italian-flag banner above their heads.  A nearby Nigerian laughed, and said in accented English: “Looks like a funeral procession!”

Once in the stadium, and my eyes pried themselves away from the enormous swath of wide-open grass, I found the crowd much more interesting than the game.  The Italians chanting and pounding drums, the Nigerians pogo-ing like first-wave punk crowds, my uncle and I blending in with the hirsuite and swarthy gentlemen with whom we shared ancestry.

It was hot, though, and an early Nigerian goal had deflated the overwhelmingly pro-Italy crowd.  I’d expected to see Roberto Baggio own the pitch, dominating everything in Jordanesque fashion—but he didn’t even look like the best Baggio on the field.  Understanding nothing of soccer, baking in the summer sun, and realizing my notional homeland’s upset was drawing nigh, my interest waned.

Suddenly, with just minutes left in the match, Roberto Baggio scored the equalizer—and the figurative match was struck.  The resultant tie, and extra time, poured gasoline around the powder keg of a stadium.  When Baggio was tackled (in the American football way) while going to the goal, he was awarded a penalty kick—and, like Landon Donovan’s goal against Ghana on Saturday, Baggio banked it in off one post while the goalie dove for the other.  Match, gasoline, powder keg.  BOOM.

The party that ensued went on for hours, and my uncle and I were thrilled to join the Italians in celebration.  I don’t know how many people get the chance to walk into a World Cup match, and see their favorite player score their side’s only two goals in a dramatic victory, but I did—and it was like going to the North Pole to see if Santa Claus was real, and have him drive you back to your house in the sleigh.

So how come I didn’t care about soccer for sixteen years?

Part of it was a total lack of continuity; I had no idea what Baggio did in between World Cups—and even if someone told me about European club leagues, I wouldn’t have been able to follow them with basic cable in 1994.  Part of it was my chosen side; U.S. coverage of soccer orbits the USMNT, and the whys and wherefores surrounding the crushing lack of mainstream interest in them.   The rest of it was an early childhood spent immersed in the “four major sports,” as they then were, and the Detroit teams that competed in them.  There simply wasn’t room in my heart to pry it open and pour AC Milan, or whoever, in.

But for this World Cup, something was different.  Something about the mix of old and new players, the rise of sports blogs and the high correlation between great sports bloggers and soccer fans, and the anywhere-anytime-awesome nature of following sports in the Internet era, made me decide to care.  I quickly gave up on the Italy thing; their current penchant for uninspired play and egregious ref-baiting dives makes them unsupportable.  No, I invested myself in the Nats a.k.a. Yanks a.k.a. Wild Turkeys [my own attempt at a nickname for them], and was richly rewarded with an experience not unlike my entire life spent rooting for the Lions.

Don't get me wrong; Landon’s golden goal against Algeria was an incredible experience, one I’ll never forget.  For my Lions fans who didn’t watch in real time, it was as if the entire nation had been hanging on the outcome of Matthew Stafford’s now-legendary comeback against the Browns.  Like every bar in America had simultaneously re-enacted the explosion of euphoria my son and I had been in the center of that day

But Saturday’s performance against Ghana was like every Lions’ missed game-winning kick, fourth-quarter collapse, and never-showed-up game you saw coming from a million miles away: after a lot of proud talk about heart and effort and we-finally-made-it after the game before, a tentative, lethargic performance handed the game that matters to the other team.  And, for the fans’ part, we came away feeling something had been given to us, and taken away, for the countlessth time.

Like the Lions’ 2009 season, USMNT fans have a few wonderful moments to take away from the group stage of the 2010 World Cup—but, as it’s ever been for both Lions fans and Nats fans since the Fifties, you’re left wondering when all the promise will ever become reality, and how much longer you can sustain yourself on what might be, or what almost was.  As the wind picks up, the temperature drops, and winter descends upon South Africa, I’m left to wonder if U.S. soccer is in for another four-year hiberation; another long, long, cold, bitter winter . . . and who’ll keep that flame of fandom burning until the summer sun of Rio thaws the snow.

. . . some videos for you. First, highlights of the ‘94 Italy-Nigeria match:

Second, the compliation of reaction shots to Donovan's goal.  I still get chills.



8 comments:

Mike June 28, 2010 at 7:58 AM  

Great post...I really enjoyed it.

Ty June 28, 2010 at 10:08 AM  

Thanks, Mike! It was a blast to write. I was surprised and pleased to discover that match's historical prominence--both in terms of the progress of African nations in the World Cup, and as a key bullet point on Baggio's resume. I kind of wish I'd been older, so I could appreciate it more.

Peace
Ty

Neil June 28, 2010 at 3:46 PM  

Awesome post, Ty.

This is why I talk your stuff up so much.

-Neil

Angus Osborne,  June 28, 2010 at 5:44 PM  

Great read Ty. I'm a keen follower of the other football. And a New Zealander very proud of my countries efforts at this World Cup. Although lets not get into talking about how three ties was a good performance. The USA were terrific at the World Cup. They really look like the belonged there. And only beaten by a tremendous goal from Gyan.

Ty June 28, 2010 at 11:47 PM  

Neil--

Thanks man. I figured if I really shined it up, I could get away with one soccer post.

Seriously, thank you.

Peace
Ty

Ty June 29, 2010 at 12:01 AM  

Angus--

Thanks! Yeah, it's tough because I think if you offered US fans "draw against England, win the group, and lose in the first knockout game in extra time," we'd gleefully take it.

The problem is, if you'd said all we'd have to do is beat Ghana and Algeria to make the semis, we'd expect to make the semis.

Peace
Ty

Ty June 29, 2010 at 12:06 AM  

GAH, I meant Uruguay.

And, maybe it's arrogance? Ghana outplayed us, and Uruguay's no joke. But, I don't think the US side will get an easier path to the semis . . . maybe ever.

Peace
Ty

Matt,  July 1, 2010 at 12:55 PM  

Thanks to a classmate that's a rabid soccer fan, I actually got into this World Cup a bit. Watching the US Team's thrilling games against Slovenia and Algeria on my laptop sure beat actually paying attention in Accounting. With the loss to Ghana, though, my three weeks of soccer fandom have come to an end. I'm into sports enough that I'll pay attention to who wins, but I doubt I'll watch the game. It was fun for awhile, but soccer just doesn't compete with The Big 4 in my honest opinion.

First of all, I like to watch the best in the world compete. That's why, with the exception of basketball, I watch pro sports WAY more often than their college counterparts. When it comes to US soccer, I truly don't believe we have anywhere near our best athletes on the field. Seriously, if you gave (just off the top of my head) Chris Johnson, MJD, Revis, Megatron, AP, Asomugha, Boldin, Ed Reed, Polamalu, Patrick Willis, and Devin Hester a year to train, study, and practice you'd have a pretty killer soccer team (although you'd need some depth for all the yellows and reds they'd rack up. . .Landon Donovan can come off the bench :-). Unfortunately, soccer might not even be in the top 10 activities our elite athletes choose to focus on.

Second, in this day-and-age of technology and the mass media marketing of major sports, the World Cup is a joke. I know the purists will say that the horrible calls and flopping is part of the "majesty" of the game, but it's a joke. Matches in the "biggest sporting event in the world" shouldn't be decided by great acting jobs and terrible refereeing (and I'm not blaming the refs, per se; FIFA doesn't make their job easy). And FIFA clearly just doesn't care. It's a joke.

Third, I don't understand why Clint Dempsey isn't allowed to wear his Iron Man suit. I think it would have made a difference.

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