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.