I'll confess up front: today's USA vs. Algeria match was my first World Cup event viewed from the stands.
Even though the stadium is in Pretoria (a capital city confusingly also known as Tshwane), as an American, I felt like I was on home territory.
The crowd was overwhelmingly American and we were part of an overwhelming sea of red, white, and blue, waving American flags, shouting “U.S.A., U.S.A.”
The real home crowd, South Africans, seemed split on whether to support a team that shares the African continent – or to support a country that elected an African American as president. And, of course, there was a large crowd of Algerian fans, decorated in the green, white, and red colors of their national banner.
The very fact that there was such a large crowd of American supporters is, of course, a sign of how much the sport has grown in the United States. In my day (I’ve always wanted to write that phrase), soccer was a sport for effete prep school boys, or recently immigrated folks from Latin America or Africa. Now, the American soccer players seem to be finding their place on the global soccer stage, and American fans are following them, literally, halfway around the world.
It’s not easy to keep my mind on the game when there’s so much else going on. There were those three shirtless guys, one with a giant “U,” painted on his chest, another with an “S,” another with an “A.” This being a small world, I actually knew Mr. A, and gave him a big hug. There was a former US president, Bill Clinton, in the VIP booth above us and to the right. There was a shirtless man with a South African flag painted on his face, pink feathery pair of angel wings on his back, running around waving an Algerian flag. Fascinating.
Then there’s the deafening sound of the vuvuzelas. (Thank goodness for earplugs.)
You also notice the absences. The absence of some voice on TV, telling you who has the ball, his voice rising in pitch the closer the guy gets to the goal. And if it’s an Hispanic TV station, you miss the sound of announcer shouting, “Gooooooooaaaaaaal!”
But for the sheer energy of the crowd, nothing beats a live match.
Years ago, as a cub reporter in Texas, I went out to cover the Women’s National Basketball Association, which was just then starting up. I was writing a profile about a star with the impossibly perfect basketball name of Sheryl Swoopes, who was then playing with a team in Houston. I was sitting on the sideline, watching the players shoot, and score, and I found myself applauding.
An older reporter looked askance, and finally leaned over. “We’re reporters, man, we’re not supposed to clap,” he said.
I didn’t say anything, but I thought, “I didn’t come to your house and tell you there was no Santa Claus.” Killjoy.
Back in Pretoria, the tension grew as the nil-nil game advanced and the USA players couldn't find the back of the net.
Just in front of me was an American fan, who had clearly come a long way to watch his team win. (The same could be said for the large contingent of Algerians across on the other side of the field.) The Americans were awarded a free kick, and after 70-odd minutes of play, this young man simply couldn’t stand the pressure. He turned his back on the field and faced me. I smiled. He closed his eyes. The American player kicked. And missed.
But when the American player Landon Donovan finally bludgeoned the ball home past the tough and talented Algerian goalie, it was a release of tension like no other. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be the player on the field, striking that goal home. But for the fans, it’s pretty good too.
World Cup 101: