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Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category

The World’s Team

In Futbol, International politics, Landon Donovan, Misc., National Pride, Soccer, Sport, US Soccer, World Cup on June 26, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Sitting at my desk, listening to an incessant Spanish announcer, I wondered what to do next.  It was around the 40th minute, half time to come soon, plenty to do this fine workday, but I needed to get out so I could scream a bit.  The US Soccer/Futbol team had been knocking on the door of the Algerian goal for the whole half and even had a seemingly legit goal taken away just as in the Slovenia match a few days before.  I was off that game day, thank god, and was able to enjoy a beer at 10am like any other soccer fan in the world.  This time, though, it would be an “early lunch” of coke and water and frustration as I watched my team fight to stay in the World Cup.

As a hyperactive child, I found a great deal of joy and love in the game early on.  Mostly, I ran circles around the field, but the feel of the ball on your feet, the sound it makes when you hit a great strike and the satisfaction of a perfectly-timed slide tackle, those were the things that kept me playing for a good portion of my life.  A life that grew as the game did, facing many of the same hurdles.

I remember in high school, a lot of kids would give me shit for not playing a REAL sport.  Soccer is the largest participation sport in the country, but generally not after kids reach a certain age – “Soccer Moms” – and there was little in the way of professional opportunity at the time even if you managed to be a stellar player in college.  People piss and moan about games, they’re so slow and low scoring.  Yet our national past time, Baseball, takes upwards of 3 hours to finish to a 1-0 score, and with plenty of ass-scratching and spitting taking up airtime.  Somehow, the US got the World Cup in Atlanta in 1998 and it sparked an interest – however small – in forming our own league.  Major League Soccer.

Being from Virginia, it was a real treat to see a local team – DC United – come away with the first two championships, and seeing the teams coach, Bruce Arena, helm the National squad for the world cup in 2002 and 2006.  There was still little interest in the game at that time here, so not many noticed when the team made it into the Quarter finals in ’02 and got knocked out in Group play in ’06.  We were rarely taken seriously on the world stage either, which only compounded the fans’ pain – it made sense that our fellow Americans perpetuated a stigma about our team, but even worse that foreigners who know the game continually deride our players and our league.

The big news came when the formerly great striker/brand, David Bekham, signed a deal with Major League Soccer to play for the LA Galaxy, one of the most highly attended franchises in the league.  Many say he was a has been by that time and that he came here to go Hollywood – both fair points – but he also somewhat legitimized the league.  Yes, he was being paid an exorbitant amount of money, but he was known as one of the greats of the modern game and some of the players felt his efforts genuine as they coalesced as a team.  One that initially believed otherwise, though, was Landon Donovan.

Donovan’s story ran parallel to US Soccer.  He was a naturally gifted youngster scoring 7 goals his in his first game at the age of 6 and went on to become a member of the inaugural class of the US Soccer program.  He was named best player in the FIFA Under 17 Tournament of 1999 and went to Germany to play for Beyer Leverkusen.  After a frustrating year, he came back to play for the San Jose Earthquakes, earning  2 championships and a host of other awards before moving on to the LA Galaxy and being named to the All-Time Best XI in 2005.  He gave up his armband to Bekham, though, and became somewhat critical of his teammate – famously in the pages of Sports Illustrated – but eventually reconciled with the Englisman and won MVP and Goal of the Year for the 2009 season.  We are both 28, both started playing young and both loved the game enough to continue.

And so I found it fitting to be sitting in bar at 11:30 am, jersey in full display, watching Landon streak accross the field in an attempt to keep his team going, to give us all something to watch during the World Cup and most importantly, to make a statement to the world that this team is not going home.  Everyone has probably seen the goal, and it was incredible.  But even more so, the journey it took to get there.

It takes a certain reckless determination to be able to score in the 91st minute of a must-win game, but much more to pursue a hobby, a sport and a career that many in your country find stupid and invaluable.  And yet, Landon not only played, he thrived, and has rightfully earned the status of other great American athletes – Jordan, Jeter, Gretzky, Woods, Elway – as the best in their game.

In his ascension lies ours.  Though I don’t see many other jerseys on game day, I see more than I used to.  Though I’m still reading plenty of Facebook status updates bemoaning this misunderstood sport, I’m also seeing a lot of virtual support and shop talk throughout.  New York is expected to have a following for Soccer, but having seen this video recently, I am heartened to see that finally, after years of feeling otherwise, I am not alone as a true fan of this game and a fan of this team.  Whatever happens in this next game against Ghana is irrelevent compared to the realizations we can come to through a simple game.

Most importantly, though, I hope the world recognizes that though we bastardized the name, we can still field an impressive cast, one that belongs on this stage as much as Italy or France – both of whom will be watching the ensuing rounds from their couches.  This country, after all, is home to all countries.  No matter what nation is playing, there is a good chance that they have a community within the United States.  These seemingly disparate pockets of humanity find a context for collaboration and cooperation in this country more so than others.  Everyone can appreciate the injustice dealt to us against Slovenia, and now everyone can share in the sheer perseverance in winning not only the game against Algeria, but also – for the first time since the Great Depression – our Group.  It seems funny, but perhaps – at least when it comes to Futbol – we Americans are at our best when faced with adversity.  For all the qualities exemplified in teams throughout the world, it is this one that is inherently rare and valuable.  This team, The World’s Team, has reaffirmed my faith in The World’s Game.

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