Friday, June 27, 2014

Group of Death? Not for us!

They called it the Group of Death. Certainly, most felt it was going to be death for sure for both Ghana and the USA.

And on paper, it sure looked that way. FIFA Rankings had the US outside the top 10 and Ghana in the 30s, for all that might be worth, but everyone who follows football knows that Germany has an almost unmatched pedigree, with really only Brazil exceeding their consistent presence deep in the World Cup, and that some guy named Christiano Ronaldo is kinda good, and he plays for Portugal.

So accurate or not, the FIFA Rankings did give a metric to the distance between the top two teams and the ones trying to survive and advance.

But a funny thing about sports - they aren't played on paper, much to the chagrin of teams like the New York Yankees and Manchester United.

And for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, to the chagrin of the Ballon d'Or winner, Sr. Ronaldo and his Portuguese compatriots.

Thanks in very large part to the John Brooks game winner over Ghana, the US entered Matchday Three with an advantage in points and goal differential that they would use to get out of the group, but not without some real anxious moments.

The US entered the tournament a tie in either game away from advancing. Or, if there was a loss in the Germany game, a loss in the Ghana-Portugal match to a team that didn't overcome the goal differential advantage the US currently had would still put the team through. Bottom line, it would take three goals - at least one by Germany, one by Ghana, and another goal by either team. So until Ghana and Germany both scored, it was all academic.

But then Portugal scored in the first half - all the better! Now it would take . . . still three goals, but two had to be from Ghana. So yay! We got through the first half that way, so even though the team wasn't playing its best, we were still in good shape.

But then we got into the 50-60 minute stretch where both Germany and Ghana scored.

I don't know about you, but for me, that window between the Ghanian goal and Ronaldo's goal in the 80th minute of their game was high anxiety time. For that entire time, we sat one Ghana goal away from being out of the tournament. It was odd, seeing the people at the bar I was at - some knew the Portugal-Ghana match would more important than our own result, but a lot did not, so when Portugal scored first, I was part of a very small minority cheering very loudly.

But during this window, it was an awful sense of pending doom. I am sure the Portugal experience added to it, but so did the game against Algeria in 2010, remembering how one moment of brilliance for one team could send another team in another game (in that situation, Slovenia) into despair.

And then, we saw it - Ronaldo scored! We were back to two goal safety! It was still nervous times, but more of a Defcon 3, not Defcon 1, and mostly because the games weren't over.

But all through everything, the thing that warmed my heart the most was the constant sound of US cheers coming from the television. Clearly, the US had won the battle in the stadium for numbers and support. Against GERMANY! Fantastic!

We all wanted to see the US tie the game - as Janice said, much better to handle up on our own business than leave it to someone else - and the largest cheers in the bar were when the US had late chances to score. But when it was all over, there was that weird sense of "we lost, but we advanced" and a muted celebration that grew as the day went along, growing into a realization that we Death Incarnate for Ghana, and we played better against the mighty Germans than Portugal did, adding to the confidence that many felt we should take from the tie against the Iberians.

And then the numbers started coming in - ratings, attendance, and the deep realization that not only had we simply advanced, but also we did something the US has never done - qualified for the Round of 16 in two consecutive World Cups - and that we really did qualify from the Group of Death. We had stared Death down and been the victor.

The rest of the day was spent seeing who would be the opponent, which turned out to be the Belgians. Too bad, I usually like waffles - not this week!

So one last tip of the cap to all who went to support the team in numbers, or added to the ratings, and especially to those in-country who represented all of us who couldn't travel to Brazil with pride, and honor, and made sure people knew that the US ain't nuthin' to mess with!

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