So while I haven't gotten around to describing my experiences at some of the other USA games I've been at in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, I do still plan to and hopefully the US will keep things relevant going forward after Monday.
Today I wanted to give a few thoughts on what has always been my supporters philosophy, and you should know that it has been tempered by over a decade of active support for club and country, including the aforementioned World Cup efforts.
Is this for you?
First and foremost, this is designed for those who want to get the most out of it. If you are just passing through and having fun, by all means, please keep on doing so. Just know that this article isn't really aimed at you. No, this article is aimed at the people who want to feel the depths of the highs to their fullest, and are willing to go through the valleys of despair that such success will require.
It is also designed for those who love their team with everything they have and want to do anything and everything for it. Again, if you're a big fan, but don't get excited about even the prospect of possibly inspiring the players on the field, no matter how far fetched that idea might be, skip this. But if knowing that in the past, US players have been chanting along with us under their breath during the game, gets your blood flowing, then read on.
Because that did in fact happen. I have tried to track it down, but it was Eddie Lewis who admitted after the 2002 World Cup that during the USA-Mexico game in Jeonju, South Korea, he was chanting along with us. And the idea that we were at all wind beneath the wings of our players in such an important game... *chills.*
Let's set the stage
So assuming you're in since your still reading, let's get real for a moment. Odds are you will never get an insight as clear as that. Especially when the game is going against the players and all seems lost, it will be hard to believe that what you are doing matters. But if you have been watching the World Cup so far, or been to major sporting events, you know that the crowd can very much influence things. This is the challenge to you - to actively choose take a knowing, specific, direct path to support the team, 100%, all the time, no matter whether the team is up by three or down by four.
So let's start with this - if you take on this responsibility, understand that it is in fact a responsibility. People around you will learn to count on you consistently being there, and will lean on your passion and example. And if you lose energy, there will be a negative ripple effect, just as if there would be a positive one.
And you have to always do it, no matter the situation on the field, or how much faith you do or don't have in what the coach or the players are doing. Why? Because you never know what might change to turn things around if they are dark.
Think of it this way - you expect the players to play their hardest, throughout the game, whistle to whistle, right? Then why expect anything less from yourself?
How hard could it be?
And don't kid yourself. It is going to be hard. There will be moments of doubt - in-game moments like many had when they heard Donovan wasn't going to Brazil. You will find the team down by two goals in a make or break game five minutes in. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. It flat out sucks. But in that specific instance, those of us trying to keep the faith got a little lucky - it was so early that the rest of the crowd didn't really give up. Frankly, it was hard to believe. But it also was Game Three of a three game series (long time ago, before MLS went to home and home playoffs). That turned into one of the best rivalries - a true rivalry, not based on geography, but based on the fact that teams, players, fans, organizations flat out didn't like each other and wanted to beat each other more than any other game on the schedule.
Visualize where we were in June of 2002, at the Poland match, losing, and on our way home. Surely, right? I mean, we beat Portugal, tied Korea, but if Korea and Portugal tie, they both go through. No reason to believe that Korea was going to beat Portugal, right? The bitterness of going home after such an amazing start was palpable. You could smell it, taste it, feel it slick on your skin. And then seeing the way others were going negative was sickening and disheartening.
But that is what you need to be ready for, because when that happens, if you really want the payoff, you have to fight through it by staying positive, and helping your fellow supporters to be positive.
And there is no way to know when the payoff will be. It may not even be this World Cup. For us at the Poland game, it was later that night as South Korea simply wouldn't play for a tie, Portugal fell apart (two reds, if I recall correctly), and now it was the USA v. Mexico in Jeonju!
But that actually brings another lesson - we went into that match afraid. Flat out afraid. Why? Because we had a number of players out for injury and yellow card suspension, and Mexico had been one of the better teams in the group stage. The feeling in the room was we were going to get crushed, by our rivals, in the knockout stage of the World Cup.
But enough of us came into the match with the same attitude we had going into the Portugal match - what the hell, we're going to cheer for the boys because that is what we do, and come what may. We can only control what we do, not what happens on the pitch, and we CHOOSE to cheer as hard, as long, as powerfully as we can.
And just like the Portugal match, the mixture of fear and resolve was repaid with a joy that you simply cannot describe. And this is what I am talking about.
Specifics? We don't need specifics!
I don't care what you do. Wear a costume, paint your face, bring a drum, lead a chant, simply wear the jersey or whatever and always respond when the call comes - just do it with an eye towards doing it in unison and in concert with others.
Be positive inertia, be positive energy. Do everything you possibly can to ensure that as many people are supporting the team for as long as possible, as loud as possible, as positively as possible. Just make sure that you help get people riled up before the game - join the march in, have a beverage, etc. Just contribute in whatever way is easiest for you to add as much as possible, for as long as possible.
I guarantee you, at some point, there will be a payoff and it will absolutely be worth it. What does that look like? First off, memories of being with your brothers and sisters in arms - "going to war" with people always leaves fantastic memories. It really is a next-level experience that you will remember for decades. If done right, you will make - or cement - the kinds of friendships that will survive distance and time.
Will you get a special experience with a player? Who knows. How the players respond is another one of those things you can't really expect because you can't control it. But if you look, you will see that at their heart, a number of players want nothing more than to be fans too. Every once in a while, you get someone like Frankie Hejduk, etc. - someone who dives in with both feet. Maybe you will be there when something amazing happens on the pitch and the players come over and celebrate with you. Maybe not.
But picture this - you are in South Africa, "deep deep into the match" against Algeria. It has been 90 minutes of failure and forgettable, with no real hope in sight. Throughout the match, the sense of potential failure has grown until now, faith is thin.
Do you want to be the person cheering like mad that happens to be the person Donovan glanced at before Howard released his pass to start that run? Or the guy who is standing there with his head in his hands, or his hands in his pockets, being indifferent?
You just never know - so make sure you do everything you can so that IF you happen to be at the right place, at the right time, and you happen to be THAT THING, you will know that you did as you ask of the players - you gave it all you had for every moment that mattered, leaving nothing to chance. And remember, Sports Happens - if you are consistent about it, that moment will happen for you. I guarantee it. Whether it is in Jeonju, or Suwon, or South Africa in 2009 OR 2010, or Kaiserslatern in 2006 (if you don't think people take pride at having chanted, "Nine men - we only need nine men!" after tying what turned out to be the eventual champions, you are SORELY mistaken), or a certain match against a recent World Cup victor in Denver in 2013, etc.
Nike, baby. Just do it.
Here are some quick hits that might be worth thinking about:
Look for ways to build camaraderie as much and as soon as possible with people around you. High-fives are easy, but it builds a sense of "yeah, we're doing this" pretty quick.
Drink lots of water - you can't punk out in the second half because you are dehydrated.
Bring cough drops - cheering for 90 minutes ain't easy, and a cough drop halfway through a half helps.
Pace yourself day by day. If you are at the World Cup, it is like the Super Bowl every fourth day - take a day of rest the day after a match - watch from the hotel, etc. But then try to watch as much as possible with other fans, especially in bars, where you can practice chants, etc. You never know - the guy you run into there might be the guy you are standing next to at a later match.
Try to find the critical mass, then support it. When there are competing chants near you, whatever the chant or song is, simply listen to find the one that is gaining steam, and join in.
Be on the lookout for interacting with other fans - either US or from other countries. (I still remember being invited to cheer with the Costa Ricans for the Turkey game - and did well enough to be invited for their game against Brazil...)
Finally, stay as positive as you can, and if you feel yourself going super negative, just silence yourself - no need to bite your lip (although I have at times), but find a way to not be negative energy. Understand, I am not saying be blindly positive. If you are this into the sport, odds are you know enough that you will have a sense when the team might not be doing its best - don't ignore that, just don't fan the flames of discontent.
Bottom line - make the most of it. If you are truly a supporter, then be that to its full extent. Make the most of it, because the more you dive in, the deeper the emotions will be when the payoff comes. And if that is what you are looking for, then pay in every chance you get. I promise you, it WILL be worth it. Again, Sports Happens. It is simply a matter of time. And in the current era of US soccer, it is going to be happening a lot more, a lot more often.