Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Emergence of a Footballing Nation - USA v. Portugal, June 5, 2002

So it was my first World Cup. It is June, 2002 and the last US World Cup effort was an embarrassment. Not an embarrassment like the disappointment of 2006 where we were better than we showed, but worst team in the tournament, lost to Iran embarrassment.

And now we were on our way to play the Golden Generation of Portugal. Luis Figo of Real Madrid fame, and the like.

So what expectations did I have?

Then again, I was AT THE WORLD CUP! And I was wearing my heart on my sleeve no matter what, standing in Sam’s Army, surrounded by like-minded supporters – some of which I knew, some not, but all brothers and sisters in arms and we were going to give it our all.

Thing was, the group I was going with had a few people in tenuous contact with the team itself, and word the morning of the match was shocking – no Claudio Reyna, no Clint Mathis. So for comparison, no Bradley, no Altidore. Going against a dark horse to win it all. I think they were ranked No. 4 in the world at the time.


But then again, then as now, the US wasn’t a feared juggernaut, so we were going to be underdogs to begin with. So either way, it was going to be a gut-check time no matter which way you sliced it. The advantage, though, was of those who stood and cheered for the USA, a very large majority of us were here, in-country. The percentage of supporters who didn’t make the trip is never what you want, but there weren’t the hangers-on, the johnny-come-latelys (because they didn’t really exist just yet).

This is a band of brothers/sisters that had deep belief in the team and each other, borne from a long, treacherous qualifying campaign and supporting the US in the sport of soccer.

As we are in transit to Korea, we see Saudi Arabia get killed by Germany. Ouch. As we are one of the last groups to play, it seems everyone is breaking the nervousness with their first match and it just pours on the pressure on us.

Getting on the bus to the stadium, I have “One Little Victory” by Rush in my ear. “A certain measure of innocence – a willingness to appear na├»ve. A certain degree of imagination, a measure of make-believe.” Why not us? Why not now?

And that has been the general mindset of US supporters anyway – “Figo who?” and “We’d rather have Clint Mathis than Figo” chants, and others like it, were all over the place. Of course, a lot of it was hopeful/dreaming/throw-caution-to-the-wind and maybe even tongue in cheek, but there was a true kernel of belief underlying it all. After all, we beat England at Belo Horizonte back in the day, we beat Colombia in ’94 – anything can happen.

The thing of it was, though, I truly, deeply, terribly believed that US soccer would one day explode with an amazing result and shock the world – probably more than I believed in anything else in the material world.

I just didn’t think that I’d be 20 rows from it when it happened, and that was going to happen on June 5, 2002 in Suwon, Korea.

The nervous energy is flowing now as we enter the stadium. I am kicking myself for not bringing a drum as I was used to doing for Dallas Burn matches.  But we’re with others that we know – some from Dallas, some from other US games we’ve met at qualifiers and friendlies – and the camaraderie is strong.

The national anthem, the unfurling of the Flag of Greatness. We’re all on our feet, singing at the top of our lungs.

But still, any hope is the hope of blind faith. But that ember is still there, waiting, burning quietly.

Wait, what? Landon Donovan, the wonderkid, is starting? Bruce Arena had been feeding him minutes and everyone could see he had talent, but is he really ready to START? Against PORTUGAL? And DeMarcus Beasley? Really? The beginnings of my faith in coaches starts here, by the way. More later.

The game starts. We’re pressing high, Portugal is responding well early. The back and forth is crazy. We’re talking the first moments of the match – most of which is played in our defensive half.

And then it happens. The series begins with a foul on McBride (contrary to Bruce Arena’s “First foul, first shot, first goal” speech) for a free kick in the middle of the field. A shot in by Earnie Stewart is touched out of bounds for a corner, right in front of the US supporters section.

Earnie puts the ball down for the corner with emphasis – using both hands, with determination. It seemed a little melodramatic at the time, but then again, it was very much a “let’s do this” feeling at the moment.

The corner comes in – McBride fights off a player to get a header towards goal and the initial anticipation wanes just a moment, but the ball isn’t clear – the heart is still high in the throat. A save is made, but not controlled – where is the bounce going to go?!?!?!?

And then, John O’Brien takes the clearest, cleanest, most important finish of his career, and we explode!

Not only are we in the game, but we are LEADING! In the FOURTH MINUTE! Wow, it is early, so it is going to be a LONG game, but better to lead than not, eh? If we were pouring everything we had into the game before, now we are searching for our deepest part of the well because the ember has some oxygen to burn – we really do have a chance to get a result!

The next 25 minutes are back and forth, with Portugal trying to get back in it. It isn’t crazed just yet because we really do have a lot of game to play. But the pressure is building with every moment they don’t score. The chances keep coming for the US, including a chance by Eddie Pope that goes just wide.

And then the craziness takes another, more serious turn.

That same Landon Donovan plays the ball in from the US right side, and it is a mess at the back – an OWN GOAL! The US has scored again!?!?!?!?

I can’t breath, I have lost my voice, I can barely see straight – we really, actually, could WIN! The craziness, the frenzy in the section is fantastic now.

Then again, there still is 60 minutes of soccer to play. That is a LOT of time – lots can happen in that time. No way we can take the foot off the gas now.

A scary moment – Beto goes into the US penalty area, and the whistle blows. Wait, what? What is going on? It is in the other end of the field, hard to see. But Portugal is walking away from the goal with their heads down, and Beto is shown a yellow. Simulation. Wow – big call there….

And then before we can really wrap our heads around that, Tony Sanneh – who? Yeah, Tony Sanneh gets free along the right side of the US attack, and he plays in a gorgeous ball that Brian McBride cleanly, elegantly slams home with a diving header – after splitting two Portugal defenders. It is the 36th minute and the US is beating Portugal 3-0!?!?!?!?!?

I truly, deeply  lose my mind at this point. I am running up and down the stairs in amazement. I mean, not only the goals, but the glory and beauty of that last goal is just overwhelming.

As I get to the top of the section (and of 50+ rows, I was around row 20 to start with – so you get how out of my mind I was), I run into a friend of mine from Dallas that I didn’t know was making the trip. That clinched it – this was too good to be true, yet here we were. He was my reality check that this wasn’t a dream.

Oh. My.Goodness.

And by the time I got to my seat, I had gained enough composure to realize that our work had just begun. Now we were going to have to be the support, the belief that the team could finish this off. The heaving lifting had begun.

And it was soon after that moment that Beto finally did get on the scoreboard, finishing a bit of a mess in front of goal that put the score at 3-1. They had their goal and now some belief of their own.

Halftime. A chance to regroup. Beto’s goal made it all the more dangerous of a second half, so the challenge was clear. A little bit of celebration, but mostly it was “we have a LONG way to go, and now it is real work, serious work, work that matters.” This wasn’t an intellectual exercise, no longer child’s-play, a fun little dream to play with in our mind. This is a real chance to DO SOMETHING.

The second half, really, is a blur of blind support. Frankly, the own goal by Agoos didn’t even register – we were nervous about the way the game was going to go from the beginning of the second half, and that goal only gave a tangible feel to the pit in our stomach. The thing of it was, it was late enough that we did feel like it was do-able.

As the minutes ticked by, and the night got darker and darker, the belief was building as they missed chance after chance.

And then, it was over – the game was won! The lack of belief was still in the air, but the reality sunk in moment by moment as the celebrations ramped up – we had done it!

And in the stands, it was a sense of accomplishment like you wouldn’t believe. Here we were, halfway around the world, and the puny US soccer team not only had shocked the great Portuguese, but they had done so with thousands in the stands cheering them on – well. It was true, blue football support, recognizable anywhere in the world for what it was. When our team needed a voice in the stands, they had it in their most important hour.

The rest of the tournament was to come, but now it was a completely different tournament than the one we feared – now it was one of “how far can we go?” We weren’t the worst team in France anymore – now we were the team that felled the mighty Portuguese, with host Korea and a quality (but recently defeated) Poland to go. Certainly the Portuguese were now going to win out – they had to. So if we can get ties the rest of the way, a very doable goal, we just might advance!

But so much soccer was to happen before we really could think about that. The thought of facing 80,000 screaming Koreans (and boy, it absolutely was that) was sobering enough, but for the most part, tonight was a night to celebrate. We will think about the Koreans tomorrow – tonight, we had slayed the dragon and we had done so in impressive fashion. It was the emergence of a true soccer nation – and the culmination of the dream that began when the US was awarded the 1994 World Cup, through the embarrassment of that tournament that the team advanced, but we had no real supporters culture to speak of, to now standing tall in a foreign land, against one of the world’s footballing giants, and come out victorious.

I leave you with a link of the youtube highlights from that match, and a tease that the story of the match against Korea is around the corner.

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