If soccer is indeed a religion and the World Cup its church, then the U.S. has finally taken its seat at the pew. Wednesday's game in Pretoria was replete with scenes of religious devotion, collective chanting, mystical intoxication, hypnotic trances, passionate praying, unwavering faith, and ultimately, salvation and redemption. And hours after the end of the game, the cacophony of vuvuzelas that still ring in my ears still sounded so sweet...
Over the last 11 days, I have been fortunate to attend a number of World Cup games in South Africa, including the three dramatic U.S. matches of the opening round. Over 130,000 game tickets were sold in the U.S., second only to South Africa, and this is evident in the large numbers of Americans now in South Africa. Throughout the opening round, I met many Americans from all over the U.S. who are very knowledgeable about soccer and extremely optimistic about our chances. Their enthusiasm for the game is infectious, as is their devotion to the U.S. national team.
The first U.S. match was the highly anticipated game against England. Over 40,000 fans descended upon the Royal Bofakeng Stadium, which is situated in a rural area outside of Rustenberg. The rivalry between American and English fans was intense, and the American fans matched their English counterparts in both numbers and creativity. Before the game, I saw Americans dressed up as Captain America, the Statue of Liberty, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln. Banners flew side-by-side with American flags -- my favorite banner read 1776, 1812, 1950, 2010 -- and chants of "U-S-A!" alternated with chants of "Yes we can!"
The U.S. team started with opening game jitters and gave up a quick goal against the English team. From there on out, the U.S. team played solid team defense and benefited greatly from an error by the English goalkeeper Robert Green, who fumbled a shot into his own goal. The final score of 1-1 was an early indication of how difficult it would be to progress to the Round of 16.
The second U.S. match was against Slovenia and was held at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, the same stadium that hosted the famous 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand (as depicted in Clint Eastwood's recent film Invictus). Given the fact that Slovenia is the least populous nation of the all the World Cup teams, most of the 55,000 fans at the game were American supporters. Even the South Africans in attendance supported the U.S. team in large numbers, for as one South African told me, "We support the U.S. because you have an African president!"
The mood of the stadium was completely deflated by halftime as the Slovenians built a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead. However, this match was a tale of two halves, and the Americans dominated the second half just as the Slovenians dominated the first half. Undeterred by the odds, the U.S. came back to score three goals in the second half, and many of us rushed out of Ellis Park thinking we had won the game 3-2. Not until later did we find out that the third U.S. goal had been rescinded, and that the final score was 2-2. The US team had been robbed of a historic victory by poor officiating, and FIFA still hasn't offered a reasonable explanation regarding the ruling. Still, as devastating as it was to have that victory stolen from us, we all admired the U.S. team's tenacity in their comeback and the heart they showed in the face of adversity.
Wednesday's match was the critical game between the U.S. and Algeria, as the U.S. needed a victory to continue to the next round. Over 30,000 fans attended the match at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. While the majority of the fans were American, there was a sizeable Algerian contingent, and many of the South Africans in attendance supported Algeria with the hopes that another African nation (besides Ghana) would advance. With the England-Slovenia game being played at the same time, the stakes were as high as they could be. The mood leading up the match was positively electric, and many fans from both sides were genuflecting and praying for a victory before the game began.
The entire stadium was at the edge of their seats throughout the match, including Bill Clinton, who was in attendance. In the first half, the U.S. scored, but the goal was quickly disallowed with a questionable offside call. From our point of view, the goal looked good, and memories of the blown call in the Slovenia game haunted us. The U.S. failed to capitalize on several opportunities to score in the second half, and as the game passed the 90th minute mark with the score tied at 0-0, the chanting of the American fans reached a fevered pitch. And then miraculously, just moments before the game ended, Landon Donovan scored one of the most significant and memorable goals in U.S. soccer history. When the final whistle blew, Donovan kicked the game ball high into the stands and the cathartic celebration commenced. Words cannot adequately describe the scene in Pretoria after the game, but suffice to say that it was a moment for the ages and one that those in attendance will never forget.