The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
With international soccer, there’s a sense of national pride that warps everything, repurposes it in the hue of national flag, and makes everyone go crazy. Not that we really needed another reason to think we’re proud, but now our soccer team doesn’t suck, so we can spend an afternoon getting drunk on Bud and thoughts that we’re the best.
In the United States, soccer isn’t our sport, but we’re slowly taking a piece of it and painting with some vaguely American strokes. Whether you’ve played the sport, you’ve written or read about it, or you’ve just watched a few games, you feel a part of it. And you are. So you paint your face. And you wear a flag as a cape. You let it touch the ground because it’s more a part of you than a sacred national symbol. And you’re supposed to get dirty in a dusty parking lot. You buy Budweiser and Budweiser only. And you buy the Budweiser 30-pack with the star-spangled cans. And you’re American, Fuck Yeah!
There’s something growing in the U.S. Maybe it sparked when Landon Donovan snuck that ball inside the post against Algeria. Maybe it starting growing when Tony Meola gave up on the Jets and let his ponytail guide us into the knockout stages of that first and only World Cup we’ve ever hosted. That first World Cup that surely added to the growth too. But there’s just something there. You go to a U.S. game and you can finally be comfortable being an American. You can use Glenn Beck’s socialist haven as an excuse to be American. You can wear the colors and you can get drunk and you can curse and hate another country until the game’s over, the parking lots are empty, and the chants have faded long after the ref’s final whistle.
It’s addictive. It sweeps you up. And I found myself at the mercy of this momentum a few weeks ago.
Spain came to Boston. They came to play us. The U.S. Two years ago, we beat Spain in, probably, our biggest competitive victory over a team without Cuauhtémoc Blanco since guys with names like Bahr and Gaetjens were playing. This was our tune-up for the Gold Cup, playing the kings, the princes, and the gods of the soccer world—all in one. I live in New York, but since I went to a sub-Boston city college, most of my friends stayed in New England after graduation last May, as I reluctantly shuffled home. So it was an excuse to go up and visit some friends, but I was going to see a game more than anything. Our team versus the best team in the world.
Was Franco still in power? Was the Spanish economy in the shitter? Was Barcelona-Madrid going to divide the country into its second civil war? Was Federer going to win 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 against Nadal tomorrow? No, but today that was all true.
But at the same time, it’s part of my job to write about sports. I came to have fun, but I still wanted to remember the game. However irrational the fear, I was worried about getting too caught up in the rest and missing the reason, that 90-minute block, we were here. The U.S. playing Spain—even though it was a game that meant competitively nothing—was important. Or at least we all wanted it to be. So this is where that ”irrational international soccer fan” thing poses a problem. To be an American at these games, you have to drink. You have to drink that American beer, bought by Belgians, and then re-wrapped in America. An American Belgian re-American beer: there’s nothing more American.
At the risk of losing all writerly credibility, I don’t drink like I drank in college. My friends try to, but I don’t. I still drink, but not like that. So I came into this hesitant. Back with four of my best friends—and another lunatic from Texas—for the first time since 2009, I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t keep up, but I didn’t want to. Like I said, this game was something. It seemed like it was a Big Game. The game was a stage for other things, but I wanted to remember it. I wanted to remember moments of Iniesta. And I wanted to remember moments of us against him. I didn’t want it to be a blur, but it was.
A lot of great writers write about drinking while reporting, soccer being no exception. Read Among The Thugs. (If you haven’t, go get it, stop reading this, and don’t come back until you finish it.) Bill Buford couldn’t have been sober for more than a few hours when he researched that book. The American journo can’t fit in the English pubs without an always-emptying pint in hand. But maybe you sacrifice the exact details for the experience. Or maybe you just don’t black out. You probably do a bit of it all. Then Chris Ryan wrote similarly for Grantland last week about the Champions League Final. He went from bar to bar, switching allegiances between Manchester and Barcelona. He didn’t write one word about the actual game. Hm … I think I’m onto you, Ryan.
It’s different when you’re an impartial observer. When you’re there for the story, a bit of alcohol could loosen things up. But when you’re there with your friends and maybe the story, you’re really there for the game and to let it all sweep you up and spit you out. You’re there for the taking.
The five of us came in a pickup. American. We ate turkey sandwiches. American. Some of us wore sunscreen. American. We didn’t wear red-white-and blue wrestling masks, paint our faces, or grill any meat, but so many others did. And we all drank that American-Belgian-American beer. You hold that can in your hand. The spirit of the nation chilling your fingertips, pulsing up to your shoulders. I put one down, and then another. And they went back easier with each one … as they always do. You’re drinking your flag. You’re drinking your votes. You’re drinking your forefathers. You’re drinking freedom! You’re drinking yourself. No, you’re not. But you think you are. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so you all convince yourselves into doing something no one person actually believes he’s doing. It’s like a cult where no one dies, everyone dresses really well, and you’re all really happy. So, it’s nothing like a cult, really.
Beer gone, turkey too warm, and the mayo curdled, we eventually made our way through the parking lot. Through the Messi (?) tops and the all the other soccer jerseys (but still soccer jerseys) that had nothing to do with this game. There were the Spanish crowds, all blasting trance music, but no one dancing. They just stood there and were happy as one giant mass. It’s the happiest standing you’ll ever see. Music blasted. They all wore red and an ecstatic blank glare. If I had to speculate about mass drug use—I won’t. It was more like We’re happy to be here, but we don’t know where we are. But when you don’t care, can you even be lost?
We stopped by a bachelor party. A 45-year-old, wearing an autographed Jozy Altidore jersey asked us if we wanted to shotgun. We didn’t answer, so he answered for us. Yeah, we’re shotgunning! He went to get the beers, but never came back. He didn’t know who Jozy Altidore was. (He won the jersey because he “was the most awesome dude here.”) And I think he had a fanny pack. After disappearing for a good 15 minutes, he made a re-entrance, smashing three full beers in front of what looked like someone’s grandpa and screaming, “My name is my name!” It’s the truest thing you’ll ever hear from someone who doesn’t know where he is.
Then we made our way into the stadium. Miraculously, no one had to pee on the walk in or the walk up (We only sit in the highest seats). We reached the top level as the lineups were announced. This was the end. Robbie Rogers? Sacha Kljestan? Against Spain? But the whistle hadn’t blown. They didn’t have the ball yet and couldn’t yet keep it, as they would, for the entire game. All the beer made it harder to cut through the optimism. We’re here. We can still do this, can’t we?
Then 45 minutes went by, we couldn’t have had the ball for more than five. They scored three. Midfielders found space in front of our defense and behind our midfield. That’s never good, especially when that space is on top of your own penalty box. It was too easy for them. That same stuff—the red-white-and-blue beer and the flags and the scarves and the jerseys—that made us want to be American, had us reneging our heritage after less than an hour. So the drinks came fast, replacing whatever kind of semi-competitive game we’d hoped to see.
The second half started and it didn’t matter. It was 3-0. We wouldn’t come back. And that was good because we wouldn’t remember. Instead of watching, we wandered the corridors, beers always in hand, with one eye always wavering toward the field. From up high, the game didn’t seem as real. The beer didn’t help, but how did I know that Xabi Alonso was actually even playing? Sure, the announcer said that was Santi Cazorla, but they mess things up like that—listen to John Buccigross—all the time, don’t they?
No, I wasn’t feeling any pain.
We went down to the front and tried to sit three rows from the field. We thought the seats were empty, people leaving once the game was beyond a doubt—as if it ever wasn’t. No, it wasn’t that people were late getting back from a halftime bathroom break or concession run. Even though it was five minutes into the second half, that never crossed our mind. So we took some seats in the corner, three rows from the field. Inconspicuousness wasn’t a possibility at this point. It lasted ten seconds until a woman, a mother of some and of soccer—devoted to almond-ing her skin more than anything, it seemed—told us, you know, that people who paid for these seats were sitting here.
For a split second I thought to ask her to name one player on the field and then challenge her for the seats with a game of US Soccer trivia—which I fucking aced at halftime, by the way—until I realized that you didn’t get to sit in an expensive seat because of your knowledge of American soccer. Detached, cynical bloggers lining the field? Who the hell would want that, anyway? Beerily embarrassed—which means not embarrassed at all—we made our way back up to the concourse, milking the moment for the game up close seemed real, like Spain was actually playing against the U.S. and not some kind of haphazardly arranged collection of stodgily mobile traffic cones as it looked like from up top.
Spain got another goal as we walked back up. Fernando Torres, the man who couldn’t score unless a puddle teed the ball up for him, poked one in off the post.
And it all ended some time later, I think. I’m not really sure when, and I don’t think it matters. It wasn’t a game to be remembered, and it wouldn’t be. But the part we came here for, ended up as nothing. It was a blur that we purposely blurred out. There was a game, but its attraction became a distraction. And it couldn’t have been another way. We all remembered the parts that actually mattered. The part where Americans were dumb international soccer fans, just like everyone else.
Ryan O’Hanlon is the sports and managing editor for the Good Men Project. He used to go to college and play soccer. He’s still trying to get over it.
by Ryan O'Hanlon · June 24, 2011