The U.S. ties Portugal 2-2 in a game we should’ve won. We played like champs. But that’s soccer.
I cheered with everyone at the pub. I chanted USA!, cursed at the screen with the rest of them, and screamed at Ronaldo every time his mug came on screen. I yelled at the first goal, danced for joy at the second, and dropped dead silent along with the rest of America in the 95th minute.
Somebody once said the sports fan exists to have his heart broken. Too true.
I drive home. I take the Reading road exit into Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati. I’m bummed about the loss and my phone is blowing up with text messages about the game. Portugal sucks. No, we suck. Woulda coulda shoulda won. Ronaldo sucks. No he doesn’t. Yes he does. Screw him. And so on.
I take the exit. There’s a lady standing at the stoplight. She’s got pock marks on her face and probably needle traces on her arms. Her hair is in a greasy ponytail. She’s wearing a bright red men’s XL shirt and cut off jeans and shoes that say she didn’t buy them.
She’s holding a cardboard sign. Her eyes show vacant. She is abject. And she matters.
I take a deep breath and look at her. I’m wearing my Jozy Altidore #17 Team USA t-shirt, my Volcom shorts, my Vans shoes. Everyone makes fun of me for being twenty-seven and dressing like I’m seventeen and it’s perpetually 1999. I have my music on, my windows down, my car is doing forty-five, and one of the only things I have to be upset about is that I forgot to turn my air-con on at home, and the U.S. just lost a World Cup game we should’ve won.
As I pass the lady, it hits me. It doesn’t matter.
I turn onto Liberty street and the sun burns hazy pink in the sky as I head uphill. There’s an ‘86 Chevy Impala broken down at the Shell station near Vine, and a guy with tattoos down his right arm is pushing. I slow down to stop and help, but the guy behind me lays on his horn. “Alright then, geez.” I drive on. I look in the rearview and see someone else getting out to help push. And that matters.
I turn on to Elm street and slow down to find a parking spot. I live in a part of town where most white folk don’t wander unless it’s daylight; where people used to get shot outside my apartment building over drugs. Sometimes they still do, but it’s mostly just drunks and hapless junkies now. I’m friends with a lot of them, and I probably feel safer than I should – and that makes my Mom nervous.
I get out and lock my car and grab my bag. I replay the last goal in my head. “Thirty seconds left in stoppage time and that idiot Portuguese gets lucky and heads one in over Timmy. Unreal. Absolutely unreal. And now we have to play Germany to move on. We were so close…we were so close. Does God hate US Soccer? I mean, come on.”
It’s what ESPN won’t let you believe. That the game doesn’t matter. There are a million bloggers out there right now getting a million hits on their website because they’re talking about the heinous injustice that is last-second goals, or why Ronaldo should’ve showed up more, or why Ronaldo’s a pansy, or why Tim Howard does all he can but it’s still not enough.
And that’s all fine, and it’s fun, and it makes for a lot of fun conversation and the occasional rant at the water cooler on Monday.
But the jabber – that doesn’t matter. The World Cup doesn’t matter. Not really. And I hate ESPN a little.
I love soccer as much as any American, and more than most. I call it football. Because it is.I get into the games, and I’m one of those guys who will get up at 7am on a Saturday to watch the English Premiere League. It’s a beautiful sport and it’s amazing – and the nationalism is a blast, and the World Cup is the single greatest sporting event known to man; better than the Olympics and so much out-of-this-world better than the Super Bowl that to even compare the two is a Nazi war crime.
But I’m not buying the lie. I’m not getting on ESPN and watching every replay and reading every article. I love guys like Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly – they’re great writers – but I’ve got other things to do. Sports is a microcosm of life. It’s not life. It’s not even one one-hundredth of life. Sports actually matter less over time. The older you get, the less they should matter. Operative word being “should.” When you’re a kid, sports teach great things like loyalty and bravery and how to keep fighting even when there’s no way you’ll win. The great principles, the higher things – sports teach those.
The World Cup is a blast. But at the end of the day, it’s a few hundred of the world’s best soccer players, who collectively earn a few hundred million dollars a year, running around and trying to put the ball in the net so everyone in their home country can be drunk and happy on the weekend instead of drunk and sad.
And that’s about it.
My keys jangle. I head for the door. An ambulance siren blares and comes up the street. Just a typical night in my neighborhood. The siren is loud and I wince. Someone is sick, or shot, or overdosed. And whoever that EMT team is going for – they matter. I unlock the door and walk into the alley. My neighbor is in his back lot. He’s just built a patio from scratch, and instead of bringing in contractors, Jim employed a handful of the homeless guys on the block to help him do it, and my buddy Wendell tells me they were glad to get the work. In a very real way, that alone is more admirable than all the goals, all the wins, losses, chances, upsets, story lines, and heroes that will happen in the World Cup this summer. And that matters.