Walking up and down the streets of New York before the most highly anticipated U.S. soccer match in history, one could have mistaken this city for London, Berlin or Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of people clad in football jerseys, and not the variety of Manning, Brady, or Peterson, but those of Donovan, Altidore and Dempsey. If just for one day, the country stood still for the world’s game, and it was a truly fantastic site to behold.
Having been in Europe for the 2006 World Cup, it was my first taste of just how much this game means to the rest of the world. Every car and storefront fitted with unbridled nationalism. And not a jingoistic nationalism, but a peaceful nationalism that only the world’s very best sporting tournament can conjure.
Like so many others that follow the European game, and having witnessed the previous Cup amongst true fans of the game, I was weary of following the tournament here in the States, if only because I felt most would treat it as a passing interest, and not the end-all, be-all that the event represents for serious fans. I wanted to be around the electricity of Munich and Amsterdam, Liverpool and London. Little did I know I had to go no further than five blocks to get just what I craved.
New York, of course, is the country’s most diverse and cosmopolitan of cities. Here, there are literally hundreds of nationalities represented and languages spoken. I knew there would be an energy come World Cup time, but I got much more than expected.
Since Friday’s opener, everywhere you turn you cannot avoid people sporting their favorite players’ jerseys or national scarves. From the obvious Messi and Rooney jerseys, to the more obscure Appiah and Forlan shirts, soccer fever has truly taken hold of this town.
We encountered no less than 10 pubs in the East Village turn down prospective patrons because they had exceeded capacity. Granted, this was primarily for the US-England encounter, but it was still a site to behold in this country. There are street fairs popping up in the city for the Cup, a makeshift soccer “stadium” showing all 64 matches in SoHo, and literally every single business with a liquor license and access to at least one TV is opening its doors from 7 a.m. everyday for the group stage.
But the most exciting aspect of all of this was the masses’ reaction for the big one: USA-England. Fearful of ex-pat Englishmen outnumbering Americans on the streets and in the bars, it was a terrific surprise to see literally tens of thousands of people donning their American regalia. It doesn’t take much for Americans to sport their pride, we are a truly patriotic nation, a great sports nation as well. On Saturday though, everyone was a US soccer fan.
People I have known for years that know nothing of football were talking formations, starting lineups and tactics. Certainly playing the English helped invoke exuberant pride and a nationwide longing to beat the British. Always healthy allies, it easy for the media to spin this match into a must-see. It is an interesting relationship between the two countries, almost one of older-brother, younger-brother. We may respect and admire our friendship with the British, but we certainly would never want to lose to them at anything.
Rather than be amongst English supporters at countless pubs in the city, my group chose an American sports bar, with about 95% Americans there on the day. And atmosphere was not lacking. It was truly an amazing moment when the Star-Spangled Banner began, and the whole bar erupted in song in a glorious show of patriotism. There was an energy in the bar I had not felt since London and England’s clash with Portugal in the 2006 quarterfinals. It was electric.
When Steven Gerrard neatly tucked the ball underneath Tim Howard to put the Brits up 1-0, the crowd fell silent. But not for long. At any chance, chants of USA filled the bar and by the time Clint Dempsey’s speculative shot squirmed underneath the hapless Robert Green’s arms, the crowd just about tore the roof off the place.
The historic rivalry of the two countries contributed significantly to the overall viewership, being billed as US soccer’s biggest game ever. Whether that kind of passion can be invoked while playing the likes of Slovenia or Algeria remains to be seen, but a trip to the last-16 against Germany could see the reaction go above and beyond that of Saturday.
I am under no illusion that because of the awesome displays of patriotism and footballing enthusiasm over the weekend that the US will emerge as a true soccer nation. We have our sports that dominate the mainstream, and that is the way it should be. American football, baseball, and basketball are who we are, they are our sports and ingrained in our culture.
But, without a doubt, Saturday was one of the greatest sports-watching days of my life. And it had nothing to do with any of the aforementioned sports. If just for one day, it truly felt special to watch the US become a soccer nation. I’ll never forget it.
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