Is this World Cup smoking crack?

It has been a strange one. Sure, there have been moments of  crisp, clear beauty (beginning with Siphiwe Tshabalala’s screaming torpedo of a shot in the first match), but for me the event has been overtaken by the surprises woven throughout. The unexpected moments and outcomes have ruled this group stage:

Robert Green allowing Dempsey’s strike to trickle in. Japan beating Cameroon. Italy’s struggles (going down a goal to nil to Slovakia as I write this). New Zealand scoring first and drawing with Italy. The Swiss beating the Spanish. North Korea putting up a good fight against Brazil before conceding seven goals to Portugal. The ball bouncing off Cristiano Ronaldo’s upper back and then his head before falling perfectly for him to bang it home. Germany losing to Serbia and missing their first regular play World Cup penalty kick since 1974.  The USA’s improbable comeback against Slovenia and the disallowed winner. Luis Fabiano using his arm twice while creating his goal against the Ivory Coast (and getting away with it!). David Villa missing the penalty after scoring two of the competition’s most insane goals. The French players skipping practice in protest and then losing to South Africa. My own country topping their group (What???) with a last minute goal from Landon Donovan. The new ball that seems to turn into a helium balloon as it nears goal, endlessly swooping upward in a strange revolt against the laws of physics.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I love this. I’ve needed this. I’ve longed for this. For me, this World Cup has been a much needed distraction from the league season. (And are these things really as strange as the unfathomable moments of 2006? Wayne Rooney’s stomp? The 16 bookings (4 red) in the Netherlands/Portugal match? The headbutt heard ’round the world?)

I realize there’s an inanity to describing the world’s biggest/greatest tournament as a distraction. But let me explain!

I’m addicted to Liverpool FC and last season was about as miserable as I could imagine (following a season bursting with such promise). After the Reds spent from August to May falling apart and falling short, I was having a serious football depression. While the World Cup fills me with passion as well, I can watch most of these matches objectively, and enjoy proceedings more than I fret over them. This is the ultimate football vacation (well, without going anywhere, at least).

Also, I am an American. I began with very modest expectations for my team. The Brazilians, Spanish and English can lose sleep over getting to the final. I have no such worries. When we came into the competition with big injury doubts (Altidore, Oneywu), I wondered if we’d survive the group stage. Yes, now we’ve done so (and even topped the group), but since my attitude had already been calibrated for utmost modesty on behalf of my nation, I’m still in the mode of enjoying the event for the event and enjoying the football for the football and letting anything else the US can cull from this come as unexpected, explosive joy. (Although, hope has been restored and now I’m dreaming of a trip to the semis, but let’s not jump too far ahead. Modesty remains.)

Not to say I haven’t stressed out about the USA’s individual matches. That was inevitable no matter how low I set my expectations.

For our first match against England, I took the day off from the restaurant and went down to my regular pub. The place was already packed tight by 9:30 am. I’d be all but losing my voice by our 2:30 pm kick-off. We began singing and shouting and cheering hours before the American and English players strode onto the pitch. Things heightened as the Argentina/Nigeria match began. There were a few people in Argentina shirts and I saw a couple cheering on Nigeria, but the room was mostly packed with Yanks. There was an electricity.

We sang, “USA Ain’t Nothin’ to Fuck With” to the tune of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ to Fuck With”, we sang “When The Yanks Go Marching In”, and, when the sound kept cutting out on the ESPN feed, the entire room imitated the vuvuzelas in one long, congregational drone (here’s a clip of us on YouTube – that’s the top of my head directly in front of the camera – and yes, I’m sure this was far more entertaining for those of us who were there and saturated with pilsner). When the Argentina match began we booed every time Maradona appeared on screen. Some of us broke into singing/chanting, “Hand of God! Hand of God! Hand of God!” (An English friend shot me a skeptical glare through her white and red face paint as if to say, Is that one at Maradona’s expense or at ours?)

My voice would be shattered by the end of the day’s games. And that wasn’t all. I’d have bruises on my forearms from when (what I presume was) a drunken, irate England fan pushed me out the back door and down the two steps before storming off into the early evening. He might have just been shoving me out of the way to hasten his exit. He might have mistaken me for Robert Green. I’m not sure. And I’d have a bigger bruise on my ego having been shot down by the gorgeous beer rep who’d planted herself next to me for most of the USA match and had me convinced we’d be making out by the night’s end (or at least exchanging phone numbers) – a perception that surely sprang from drinking one too many of her products by the time our match even started. The hardest blow, though, was when Gerrard scored the quick goal against us. I knew England would score on us at some point. But why Gerrard? Why not Rooney or Lampard or one of the Coles? My favorite player in the world setting the USA back. It was hard to digest.

But in the end, none of these wounds mattered. We’d equalized with England. Robert Green unwittingly conspired with Clint Dempsey to bring us back on terms. I hardly remember the goal as I was immediately consumed by the room’s bouncing and screaming. Voice gone. Here go the eardrums. We were level on points. I felt sure both countries would win all the group’s remaining fixtures against Slovenia and Algeria and that we’d have a chance to top the group and avoid Germany if we could somehow manage a better goal differential than the English.

I knew I was getting ahead of myself, but my modest expectations were giving way to the sexy possibilities. I needed a reality check.

Then, in our second game, Slovenia scored two first half goals against us. That woke me up. I was watching from home this time, alone with a cup of tea instead of beer. I explained things to the cat: we couldn’t let Slovenia win. It would be horrible to allow them the points while denying ourselves. A draw was all I could hope for: three goals from the US seemed like too much to ask for in the time remaining. Could we even manage the two? But Bob Bradly made two changes at half time. A bold yet essential move.

And then in the 48th, it was Landon Donovan ripping down the right side, cutting in and slicing the ball into the roof of the net.

Then Bob made another substitution in the 80th (more attack!) and soon Michael Bradley was smacking the ball home. An early Father’s day present. We’d done it! We’d come back! We’d salvaged a point!

And, though time is nearly up, one starts to believe in something more. While not wanting to get too greedy (unless you’re a Slovakian fan – they just scored a second goal on Italy).  Could we get one more?

I hoped my downstairs neighbors weren’t home. I’d already bounced myself over our hardwood floors in unhinged glee twice. Once for Donovan. Once for Bradley. I shouted and stomped. I shook the floors. If the girls downstairs had any chandeliers in their place, I surely sent them crashing down from their mountings. Perhaps the girls were at least casual football fans and knew what my earthquakes meant. Perhaps the neighbor below them (a serious football fan) was watching at home and making a similar ruckus. (Actually, why didn’t I knock on his door? – he has a much bigger television than mine. Stupid.)

Anyway, when Maurice Edu latched onto the end of Donovan’s free kick and scored, I was in mid-air once again, but before I could bound across the apartment to celebrate in all the corners, I could see the look on Edu’s face. Why wasn’t he going crazy? I knew the answer before I knew the answer. The goal had been disallowed. I had to bottle up my joy. Upon seeing the replay, I was simply aghast. A perfect goal. No reason to whistle. Edu was onside. Any visible fouls should have been called against Slovenia, not us. We were screwed out of the two extra points with no reasonable explanation.

Hours later, England were drawing their match against Algeria. We still had hope. And if we could win our final match, we’d even have a serious chance to top the group.

I had to work during the simulcast of USA/Algeria, England/Slovenia matches. We have two TVs at the bar, but they can’t be set to separate channels. So we put USA/Algeria on, trusting ESPN to keep us up to date with the other match. Two of my customers lamented as news came that England were ahead. If nothing changed, we were out. That news along with the disallowed first-half US goal was making for a tense morning.

Time wore down. Attempts flickered out and died like a moth in a candle. Then, in the last breaths of stoppage time, Landon Donovan steamed in and put his foot through a deflected shot. Donovan slid to the ground to celebrate. The team piled atop him. We’d done it. And we topped the group by drawing Slovenia with more goals than England drew Algeria. In a few hours we’d confirm that we wouldn’t have to play Germany.

It’ll be us against Ghana. (Of course how we do may depend on how many American goals aren’t disallowed. You know how it goes.)

The USA getting through on top are just another in a long list of unexpected outcomes. Much like Italy getting dumped out this morning and about to follow their 2006 runners-up France in a sullen trip back to their continent (final score 3-2, with plenty of defensive help from good old Martin Skrtel).

What more can happen between now and July 11th?

So now, I sit down to flip between the first halves of the Netherlands/Cameroon and Japan/Denmark matches before I head in to work. And if Dirk Kuyt picks up the ball with his teeth, sprouts wings and literally flies home the winning goal, I won’t be surprised. It’s all within the realm of possibility in this tournament so far.

It’s a strange and beautiful World Cup. Keep it coming.