Thirty-two of the Earth's 196 nations—nearly 16 percent—are gripped with World Cup Fever and finally it appears American immunity to the round-ball plague is waning. I'm a sports fan and soccer has a lot in common with sports, so I thought I'd take a timid step into the world of no-hands football. I trundled on down to the nearest bar with a foreign-sounding name hoping for some hooligans watching the Uruguay vs. England "Match."
It wasn't until I stood pawing at the still-locked door of De Kleine Duivel that I realized two things. The bar didn't open til 5:00 and soccer fans really want to help non-soccer fans become soccer fans—kind of like really generous pod people. Paul Kopchinski, the owner of the Duivel, didn't know I was the Jim Meyer, incredibly powerful figure in local media and auteur of the world-renowned Spitballin' sports column; he simply saw my sad, puppy-dog eyes vision-humping his big-screen projection of the soccer match and invited me in. Then, when he realized how stunningly ignorant of the world of "Footie" I was, he took his time and explained the game to me. Imagine trying to break down the geopolitical situation in the Middle East to a sacoglossan sea slug as it lies drying on the beach and you'll have some understanding of just how patient this man is.
Eventually he was able to explain to me why the players didn't simply pick the ball up (against the rules), that the referees were not practicing for their semaphore merit badges, and that the man by himself in the backfield was not trapped in that net and was, in fact, a player known as a "goalie." With Paul as my guide and a glass or two of delicious Belgian beer, I was actually able to follow the game, and as thrilling as it was to see England eliminated, which has apparently happened in every World Cup for the last 48 years but still manages to shock the British, it just didn't scratch my soccer itch. I wanted to see the American soccer fan in action and filling the only stool in an unopened bar didn't cut it, so I went back for Sunday's USA vs. Portugal contest.
This time, I arrived half an hour before. . . what, kickoff? First pitch? The opening tip? Let's just call it soccer-go-time, and the place was packed. People stood shoulder to shoulder, American flags draped about their shoulders, eagles across their chests, and red-white-and-blue face paint, pounding their Brasserie Caracole Nostradamus Strong Dark Ale (Tastes great!) or their Gouden Carolus Cuv¿e van de Keizer Blauw (Less filling!) and I realized they were just regular folk. Sure the bar didn't have hot dogs, but they did have a beer made with mustard seeds, which was kind of like drinking a delicious Esskay Oriole frank. Having grown up on Blast games, I was bummed that USA didn't arrive in a UFO to a chorus of fireworks, but I got over it by the time the first USA chant started at the three-minute mark.
Getting into World Cup does present some challenges for the average American sports fan, though. It's easy to hate the Yankees or a team that's chosen a racist slur for its nickname, for instance, but hating a whole country? I mean, if it was Germany, I could think of some reasons, but Portugal? I honestly couldn't even tell you which side of the Atlantic that place is on, but you get a different kind of heckling when the crowd is full of bicycle mechanics and philosophy professors. The most stinging anti-Portugal slur I heard all night was when the guy behind me, Dr. Michael Burns, Ph.D., yelled, "You don't even have your own distinct food culture!" But even he couldn't maintain the vitriol and when I asked him if he really said that, he guiltily admitted that he did, but added the qualifier, "as far as I know." Clearly tempers were flaring.
I also learned that soccer fans are remarkably polite. When USA got off a shot the crowd applauded, at first politely, but with increasing furor as the game wore on. At one point a streaking U.S. player drove a shot hard and high over the net and the crowd went nuts. As the super-slow-mo replay showed the ball sail four feet over the top bar, a guy standing next to me said earnestly, "Hell of a shot. Just a hell of a shot," and I thought to myself, former Ravens kicker Steven Hauschka was in the wrong game. He just missed all the time; if he'd been playing soccer, he'd still be in Baltimore.
At the 63:07 mark, USA scored their second goal, broke a 1-1 tie, and De Kleine Duivel exploded. People hugged; red, white, and blue neckerchiefs were hurled into the air; and I found myself leaping like an idiot, fist-pumping, and high-fiving everyone within a six-foot radius. It was epic. At the 90-minute mark, the refs added five minutes of injury time and the fans in the room groaned. The first three were grueling, but into the fourth minute, a wave of jubilation began to wash across the crowd, but it seemed premature.
True, I live in a soccer cone of silence, but even I've heard of Ronaldo. He's the best, or something, but I had managed to dismiss him through much of the game. It's hard to fear a guy with hair Dennis Rodman can rightfully mock. I'm not sure what he did, but somehow Ronaldo managed to really piss off Zorro. Anyway, the dude streaks down the field and fires off a gorgeous, twisting pass that Silvestre Varela put into the net just seconds before time expired ending the game in that most soccer of outcomes, a tie.
After the game, Paul explained the scenarios that would have USA continue to the next round. He needed a slide rule, a protractor, and an anatomically correct Pel¿ doll, but in the end I gathered things still look good for Team Us. I still don't know what the hell happened, but it was way better than golf, and I think I'll catch Thursday's game, if only for the high-fives and mustard beer. ?