This morning I stumbled out of bed at 4:10 for the fifth day in a row, trying to shake off the cobwebs and remind my brain that we had football to watch. And then I remembered: Tuesday meant Slovakia day!
Earlier this year, when a wise friend introduced me to the wonder of Marek Hamšík, I adopted Napoli as my Italian side and started paying attention to the Slovakian playmaker. Then the little bits clicked together--the summer meant watching Hamšík captain the repre in their first World Cup appearance.
And so this morning I awoke excited, ready to watch Hamšík, Weiss, Šesták, and the others take on New Zealand in what was meant to be an easy match for the talented squad. Yet the All-Whites did not bend as easily as the repre seemed to have expected. Although at times their defending was questionable, and their keeping almost laughable, the teams went into the second half with a scoreless draw.
Upon the return, however, Slovakia scored within five minutes. I'd suspected it was the talented midfield that was going to break through, but instead it was a cross from Šesták that found the head of Robert Vittek who skillfully put it into the bottom left corner of the net. I jumped, I screamed, I startled my sleeping household. In fact, I startled myself. While I jumped with joy for the Paraguay goal yesterday, and I nearly broke my neck dancing for Stevie G on Saturday (surely the most excitement I've ever felt for Gerrard), I didn't expect to feel such a thrill on seeing Slovakia take the lead.
Yet in this World Cup I am destined to be disappointed--and this time in the most dramatic fashion of all. Two minutes into stoppage time, with just about 30 seconds remaining, Shane Smeltz laid on a beautiful cross to Winston Reid, who headed it to the bottom-right corner just to ensure I wouldn't have a piece of perfect symmetry to write about. While the rest of the world, or at least the ones with whom I have contact, celebrated New Zealand's first point in World Cup history, I sat stunned. How could my repre do this to me? I'd chosen them, after all. Chosen them for their skill, their magical feet, their specialness. And suddenly they're giving up a last-minute goal to one of the lowest-ranked teams in the tournament.
But somehow this is what the World Cup is about. We pick our teams--mostly based on nationality. But then we pick our other teams, based on who we love in club play, and often who we hate in club play. We unite against squads like Italy and France, and cheer on the underdogs like Australia and South Africa. In a community in which so many despise Didier Drogba when he plays for Chelsea, today we stand and applaud when he takes the field in his cast for Ivory Coast. But Cristian Ronaldo continues to be scorned, no matter which kit he wears.
And this is why I drag myself out of bed for the early west coast start times. This tournament isn't just about donning a country kit and going to the pub for that match. It's also about finding a new passion--whether it be a player, a nation, a kit, a style, a hairdo, a quirk. Pick a hatred. Pick your heritage. Find a reason to choose sides, and you'll find yourself sucked into all 64 matches.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go pester stores about bringing in a Slovakia kit. Apparently they don't find it worth their while.