Last summer, I got the chance to watch the USA-England World Cup match with a huge group of fellow fans. To say that it has changed the way I feel, write, and watch soccer would be understating things. But as awesome as the match was, it didn't have the drama that comes with the best of soccer. The dramatic match for the USMNT was instead that against Algeria, with Landon Donovan's last-gasp goal that put the US through to the round of 16. But I didn't get to watch that match. I listened to the first half on Internet radio, and spent the second half in a courtroom fulfilling my civic duty during a jury selection process.
I saw the goal later and I was nearly as happy as everyone else. But something was missing. Sports just aren't as good on replay. But the 2010 World Cup drove me to being a soccer fan, brought me to this site, and led to me being an Aston Villa fanatic. So it was pretty great.
Since then, however, I've not gotten to see a lot of the beautiful game. Sure, I saw some nice things, but on the whole, Villa's play was far from inspiring this year. And I missed a few of the other classic matches. The 5-0 Barcelona win in the November edition of El Clasico is the most notable to me. I watched it, of course, but a few days after the fact. It didn't have the same impact. Already having seen the highlights, the beauty escaped me.
So it has been with some surprise that I've found that which makes soccer so transcendent in a tournament that I was watching merely because I now like soccer. The Women's World Cup has been incredible, with dramatic games galore. But this weekend surpassed everything that had happened before. I can't help but feel crushed for Faye White, whose penalty kick clanged off the crossbar and doomed England to a quarterfinal knockout. After that match, Japan and Germany had to go a full 120 minutes to decide a winner, with Japan's Karina Maruyama scoring a 108th minute goal that instantly shot to among the top 10 I've ever seen.
Yet nothing compared to the match today between the United States and Brazil. The Brazilians, replete with single-named players, fell into an early and unlucky deficit when Daiane scored an own goal in the second minute. From there, both sides played a dynamic, end-to-end game that was at times sloppy but always exciting. Early in the second half, the United States got their one officiating break of the day when Carli Lloyd wasn't sent off for handling the ball.
It was in the 65th minute, however, that the game evolved from exciting-but-not-special to something else. Rachel Buehler and Marta raced into the box, and were fighting desperately for the ball. Buehler made a questionable tackle that earned her a red card, and Marta a penalty kick. At the time, I thought the call was horrible, but in retrospect I can understand it. What followed, however, boggles my mind. On the penalty, US keeper Hope Solo made an incredible save, but in some ensuing mess a ruling was made that Solo would be given a yellow card and the kick would be retaken. Initially, the thought was that Solo had come off her line, but that seemed a bit ticky-tack. Then someone noticed that a US player had encroached into the box before the kick. We still don't have a definitive answer what happened, but Marta sank her second attempt and the US had to cling to a tie down one player.
After the game went into overtime, and Marta scored an amazing goal quickly (despite the fact that the pass came from a player who had been offside), it seemed as if the US were doomed. But in the 122nd Abby Wambach connected her head with an absolutely brilliant cross from Megan Rapinoe and the US had the latest goal in Women's World Cup history and a second chance. In the penalty shoot-out, the US won thanks largely to a fantastic save by Hope Solo.
Back in my apartment, thousands of miles from where the drama was happening, I started jumping, yelling, smiling, waving my hands around like an idiot, and everything else we do as fans when sport exceeds our expectations in the best way possible. Ian Darke, in one of his few useful moments of the day, said that it was one of the most dramatic matches he had ever seen in any soccer, men's or women's. And he was right. The game was chippy (nine cards were given), and sometimes sloppy. But extra time saw two astonishing goals and more drama than anyone has a right to ask for. Through their actions, Brazil became the villain, while the United Sates somehow (in Europe!) became the crowd favorite for whom everyone was cheering. The feeling at the end of the game was unlike anything I've felt in years.
This is why we watch soccer. It is not always a compelling sport. It is boring, slow, and crude seemingly more often than not. But when soccer rises to the occasion, there is no better sport in the world. The prowess of incredible athleticism combined with stories that are almost too theatrical to be believed leaves a smile on the face of all those who watched. Surely there are Brazilian fans out there who are crushed by what happened today. But they've had their moments. The vast majority of the world who watched this game were left either happy with the outcome, or at least amazed that they had gotten to witness such an amazing match.
Soccer had no chance of losing me. I'm hooked and I won't be turning away any time soon. But there are times, in the endless slog of an EPL season, when I wonder where the beauty is in the beautiful game. The US-Brazil game reminded me. It is in every match, waiting to be let out. It just doesn't always show its face. But when it does, there is nothing like it.