In 2006, I fell in love with a game. Some call it soccer, others football. Whatever you call it, since 1930 there is has been big huge tournament known as the World Cup. Every four years, a bunch of teams that have qualified on their continent come together to see who is the best. Growing up, I didn't much like soccer, though I played as kid (mom, don't say a word). The last World Cup (2006) opened my eyes to the fandom, the passion, the love, the world's game. After the US didn't advance, my Italian-immigrant friend got me hooked on her home team, and they won. I was SO excited, every game I watched drew me in more than the last. At the encouragement of my debate coach (who doubled as a soccer coach), I went to some games at my high school and loved that even more. After talking with him and some friends on the team after the season was over, I knew what my mission was for 2006: Bring high school-appropriate-hooliganism to Chesterton. Not the drinking, but the chants, the rowdiness, and everything else.
That year was amazing, even going undefeated until senior night, which had been moved to the opposing team's location due to...well...a flood. Their second loss was a game I could not attend, my second missed game of the year, in the first of two games at Semi-State.
We knew 2007 had to be so much more than that. And it was.
The team couldn't help but lose a couple games, but we all knew their chances were even better than the year before. Going into their last game of the regular season, a win would've meant an outright conference championship...But again the same team (Michigan City) stood in the way. And the same result, a loss, and a shared conference title. They moved on and made it all the way to the Indiana State Final Four in Indianapolis (ironically at the same location IUPUI plays...).
Then came the most amazing game I've ever watched in my life. A local Indy power house, North Central High School, was Chesterton's draw. We knew they would have the home-pitch advantage, but we did everything we could to cancel that out. Our boys played amazingly well. Back and forth the game went, our keeper (now on the IUPUI roster, and the best in the state at the time) made some amazing saves...but none bigger than one.
The game ended up at penalty kicks after a scoreless regulation and overtime. We all braced ourselves as North Central chose the north goal, the goal closest to their fans. As anyone who follows soccer knows, PKs are bound to go in. I think the current World Cup 2010 stat is 8 of 10. Back and forth they went, until finally our keeper, Alex Mannen, came up with a HUGE stop. A huge, commanding, intense stop, which riled up the entire Chesterton side. In steps Kurt Fant for his turn. After the referee blew his whistle, Kurt stood there. I'm convinced at this point it was for over an hour, but it was probably less. He stood there, and stood there. Just stood there. Finally he approached the ball, and just plain buried it. He then turned around and in a very Christiano Ronaldo styled move, smiled and stood there just waiting to be mobbed. Chesterton had won 1-0 (6-5 PK).
Our fans went insane. The nearly 100 students who showed up for Chesterton erupted downwards, pushing me (at the front, of course) through the fence that to this day has not been rightly fixed. Our players shook hands with their vanquished opponents like they always did after games, then raced to their fans causing another fence collapse. It was, by far, the happiest I've ever been AT any sporting event, and most definitely at the bottom of a dog pile involving a metal fence.
Chesterton eventually lost to the number one nationally ranked Evansville Memorial 1-0 in the State Final.
Despite the loss, the season was a success. Not just for the CHS program, but for my own love of the sport.
Now it's 2010, four (long) years after Italy won their World Cup and my love for the world's game was jump started. The USA just had arguably their biggest soccer match of their existence. (Some point to the 1950 game against England, others to the 2002 Mexico game. But to me, this was it.) With so many nay-sayers saying "Well, we came close again...This is why soccer is so lame," the USA didn't just need a victory to advance to the Round of 16, but to build support for the next four years.
I was live chatting with my friend Jonathan (writer of the blogs Soft Pretzel Logic and The Goalkeeper for Philly.com) and his readers during the game. By the 90th minute, there were far more "haters" than supporters in the chat. We were all worried, true. But there were many just mocking the team and the sport. Suddenly, Tim Howard caught a dangerous Algerian cross and threw it out to Landon Donavon. Guess what happened next? Oh, you know. 1-0 USA. Niki. Victory. Finally.
I wasn't tackled through a fence this time, nor were there hundreds of my peers and their families around to scream and shout and hug. The team didn't mob me or anyone else within one continent of me. I don't even know how many people in Indiana knew there was a match on.
But when Donovan was able to corral the rebound from Clint Dempsey's shot, the back of the net may as well have been a valve to release every last emotion I could possible have. The entire game I had been nervous, but as Donovan scored everything I had was let out. Tears, yelps, whoops, screams, fist pumping (like a not-yet champ), everything. My couch turned into a trampoline. My entire body shook with pure unrivaled joy. The United States had done it. They scored. With about 120 seconds left, they scored.
Al Michaels, I do believe in miracles.
It's not just the fact they scored. It was how and when it happened. It was the 21 shots, 9 on target, that drove me insane. Goalposts, """"offsides"""", and just plain point-blank misses were all results of these attempts. But finally, the 10th shot on goal went in.
As Landon slid headfirst to the corner, I remembered that day in October when my life changed. It was cold, I was exhausted, my throat burned from screaming, but it all paid off. We gave our boys our all, and they gave theirs right back.
Our Yankee boys in South Africa did the exact same thing. They won for us soccer fanatics who never give up on our teams, even down to the last second. They did it for the troops who put their lives in harms way, giving them something to cheer about. They even did it for the nay-sayers across the globe, to show them no matter how long it takes, American resiliency can prevail.
Pay attention to the results. Maybe one day you'll be screaming your lungs out for our Yankee boys, too. I know my love for the sport of soccer (or is it football...) and my country will continue to go on and on.
As for me, I'll never forget 23 June 2010. The day America mattered on the pitch.