JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In the third row of the upper deck at Ellis Park Stadium -- site of the post-apartheid, racially unifying World Cup rugby game in Invictus (and in life); yesterday I saw the jersey Nelson Mandela wore that day on display at the fabulous Apartheid Museum here -- we were already in a state of high freak-out when it looked and sounded as if the U.S. had scored the go-ahead goal against Slovenia. That delicious, sudden eruption that happens best at sporting events happened. A deafening roar (and not of you-know-whats). A tasty shower of beer. Strangers jumping and hugging and toppling on to their neighbors’ seats. Pure, unadulterated, consummate elation.
U.S.A., baby. And then, well, you know -- better then we did, actually. I was the first in our area to notice the American players protesting to the Malian referee and the Slovenians in their Charlie Brown jerseys lining up for a free kick. We assumed a foul, and also that it was a terrible call. Players push and shove on free kicks, do they not? In the 85th minute of a tie game after a furious and inspired comeback -- even the Guardian’s live blogger praised the “swashbuckling” Americans’ “valiant fight-back” -- it better be a clear and obvious mugging. We didn’t see it, and the nature of the U.S. protestations led us to conclude that there wasn’t one. FIFA, naturally, doesn’t replay controversial calls inside its stadiums. It would not be appropriate, I can hear a French-accented FIFA apparatchik saying.
Unsurprisingly, since we all purchased ticket blocks for the three first-round American games, I sat with the same fans as I did during USA-England. These fine fellows were not shy about expressing their displeasure toward Koman Coulibaly, the referee; I actually felt badly for the parents of the nine-year-old behind me. Even a quarter-mile distant, jingoistic and very well-lubricated (pretty much everyone but me, and the nine-year-old), you could tell the guy sucked. My friend Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated wondered after the game how much experience a Malian referee could have calling big international matches. Until this World Cup, none besides intra-African matches.
So how to parse what just happened? I’m not sure if this is a reflection of our national character or what, but the U.S. is just atrocious at the start of games. (Are we this bad at the start of our wars? I’ll let the Crossfire types figure that one out.) Not just the last two games, either; it’s a pattern, small sample size be damned. But then we get all plucky and fired-up and ... Slovenia-y. We can do it! I wish the U.S. men’s national soccer team would stop looking as if they believe they’re not as good as other men’s national soccer teams, regardless of whether they are or not. Still, after watching England’s soulless draw against Algeria, I’m perfectly happy to be American tonight.
Photo of Garth Davidson, 29, of Caldwell, N.J., after the first goal. Credit: Stefan Fatsis.