18 July 2011

Notes on watching the World Cup in an airport bar

I am a soccer nerd. As a player, I am merely semi-competent, although I do have precisely one good move--the step-over turn--and will totally burn you with it, at least until you catch up two seconds later. As a fan, I am somewhat less than a European hooligan, but decidedly more enthusiastic than the average American. Our national attitude toward the beautiful game is pretty well summed up by the header at the top of The Onion's sports section, which has links to the site's sub-sections, in this order and with this wording: baseball, basketball, football, hockey, motorsports, women's sports/soccer.

But it's amazing what a little bit of success in a major international competition can do, at least temporarily. Last year, when the American men's team made a minor run in the World Cup in South Africa, the zeitgeist briefly made room for terms like offside trap, back-heel pass, vuvuzela, and What the hell are you doing, Landon Donovan? And in 1999, famously, the Women's World Cup had its fleeting but bright moment in the national spotlight, with Brandi Chastain's screaming celebration, after making the winning penalty kick in the shoot-out against China, becoming an iconic photo, gracing the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated.

Still, few Americans this year seemed to realize that the Women's World Cup was underway. I'll confess that although I read game re-caps, I didn't actually see a single group-stage game aside from a couple of YouTube highlights.

And then came The Goal. Abby Wambach's laser-precise header off a brilliant cross from Megan Rapinoe in the game against Brazil. (Sadly, I can't find any videos of it--they've all been taken down for copyright violations. If you haven't seen it, though, know that it is bona fide gorgeous). Suddenly, the nation awoke. Abby Wambach became a trending topic on Twitter. Lil' Wayne tweeted his congrats, as did, well, seemingly everyone. (My favorite part of this, by the way, was that Rapinoe also got her due. Americans love the goal-scorers--in any sport--but have a tendency to overlook the people who do all the set-up work. It was nice to see an outside midfielder--my old position--get her richly-deserved praise for the phenomenal service.)

There was no way I was going to miss the final, not as a confirmed soccer nut but also, suddenly, not as an American with even a passing interest in sports. Just one problem: I was going to be on an airplane, coming back from my cousin's wedding in Philadelphia (mazel tov, Jason and Emily!). My plane would arrive at MSP midway through the second half. If I planned right, I could find a television and watch the end.

When I left MSP on Friday, I grabbed an airport map so I could plan a route to a bar at the airport. I packed lightly so that I could carry on my bag and sprint of the airplane. And when I landed on Sunday, that's what I did--I ran off the plane and straight to the French Meadow.

Which was packed. I mean, packed. All the seats at the bar counter were taken, as well as all the tables with even a partial view of the restaurant's two small-ish screens. A low fence separated the restaurant from the concourse, where another two dozen or so people stood staring, rapt. I joined them.

Really crappy phone-camera image of the scene.
But you get the idea.

"What's the score?" I asked a Somali man wearing an Airport Staff uniform.

"1-0, USA," he grinned. There were about twenty minutes left in regulation.

With every American run, we all started to cheer; every time a Japanese player got into our penalty area, we held our breath. The crowd was a mix of travelers nervously checking their watches, airport staff, pilots, flight attendants--the whole cross-section of humanity that passes through airports and makes them such compelling microcosms of the modern world. A group of Japanese tourists stood near me, their reactions precisely opposite those of the rest of the crowd. When Japan scored in the 81st minute, they beamed; the rest of us clutched our heads and groaned.

Overtime. Meaning Abby Wambach time. When she headed the ball into the goal, making the score 2-1, a sixty-ish guy seated at the table just inside the restaurant crowed, "She did that head-butt thing! It's over."

Someone explained that there's no sudden-death (or Golden Goal, if you prefer) in soccer. The guy literally scratched his head and slumped back in his chair, confused.

"We need to go," his wife said. "They're boarding our plane."

"Uh-huh," the guy said, not moving, eyes still glued to the screen.

This is what I love about both airports and sporting events: that coming-together of disparate people, momentary kindred spirits with a common cause (get through security or cheer a soccer team), forging unlikely connections and loyalties. Each fleeting moment is packed with stories and meaning; we're all in this together. Briefly. And then we disperse, back to real life.

As I dug for my camera to document the scene better than I could with my phone (see fig. 1 above), I realized that in my haste to get to the game, I had left my laptop on the plane. My laptop. Kind of my life. I sprinted back to the gate, where they had it at the check-in desk. Whew. And then, yes, I sprinted back to the restaurant, where the crowd had only grown.

More people filled in the concourse to watch the game. More comments and questions about how this soccer thing worked--how long was the overtime? What did "offside" mean? But everyone knew what this game was; everyone knew who was playing and what the stakes were and why we'd all stopped to watch.

The ones who knew the game best, who were most on edge, who understood what was going on and started to get excited or dejected before everyone else, because they could see the plays developing--those were the teenagers. The children of Title IX and the general American soccer boom.

(The pilots, too, seemed to know what was going on. Maybe they've spent more time abroad or are just more, you know, enlightened and worldly, as us soccer fans like to consider ourselves.)

By the time the shootout began, there were perhaps fifty people standing in the concourse, exchanging nervous looks and muttered exhortations of "Come on ..." For several long minutes, the bustle of the airport grew hushed. People looked at watches, but no one moved.

When Abby Wambach nailed her shot, we all cheered: USA! USA! This was going down to the wire, but Abby--unknown in the broader consciousness a week ago, but now virtually an American folk hero, whose name spilled from the lips of even the most uninformed-but-newly-enthusiastic Team USA bandwagon jumper--had started our (yes, our, collective) final, least likely but most epic comeback.

And then.

It didn't work out like that.

We groaned and "Ooh"ed and ten seconds after the game was over, we silently dispersed, the airport once again a mere crossroads rather than a gathering ground.

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