69 hours on and I still can’t get the image out of my head. Every morning I wake up thinking about it—replaying alternate scenarios in my mind, the one in which Michael Bradley doesn’t lose the ball, but instead turns and flicks it harmlessly down the length of the field towards the Portugal goal, and the ref blows the whistle before the goalkeeper can boot it back across midfield. Or the version in which one of the three U.S. defenders in the box gets in front of that long pass and clears it away from danger, or where Ronaldo, who had helpfully sucked most of the game, simply shanks the ball one last time.
It is strange how a tie can feel like a loss. Timing is everything—before the tournament started I would have been overjoyed to find the U.S. with 4 points and controlling their own destiny heading into the final match of the group stage. Before the U.S. v. Portugal game kicked off I would have been happy with a draw. After that potentially psyche-crushing U.S. flub and Portugal goal at the 5th minute, I would have gladly taken the tie. But the U.S. fought back, scratched and clawed and tied it with Jermaine Jones’ brilliant smash and then took the lead—the LEAD—on Clint Dempsey’s belly-goal and then suddenly with ten minutes left we were winning, we were guaranteed to go through to the knockout round and now we’d put pressure on Germany to have to beat us to win Group G! Victory was right there, the seconds ticking away, my heart thudding in my chest, surging belief and concurrent anguish. I swore every time the U.S. lost the ball, and barked at them to “stop passing it backwards!” I could feel the immensity of the moment, what this meant for a U.S. team that had been counted out since being drawn into the “Group of Death” with two European powerhouses and a Ghana squad that had knocked us out of the two previous World Cups—and here we were on the cusp of victory. Seconds to go, willing the referee to blow his whistle, any time, any second now, we’re through, we’re through—Bradley’s got the ball, no, wait now he doesn’t, Ronaldo’s got it, somebody pick him up, the ball is in the box and shit, oh shit did that just happen? None of us packed into my small overheated living room actually saw the goal, it happened so fast—we were primed to celebrate and then the ball was rippling the back of the net and they were replaying the heartbreaking moment—Howard’s helpless goal-line flinch and suddenly we weren’t going on, well, maybe we still are, probably really, with a decent performance against Germany and barring a bad outcome in the Ghana-Portugal match. Goal differential and other obscure tiebreakers in our favor….almost definitely…
But no matter how much I kept repeating that litany of reassuring probabilities, we couldn’t sweep the death-pall that had fallen over the room—a sudden ribcage constriction, a sour spot in the stomach, that same feeling I’d had when Ray Allen’s 3-pointer snatched the 2013 NBA title away from the Spurs the previous year.
There is no heartbreak like sports. Even when we were winning, I kept saying “I hate sports”—and I meant it, in that I hate the raw visceral stress during the games—the powerless pleadings, the mystical tribalism and neo-religious fervor. Moments like the one that snatched victory from U.S. jaws make me wish I’d never caught the sports bug. I imagine blissful ignorance, bemusement at the shouts of joy and howls of anguish emanating from open summer windows. How much better my life would be if I’d never believed in the U.S. Soccer Team, or the sporting quartet of my native Minnesota—the Twins, Timberwolves, Wild, and god help me, the Vikings. Sure, the highs are fantastic—I still get chills remembering Landon Donovan’s extra-time goal that saved the U.S. team in 2010, and Kirby Puckett’s 10th inning walk-off homer to send the ’91 World Series to game 7, or the montage of my yearly April pilgrimages to Timberwolves playoff games back when Kevin Garnett was prowling the hardwood floor at Target Center—the thrill of being in the crowd, that feeling that we were integral to what was taking place, that if we cheered a little louder we could actually will the team to victory—these moments are the distilled essence of what makes sports intoxicating, addictive.
But the agony. Yes, the Twins won the World Series in ’87 and ’91, and those victories were fantastic—even as the heart-palpitations probably took years from my life. But those triumphs seem like ancient history now, twenty-three years past my last meaningful championship. More recently burned into memory are inevitable 9th inning Yankee home runs robbing the Twins of playoff victories, Brett Favre’s interception costing the Vikings a 2011 Super Bowl appearance, Sam Cassell’s back injury leaving the 2004 Timberwolves one victory short of the NBA Finals.
Or perhaps the worst gut-punch sports moment of my entire life—and the only one that fully compares with that Portugal goal in terms of emotional impact—the 1999 NFC Championship. With barely two minutes left in the game, Gary Andersen lined up for an easy field goal against the visiting Atlanta Falcons, the weather-less, climate-controlled confines of the Metrodome humming in anticipation of the three points that would put the contest out of reach and send the Vikings—who in Randy Moss’s inaugural year had dominated the rest of the league—to their seemingly inevitable Super Bowl appearance in south Florida. Our pride and arrogant certainty knew no bounds that January as a couple dozen of us had piled boisterously into a friend’s house to watch the game. In the weeks leading up to the playoffs a local radio station had produced an unauthorized re-working of Will Smith’s hit song “Miami,” with Vikings-themed lyrics celebrating our forthcoming triumph—Denny Green runnin’ things in the Metrodome…we’re going to Miami…we’re going to Miami… You couldn’t drive ten minutes in Minneapolis without hearing it. You could feel the sports psyche of an entire state resurrecting itself, as we imagined a final exorcism of the demons of those four Vikings Super Bowl losses.
Oh, how pride goeth before the fall. Or perhaps it was Will Smith’s revenge. As the field goal unit lined up for the big kick, we crossed fingers and leaned en masse towards the TV screen, and then…and then right at that crucial moment, the announcers unhelpfully pointed out that Gary Andersen hadn’t missed a single field goal the entire season—and the room groaned in unison with an entire state howling at their TV screens because we knew Andersen would miss, even before he invariably pulled the field goal attempt wide left, because the statement of a perfection streak is the greatest jinx in sports, the guarantee of failure, one that makes the announcers who mention it as hated as the player that suffers the cruel vengeance of the perfection-hating sports gods.
This is the feeling, that fear that takes hold in the gut when the seemingly settled is suddenly back up for grabs, and you know how hard it is for the mind that has already moved through that door to accept the fact that you have to go back to the beginning and start over again. I won’t be able to shake the sorrow of that last-second Portugal goal until Thursday’s game—an interminable 88 hour wait from the final deflating whistle on Sunday. I won’t be able to fully focus on anything else until the U.S. and Germany take the field, until the action has started and the immediate intensity of sporting combat makes yesterday’s sorrow irrelevant. But—god forbid—if things go badly, I know I won’t be the only person in America or on that field in Recife that will be thinking of that single excruciating truth: we were already through. Seconds from victory. All over but the champagne.
I hate sports–because there is no heartbreak like sports.
Well, maybe that’s not true—there’s always politics, which for the true believer (or junkie) like myself is perhaps worse than sports. It is real life, after all. When the sports team loses, a city, state, or nation is draped in brief sorrow. When a candidate loses, wars happen. Any non-Republican who watched the first Obama-Romney debate knows that feeling, the sinking sensation in the days following the Denver Debacle as the polls narrowed and you started to think Obama might actually lose, that maybe his heart wasn’t in it for another term. Or going back ten years to Election Day 2004, when I breathlessly ingested every online anecdote, every tid-byte of political data during my shift at work, and all the exit polls showed Kerry winning Florida and Ohio, and we were going to throw “W” and his gang of war-mongers out of the White House, and they were calling Senator Kerry “Mr. President” on his plane all afternoon, and we were measuring the drapes, and then…and then. Then there was Florida going the wrong direction, and Ohio slipping away and Vice-President not-elect John Edwards addressing the crowd to say that they were awaiting the final ballots in Ohio, but we were reading the numbers online—minus 100,000—and not even the uncounted votes in Cuyahoga County were going to save us and we could feel that stomach-tightening, that horrible moment of realization. No…no, can’t be…the ball’s in the back of the net… So maybe it is good to remind myself, as I try to shake the trauma of that last-second goal, that at least in sports, for the most part, no one dies.
The games this week—Netherlands-Chile, Italy-Uruguay (the BITE!), Greece-Cote d’Ivoire (the PENALTY!), Argentina-Nigeria (record-setting GOAL BARRAGE!)—have helped distract me for brief moments, although judging from my reaction to the extra-time countdown of these nail-biters I am clearly suffering some lingering Post-Traumatic Stress from the Goal That Will Not Go Away. So I will watch today’s remaining games, and will try to keep my mind off of the Goal of Horror, and try to stop my obsessive positive visualizations of tomorrow’s Germany-USA match (Gram Zusi gives the U.S. the early lead in the 27th minute!!! Wondolowski scores to make it 3-1 for the Americans—the goal that will now surely send them through to the knockout phase!). You laugh, but the visualizations are so intense—so important to my fragile sports heart—that I catch myself mock-announcing them out loud to banish the first inkling of negativity that creeps into my mind. Because of course there is that part of me that can imagine the possible Greek tragedy that would send the U.S. packing, and if I dwell on that scenario for even a moment it starts to breathe, takes life as possibility and I start to feel that sick clenched-esophagus tension, and I’ve been waiting four years goddammit and we’re having none of that this time.
19 hours now until kickoff. I can’t wait. There is no heartbreak like sports…