I’ve felt this feeling overwhelm the room before. It wasn’t all that different from being a Blues fan watching the Stanley Cup playoffs the last couple years. The tension thickening the air. The anticipation. The complete and utter dread at every shot with a side of psychological torture as fans yo-yo between emotions.
Basically, it’s that excruciating experience sports fans both loathe and crave more than any other.
Of course, late in the second half of a soccer game between Brazil and Mexico a goal would make the odds of an equalizer even lower than squeaking a puck past Corey Crawford to tie the game back up. That can only drive the stakes of the moment – and blood pressure – higher.
I spent Tuesday afternoon at Taqueria El Toro on the northwest edge of Garner, hoping to observe World Cup fever from some people who get the soccer bug more than once every four years. As most know, for much of the world the infection is terminal and omnipresent.
“We watch soccer all the time. Even the regular season of the Mexican league, European leagues,” Uriel Ramero said as we intently watched the game. “I think the USA cares more about the World Cup. They don’t care about soccer but they care about the World Cup.”
I fit Ramero’s description: a once-every-four-years soccer fan. Since first watching the event in 1994 (when the U.S. hosted; I was 10), the World Cup has fascinated me. You can dislike aspects of the sport all you want. I’m not a fan of the diving either, like my sports with a little more contact, and I’d rather see scoring it closer to hockey levels. Even in the World Cup I hardly watch every game.
But really, there’s nothing else like it.
The Olympics bring the international competition, but splits passions among many sports. American sports leave national pride at the door. Just about every nation tries to qualify for the World Cup. This year 1.9 billion people live in the countries competing in Brazil. And good news for Americans: it’s once every four years. So if soccer just isn’t your thing, you can jump aboard, join the party, and then let your ADD carry you back to your regularly scheduled programing of college and pro sports with a side of golf.
No score, no problem
The restaurant was half-full when I arrived 10 minutes before the 3 p.m. kickoff, typically a time Ramero noted that “this place is dead.” Ramero said most Mexican fans watched at home, and he almost did too, but he hoped for some atmosphere.
I awkwardly tried to start up a few conversations. One man in a Mexico jersey indicated to his throat that he couldn’t speak. He answered my pregame question (asked in my broken Spanish) about his confidence against Brazil by sheepishly smiling and shaking his head. Another table had some more optimism but this would obviously be a tough one. Not a great English-speaker, he nevertheless tempted me with an offering from the pair’s bucket of Caronas. When I told him I was “trabajando” (working), he offered me one of his tacos instead.
When the game started, speaking to the patrons became markedly more difficult. Eventually I struck up a conversation with Ramero and Saul Garcia, who live in Cary but work at Garner biker bar Locked and Loaded. I ended up watching while chatting with them, about soccer, baseball, .
Not long after kickoff no vacant tables remained. Each person had eyes glued to one of the three high-def televisions. The first half, Brazil dominated. There was a foreboding sense that a Brazil breakthrough was inevitable. Tension was low; most of the first 45 minutes featured little sound other than the Spanish broadcasters rambling too fast for me to understand, echoing from TVs with feeds about a half-second appart.
But the breakthrough never came. Shots missed. Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa made some miraculous saves. Other shots from point-blank gave him no time to move and only by sheer fortune were rifled straight at him. Ramero and Garcia (Ramero said he’s more knowledgeable about the players, but Garcia is the better player) seemed to see chances coming in advance. Then elevated voices, a skipped breath and heartbeat...and the specter of disaster again passed over El Tri, as the Mexican team is nicknamed. Folded hands, covered mouths, they sat appropriately tortured. After one chance Ramero stood up, too much nervous energy releasing to allow a chair to contain him.
Not that it was all self-serious. When Mexico brought on Javier Hernandez, the pair informed me that he was nicknamed Chicharito, or “little pea” Ramero joked in Spanish with someone from another table about him. I asked what he said. Apparently he had joked that Hernandez might fall down and score, a reference to a goal he scored where he did just that. They didn’t have much faith in Chicharito.
Late in the game representatives from a Latino soccer promotional group arrived and passed out schedules and a vuvuzela. One man at a large table began playing with it; his table along with a few others cracked up at his antics; no one seemed to mind the blast of noise late in a game where senses were already heightened.
And in the second half, Mexico started controlling its share of the ball. Though chances proved less threatening than Brazil’s, one shot was all that was needed. Hopeful gasps and yells, groans of disappointment, then applause for the effort and hope that the next one would find nylon and shock the superpower, hosts and five-time champions. That’s a quarter of all the World Cup titles. (Mexico has never gotten to a semifinal.)
By mid-second half, the energy of the room had transformed; inevitibility seemed less inevitable. Just. Hold. On. A. Few. More. Minutes. Even a tie for Mexico would be huge; that would mean even a draw next week against Croatia could allow El Tri to advance. And despite a late surge by Brazil, they held on, and applause and smiling faces filled the restaurant.
Cero was good. I had even joined the crowd hoping for an upset. Well, most of the crowd; Lucy Cordiero walked in early with her son, each wearing bright yellow Brazil jerseys. Though their team still leads the group and should get through to the next round, they were a bit disappointed.
“I’m surprised. I thought we were going to win,” Cordiero admitted.
An event worth savoring
The U.S. may never have the passion for soccer. I’m not here to trade in any of my other sports or ask anyone else to. But as I watched the roller coaster track, I thought about those emotions. The sameness of it all. What makes sports, ultimately, is the drama and the community. And that drama sounds the same in any language; some of the fans didn’t speak much English but I understood their gasps perfectly.
Some Americans disparage soccer, others have embraced it. Enough have embraced it that the thrilling U.S.-Ghana game earned a 7.0 rating on ESPN, which on a Monday night topped each NHL and NBA finals game. Ramero and Garcia said Locked and Loaded, hardly the hipster soccer crowd hangout, had a big crowd, which erupted like many when the U.S. responded to Ghana’s late equalizer to win. It’s not people pouring en masse into the streets of Santiago over Chile’s elimination of Spain, but it’s something.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring or not preferring any sport. But life is too short to be cynical, especially about things that, despite warts and imperfections (hello, FIFA corruption), bring swaths of humanity truckloads of joy. If you are a sports fan, a fan of community, or a fan of human passion and emotion and outbursts of happiness, you may as well go along for the ride when you get the chance.