This was at 2 A.M. last Monday, on the morning of the United States-Ghana game, on a cramped jetliner from Rio de Janeiro bound for Natal, long before all the craziness that was to come—before sweaty Teddy Roosevelt leading thousands of us in song, and Clint Dempsey breaking his nose and Ghana almost breaking our hearts and, of course, before John Brooks transforming vast swaths of a hastily-built stadium in a remote area of Brazil into a leaping, hugging mass of Americana, never before so elated to dance to “Billie Jean” in the rain.
This was back at a point when my friend Eric and I didn’t know what to expect, from either the U.S. team or its fans. The two of us had traveled around the world, with a group of friends. We’d read about the masses of Americans who were reportedly headed to Brazil. About the new era of US fandom.
We were hopeful, but we also had reason to be skeptical. Could things have changed that much?
At the time, three years out of college. The trip had been his idea: Go to France, follow the U.S. team, bludgeon the language for a couple weeks. Wearing enormous backpacks and U.S. jerseys, we met at Madison Square Garden, then flew Air Pakistan to Charles De Gaulle. We slept in hostels, ate baguettes and doner kebabs, drank cheap beer. And now we’d arrived in Lyon, where, for once, we were feeling good about our squad.
Understand, there hadn’t been many opportunities for optimism as a U.S. fan back then. In the previous 40 years, the Americans had won one World Cup game. Six days earlier, they’d looked disorganized and outmatched in their opener, losing 2-0 to a German team led by striker Jürgen Klinsmann, who scored one goal and assisted on the other. But Iran? Iran should have been easy pickings. It was only the country’s second World Cup appearance, its first in 20 years. This was the last team to qualify for the Cup. They finished the previous year ranked 47th in the world and had burned through three coaches in the previous seven months alone. In sports illustrated, a 23-year-old soccer writer named Grant Wahl predicted a World Cup flameout.
Later we would learn about all that happened behind the scenes that day in Lyon—about how thousands of Iranians in T-shirts bearing the likeness of People’s Mojahedin leader Masoud Rajavi were cut out of the global telecast; about how the opening handshakes required extensive negotiations, lest one country be seen as offering an open palm first. In time, we’d come to appreciate the importance of the moment—Iran facing off against the Great Satan, 19 years after the Tehran hostage crisis. In the moment, though? We just knew this was a game our boys needed. And that they needed our support. And that—holy crap there are a lot of Iranian fans. How the hell did they all get here?
As we approached the stadium we spotted a churning, exuberant mass. Flags waving. Shirtless men in red, white and green paint. Bugels, horns. Women chanting. And, above it all, the sound of drums: BOOM BOOM BOOM boom boom—IRAN! BOOM BOOM BOOM boom boom—IRAN!
The American crowd? We had no drums. We had no organization. We had no banners. At the time, Sam’s Army was but a nascent and scattershot group. This was back when MLS was new and teetering on solvency, four years after much of the country had doggedly ignored a World Cup held on American soil. Only a few months earlier, an important U.S. qualifier against El Salvador wasn’t even available on free TV. The company that held the rights to El Salvador’s games had decided to present the match on pay-per-view in the U.S. rather than accept ESPN’s offer of a paltry $10,000 for the rights. That about sums up the interest in U.S. soccer at the time.
Now, here in Lyon—as in the other cities we’d visited—it took serious effort just to find American fans. Every once in a while, we’d spot a few, an oasis of stars and stripes amid the green and red. Then we’d be swallowed up again by the Iranians.
Fortunately, the Iranians were quite friendly. They approached with smiles, shook our hands, linked arms. Feeling magnanimous, we posed for endless photographs. The press would later describe “boisterous fraternizing” by American fans and Iranians. That would be us. After all, we were about to win.
Then came the game. It was abysmal. I shall hear those drums forever in my fever dreams, just as I’ll see those U.S. shots banging off the crossbar. And the post. And crossbar again, “like it was magnetized,” striker Brian McBride would say afterward. In the first 33 minutes, the U.S. drew iron three times. For the game, they outshot Iran 27-15.
Sadly, they also forgot to play defense. In the 40th minute, on the counterattack, Hamid Estili headed in Iran’s first goal. Then in the 80th, Mehdi Mahdavikia doubled the lead on a breakaway. A late McBride header trickled into the goal—the only time the U.S. would score in the tournament—but it was too little and far too late. Iran won 2-1.
Afterward, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, won the press conference, as they say these days. In a message to the Iranian team, he said: “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands.”
Meanwhile, deep in the canyons of denial, U.S. coach Steve Sampson told the press, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” And, “I think those who understand the game will not view this as a step back for American soccer.”
Well, he should have changed a lot, and they did. By the end of the month he was out of a job.
Before that, however, he coached the team in one more, now-meaningless game, against Yugoslavia. Eric and I took a train to Nantes and scalped tickets for $50. Mustering as much patriotism as possible, we persuaded ourselves that a moral victory was attainable. And then we entered the stadium and walked into a sea of impossibly sedate French fans. You can see us—and them—in the photo below. Predictably, Yugoslavia won, 1-0, scoring the decisive goal just four minutes after the opening whistle.
After two weeks we’d had it. We left France. The experience wasn’t what I’d expected. Not the losing part—we knew the U.S. was unlikely to advance—but the cultural side of it. Because the U.S. was so bad and the American fan presence so sporadic, we were in the unfamiliar position of being Americans abroad, but not ugly. To many we met—the boisterous British supporters in Aix en Provence, the French fans in countless cafes and bars—we were instead deserving of sympathy, perhaps even pity, a pat on the back, a pint offered.
As an American, It was a peculiar position to be in. Where else could we be underdogs?
As for my little group, we’ve changed too. We’re no longer young, but not yet old, in the midst of what’s now termed the rush hour of life: those late 30s and early 40s when careers and kids and sudden inexplicable hamstring pulls converge. We have grown-up jobs (everyone but me, that is)—a professor, a diplomat, a doctor, an IT guy, a financial consultant . . . . We no longer sleep in hostels. And each of us has made sacrifices to attend the tournament—domestic capital expended, professional obligations diverted—but we don’t talk about those. Best to pretend, for one glorious week, that none of that is relevant.
We’ve gone all in. We have tickets, jerseys, outfits even. We’ve spent the better part of a year planning logistics. Though all but two of us played college sports at some level, none played soccer after high school. Yet this is the event that brings us together. The idea: Meet in Rio and spend a few days soaking in the atmosphere, then fly to Natal for a crucial U.S. tilt against Ghana.
We are realists. We do not expect to beat Portugal or Germany. Maybe a tie. Maybe a miracle. But Ghana? The Black Stars are beatable. One game means everything.
The world we enter upon arrival in Rio is surreally soccer-centric. Disembarking the airplane in U.S. gear, carrying a giant stars and stripes flag, three of us are immediately interviewed by a Brazilian TV crew.
“United States fans: Tell us your most memorable football moment,” the reporter prompts. Pat, a professor of political science in the real world, holds forth. He reminisces about the U.S. playing Brazil in 1994.
He speaks in long, passionate sentences. They love him.
Afterward, he turns around and discovers that his backpack is gone, stolen when he looked the other way. Inside were his laptop, iPad, phone and more. Learning of the theft, the Brazilian TV crew returns. “Can we now interview you about being robbed?”
It’s a combustible mix in Rio, thousands of inebriated tourists descending on a city rife with corruption, poverty and crime. The media plays up the harrowing stories. The locals inform us those are overblown—every big city has crime and corruption. Let us focus on soccer.
Pat files a police report for his backpack and an officer dutifully itemizes the lost valuables. But she is unimpressed. That is, until Pat explains that he also lost four World Cup tickets.
“Four tickets to the Copa?!”
Suddenly, a hive of activity. The officer heads to the back of the station and spreads the news. Everyone is talking about it. He had World Cup tickets stolen!
Over the next several days the game becomes our social currency. We drink cold choppes with Bosnian fans and exchange chants with the Argentines, who’ve made the city their own. We run into Steve Nash on the boardwalk by Copacabana beach. He’s wearing a Vancouver Whitecaps jersey and is headed to São Paulo for the Brazil-Croatia opener. He considers joining us for a game of beach soccer. Here, he’s just a fan, like everyone else.
Just off the boardwalk, the white sand is laced with goals—dozens of them, stretching down the beach—and pickup games spring up spontaneously, the skill level formidable. The 10-year-olds and 60-year-olds are better than most any player you’ll see in a park in the U.S. on a given weekend. We look on in awe as a goalie in a Belgium shirt chucks a ball two-thirds of the field to a teammate who heads the outlet pass into the box, where a third teammate finishes with a flying barefoot volley into the upper right corner.
Belgian, Brazilian, American . . . . Out here on the sand no one cares about your nationality. All that matters is whether you can make a wall pass, send a ball into space, run down a breakaway. We play 7-on-7 with a group made up of Brazilians, French, Dutch and one Brit wearing a backwards hat that reads cocaine and caviar. An hour later, we walk off the sand arm-in-arm, sweaty and tired, having managed a draw. Our toes are puffy and throbbing from shots gone awry. We don’t care. It is magical.
At night the tone changes. We walk the streets, from café to restaurant to bar, in our U.S. jerseys. A man pantomimes machine-gunning us from across a bar. A bearded businessman in a suit raises both hands and screams “F--- you!” at us. They are upset about Edward Snowden down here. They are angry about billions spent on stadiums in the Amazon and the prioritizing of a soccer tournament over health care and education. More than once, we see “F--- FIFA!” scrawled on highway walls.
The vast majority of our hosts are welcoming, though. Decked out in matching NBA-style U.S.A. jerseys, each with the name and number of a U.S. president on the back, from Washington to Van Buren to Fillmore, we pose for dozens, hundreds of photos. As Americans we’re a novelty, almost an adopted mascot. We meet a Brazilian woman in Rio, Piera Groban, here with her father for the opener. Her English is impeccable: “I understand the protests, but not now. The world’s eyes are on us. Now is not the time. It is time to show the world what Brazil can be.”
Once Brazil plays, all the anger melts away. On the evening of the opener against Croatia the streets are empty, only the occasional taxi or bus rumbling by. Every café and outdoor bar overflows with yellow-clad fans. You’d never see this in the U.S.; not for a soccer game. The only analogous experience I’ve ever had was being in New York City for Game 7 of the World Series. When Neymar scores for Brazil—and then scores again—a whole city throbs and hums.
Occasionally in Rio we run into fellow Americans, but they are few and far between. We assume most of them traveled straight to Natal. Those we do meet sit mostly on the other side of a generational divide, younger Americans who follow the game—but not necessarily the U.S. team first and foremost. They’ve grown up with access to English Premier League soccer, amid a global information society. Many of them sport the jerseys of other countries, whatever team they’re cheering for in that day’s match. Others opt for club jerseys, from leagues across Europe.
At a bar, a twenty-something American justifies his Brazil jersey by explaining that he played competitive club soccer while growing up in the States. “I appreciate the game played at the highest level,” he says. The inference is obvious.
Our generation’s perspective is different.
On the sideline, parents leap and yell and slouch and gossip and flirt and fume and check their watches. But all that matters is the flight of the ball and the next kick and, down there somewhere, the white posts of the goal. There is no nuance, no beautiful game. Just a cluster of young boys or girls (or boys and girls), kicking and hacking and sprinting—in pursuit of what, they aren’t quite sure. The ball, sure. But what else? Success? Glory? Validation? A post-game granola bar?
The novelist Dave Eggers once wrote that the beauty of youth soccer is that “there is no other sport that can bear such incompetence.” Indeed, historically there has been precious little futbol in our soccer. The game I grew up playing in the late 1970s and early ’80s—on temporary fields orange-coned onto suburban parks on Saturday mornings—was more a collective movement than a sport. It was a new-age athletic ideal, as close to socialism as youth sports got. Everybody plays. There are no favorites. Here, finally, was the answer to our aging hippie parents’ prayers, a game that A) was not, as far as they could tell, an overt metaphor for war B) was super-healthy and C) elevated the team over the individual.
And yet that ideal was eventually punctured. In my case, it was a coach named George Peterson, endowed with a resplendent mustache and a British air, who rigged things so that our team, the Aces, could play together year after year, building an offensive system, complementary parts and a formidable winning streak.
Soccer, I realized, was competitive. And it turned out I liked competitive. So did my friends, and perhaps yours. Once we realized this, we were hooked. Sure, it was a beautiful game, but it can also be a brutal, primal one. As anyone who’s ever participated in a shootout knows, there is no more stressful—or exhilarating—moment in sports. When I took kicks from the penalty spot in high school I used to do math problems in my head, trying to distract myself from the pressure. Hey, whatever gets you through.
But fans? My generation had little to be fans of. The U.S. team hadn’t made the World Cup since 1950. The NASL folded before I hit middle school. There was no game of the week, no streaming feed on the Internet.
One member of our traveling Brazilian contingent, an investment advisor named Barry Waits, wasn’t even allowed to play soccer growing up. His father had been an elite baseball star, setting the NCAA stolen bases record at Washington State, and no son of his would be involved in some weird European sport. “Soccer’s for p-----s,” Bob Waits told his son. So Barry never played. He now wishes he had.
At least my brother and I had the advantage of exposure. In 1980 our parents moved us to Oxford for a year for work. To a sports-obsessed first-grader who’d been raised on the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Sporting Green” it was horrible. In England, we waited all week for the three minutes of NFL highlights that aired each Sunday night, right after The Muppets. With no other substantial alternative, we became soccer fans. He chose Manchester United. I picked Ipswich and its talented striker, John Wark. You could say his choice has held up better than mine. Regardless, we both fell for the game.
Now, three decades later, we fly from Rio to Natal at 2 A.M., on the morning of the Ghana game. We are surrounded by red United States jerseys. Three hours later, we exit into the morning haze. Everywhere we look, there are hopeful Americans.
No one could have imagined this, 20 years ago. Well, almost no one.
“Look at this,” Clive Toye says, pointing to a wall where an old broadsheet from London’s Daily Express sits framed under glass. Above his byline, the column reads slaves to soccer. “We were using the word a long time ago in England,” he says. “It pisses me off when people say the Americans just made that up. It’s a perfectly accurate term.”
Toye is 82 now, with a thick white beard. He has been in the U.S. nearly half a century but retains his accent. His walls are lined with framed photos from his long career as a sportswriter. Clips from his days in England. Pictures of him with the Baltimore Bays in 1967, during the early days of that generation’s pro soccer surge. A shot of him a decade later, back when he ran the Cosmos, introducing Pelé at a press conference. Further down the wall is Toye announcing the United States would host the ’94 World Cup. Nearby, his 2003 induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame is commemorated.
As Toye knows well, the history of soccer in these parts is a history of the Next Big Thing, forever delayed. In 1921, a group of tycoons in the Northeast founded the American Soccer League, stocked with teams like the Boston Wonder Workers and the Brooklyn Wanderers; it thrived for a decade before disintegrating in the Depression. Few people know that it was an American—from Fall River, Mass., no less—who scored the first hat trick in World Cup history, in 1930: the wonderfully talented Bert Patenaude.
When the next big league, the NASL, reached its peak in the late 1970s, back when the Cosmos were selling out Giants stadium, founder Phil Woosnam predicted that the league would catch the NFL in popularity by ’85, that the U.S. would contend for the World Cup trophy in ’90 and that, “the American fan will someday achieve the same emotional frenzy as his counterpart in Brazil and England.”
For Woosnam and Toye, winning over America was never easy. Over tea, Toye talks of how he and Woosnam stuck it out with the NASL. How when he coached the Bays to the title game in 1967, a fan asked whether a win would mean they were the “world champions.” (“It was as if the whole world of sport ended at the Pacific, Atlantic, Mexican and Canadian border,” Toye says). How the U.S. team could never get home-field advantage because there were always more opposing fans. (“We held a game against Guatemala in New Britain, Conn., and there were mobs of Guatemalan fans buying tickets.”)
And now? Toye marvels at the American fervor for the game these days. How it’s grown from the ragtag Sam’s Army to the larger American Outlaws to provincial groups such as the Timbers Army in Portland and the Sons of Ben in Philadelphia. How polls today find that just as many 12- to 17-year-olds now identify as “avid fans” of MLS as major league baseball. How NBC recently paid $250 million to broadcast Premier League games for three years. We’ve come a long way from 10 grand being too rich for the rights to a World Cup qualifier.
“Now a bunch of kids from the Cosmos’ days are fathers taking their kids,” he says. “It wasn’t going to happen overnight; it had to come from spreading the word, plus kids growing up. How many kids now have no idea their great grandfathers didn’t kick a soccer ball? Well they didn’t.”
He shakes his head. “I counted the other day: One weekend there were 59 soccer games I could have watched on TV. Fifty-nine! England, U.S., France, Mexico. . . . Back in 1970, we couldn’t get a World Cup game on TV.”
From upstairs we hear the sound of a television turning on. Toye’s teenage grandson is home and he and a friend take to the couch to watch a game. The friend is wearing a Charles Barkley jersey. Toye’s grandson was an excellent high school hoops player. The game they are watching: Chelsea against Atletico Madrid.
As he shows me out Toye tells one last story, one he believes encapsulates the problem the U.S. had for so long when it came to soccer. Some years back, he says, MLS commissioner Don Garber came to him for advice. “How do we get more entertainment in soccer?” the commish asked. He was considering cheerleaders, Toye says, or promotions. Like in the NBA.
Toye says he just stared at Garber, aghast.
“Soccer’s not entertainment,” Toye said, finally. “It’s passion!”
It was, Toye says, the last time Garber ever asked him for advice.
It’s weird but, in a way, what Amis describes has long been an aspirational ideal for U.S. fans. (This quote kicks off the excellent 2006 tome The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup.) To be a legitimate soccer supporter is to be an obsessive nutcase. It’s one thing to take your 8-year-old daughter to an MLS game on a Saturday afternoon. It’s another thing entirely to lay out a paycheck on airfare and a game ticket and then act like an imbecile at an international match. For some reason, the second is respected, the first not so much. Passion, right?
These days it’s fashionable for a certain subset of Americans to adopt soccer as some kind of internationalist identity, like the guy we met at that bar in Rio. The New York Times ran an article in its Thursday Styles section two months ago explaining how it is in vogue for hipster Gothamites to follow soccer. It read an awful lot like satire. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal bemoaned a new group of American supporters, one which the author—a Brit—deemed “the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet.”
Of course, to define U.S. fans as being limited to hipsters in major metropolises is absurd. And offensive. Of those 90,000 Americans who traveled to Brazil, it’s impossible to know how many are rooting for the U.S. “I have very little patience for that approach, focusing solely on affluent suburban white fans,” says Jules Boykoff, an associate professor of politics at Pacific University who writes often on the politics of international sports, and who played internationally on the U.S. Olympic team in 1990. “[That notion] erases the huge diversity in U.S. soccer today. It’s not just people born in the U.S. but a thriving immigrant community. Go to any park in Portland and you can find games every weekend. To discuss it in those narrow terms erases huge swathes of people that love soccer.”
Us? We awake in Natal unsure what to expect. A roaring mass of American maniacs? Guys with ironic mustaches trying to sound European?
The US Soccer gameday party that afternoon is more sedate. The U.S. Ambassador is on hand, as are young men in Elvis costumes. We meet a nice family who’ve been following U.S. soccer for two decades, but there’s little of that Martin Amis-style energy, for better or worse. The stadium is likewise relatively quiet, at least when we arrive a few hours before gametime. We walk down a nearby street, away from the stadium, in search of Americans. And that’s when it happens.
Turning the corner, we halt in our tracks. In front of us, blocking the sidewalk, overtaking a bar veranda and stopping traffic, are thousands upon thousands of U.S. fans. They hang from lampposts and pogo stick and roar. There is a guy dressed like Teddy Roosevelt, down to the black gloves, spectacles and hat, sweat stains seeping through his military garb, singing at throat-bursting volume along with the rest. “America the Beautiful” followed by “The Star Spangled Banner” followed by “Everywhere We Go (People Want to Know)”. I feel a chill. This is what we’ve been searching for.
The American Outlaws are here. Middle-aged fans in face paint wearing Brian McBride jerseys are here. Twenty-somethings like Gabe Wood are here. A soccer and lacrosse player at Middlebury, Gabe has been to every World Cup since 1998, with his father and brother. His brother was at the Algeria game in 2010 when Landon Donovan scored that miraculous goal in the 90th minute—“that was his come-to-god moment” Gabe says wistfully—but Gabe missed it. He’s still waiting to see his first U.S. win; the tie against Italy in 2006 was his highest moment. This time he’s with his brother, but also his new wife, Annie. This is their honeymoon. She was reluctant at first—watching soccer on our honeymoon?—but now, U.S. jersey on and singing with the rest, she’s warming to the idea. We join forces with their crew; they teach us the new chants, we teach them the old ones.
An hour later, just before game time, we’re back at the stadium. The hallways and stairs are full of Americans. FIFA estimates 20,000 U.S. fans but it feels like more. Everyone is geeked for the game. Everyone understands the importance. They chant “Gha-na-na-na, Gha-na-na-na, hey-hey, Goodbye!” In the stands, we lock arms as the national anthem plays, just like Eric and I did back in France, only now we’re amid both friends and a horde of Americans wearing flags for capes and holding aloft inflatable Uncle Sams. The chills resurface, despite the balmy air, for there is nothing quite like hearing your anthem abroad. You can hear it thousands of times at home, before every NBA and MLB game, and it becomes part of a routine. But to hear it played thousands of miles from home, in some strange city, before a World Cup match? If that doesn’t make you feel something, then you’re not human.
And then, 30 seconds in, Clint Dempsey four-touches it on the right wing and finds the back of the net. We leap and hug and beer falls around us like liquid confetti, full cups jettisoned in joy.
The warm glow dissipates quickly. The U.S. is outplayed for the next hour-plus. Eventually, Ghana equalizes in the 82nd minute. It feels like the same old story. But then, in the 86th minute, John Brooks flies in on a twisting corner kick and heads the ball into the turf, ricocheting it back up into the top of the net. Delirium. Only this time it’s joy mixed with shock, all exhaled at once. Within minutes Brooks’ Wikipedia page reads: “John Brooks is a German-American footballer. He is the greatest American since Abe Lincoln.”
Out into the night we pour, strangers hugging strangers, surrounded by Captain Americas and shirtless, body-painted young men who look like they’ve seen the rapture. Over the course of the next four hallucinatory, celebratory hours, we meet fans from Seattle and Salt Lake, Santa Monica and Washington DC. At a local pizza joint, the whole place erupts into song, the national anthem stuck on drunken, hoarse-voiced repeat. We see Gabe again, his arm around a grinning Annie. He is delirious—this is the first World Cup win he’s seen. But then again it’s only the fifth U.S. win in the past six decades, so we all feel fortunate just to be here. We try to drink in the night, to stop time. To live in this moment, among friends new and old.
And this, as best I can figure, is the reason we and so many others have flown across the world and spent a small fortune on flights and tickets, all for one game, and not even a championship game at that, but an opener. Because we might be part of a moment like this. Because of Donovan in 2010, and Gaetjens in 1950 and Marcelo Balboa and that surreal bicycle kick that just missed in 1994. Because of the chance to see something unprecedented. Because you’ll meet people from six different countries in one day, and share a pint with all of them, like some Olympic Village for fans. Because the World Cup provides a rare opportunity to, as Boykoff puts it, “yell ‘USA! USA!’ And not feel like a jerk.” Because of the crazy, unrealistic dream that you may get to have a moment—like this moment in Natal—in which you are walking through a light drizzle in a remote coastal city in the greatest soccer country in the world and yet be surrounded by the stars and stripes.
At the conclusion of our night, a smiling blonde guy in a Dempsey jersey approaches our group at a cafe asks if any of us are going to Manaus for the Portugal game. He has an extra ticket and can’t make it. Sadly, we tell him, we are not. It’s time to leave this alternate, glorious reality and return home to our families and jobs. We have to fly back to Rio later that night, at 4 A.M., then back to States over the next couple days.
“Tell you what, I’m not going to use it,” he says anyway, handing the ticket over. “You guys take it. Just do me a favor. Give it to some American fan who looks liked they’d appreciate it.”
It shouldn’t be hard.