When a Game That Means Nothing Means Everything

Editor’s note: David Warner writes on football – meaning any game that involves a foot and a ball – at Dave’s Football Blog.

So I spent part of my Friday night hanging out in the balcony of a sports bar in Cary, North Carolina, with a group of cheerfully doomed soccer fans…

I’m kidding. The only doom here is that the club they support plays in an American minor league and has no hope of being promoted anywhere.

On this night, we set out to watch two matches at once — the USA v. Brazil match in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and a United Soccer Leagues match between the Carolina Railhawks and the Rochester Raging Rhinos. I have watched multiple NFL games simultaneously, but Association football? That’s a bit trickier. After all, once you get sucked into one game, you’re bound to miss something in the other one. We persevered, though, as we took turns watching the teenagers in Ottowa and our new beloved expansion club in Rochester.

So I sat with a kettle of Railhawks supporters, all decked out in their bright orange and blue scarves and T-shirts. You could tell when the USL match had started by the number of people shouting, “Shoot the damn ball!”, from the balcony. This led to a discussion about why USL is so competitive from top to bottom — not one USL club has a striker worth his salt. (Carolina plays a 4-3-2-1 formation, if that’s any indication.) In fact, no club anywhere in the U.S. has a American decent striker. All the decent American strikers already play in Europe.

“What about Jozy Altidore?”, someone asked not five minutes after the 18-year-old scored the first goal of the night for the American side.

“He’ll end up there eventually,” someone else answered. “Half the kids on that whole team will.”

Later in the evening, as both matches stood at 1-1, we watched as Freddy Adu split a Brazilian double-team like a banana and easily found Altidore in front of the net for what would be the game winner in the 82nd minute. Some cheered loudly. Others too engrossed in the Carolina-Rochester match asked what just happened. We all gushed over the replays, which might as well have been a European audition tape for Adu, whose club career languishing in Salt Lake as we speak. You can see the kid is just begging some European club — any European club — to get him out of there.

We watched as Brazil miss its last opportunities and put up a few chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as the final whistle blew. Then we turned back to Carolina-Rochester, which was still at 1-1 as stoppage time approached. The shouts grew raucous in the 92nd minute as Carolina suddenly found themselves running a 4-on-1 break. We yelled like mad as the center-half passed it out to the right wing, who shot the ball … right into the hands of the Rochester goalie. The sudden rush of opportunity vanished instantly, leaving Railhawks fans shouting, “Are you freaking kidding me!?!??”, among other things.

The baseball fans downstairs probably had no clue why that balcony was so loud — or why it got quiet just a minute later. Rochester scored the game-winner toward the end of stoppage time. Carolina lost, 2-1. The joy of the USA’s upset over Brazil had vanished just as quickly as it had arrived.

Red White and Blue - Home Depot Center - Carson, California

I felt strangely hollow as I walked out of the bar. I turned to look at the long-faced, scarf-wearing supporters following behind me, and it suddenly hit me. Is this how Crystal Palace supporters have felt for the last century? Is this how Southampton supporters and Queens Park Rangers supporters feel now that their clubs languishing in the Coca-Cola Championship? This feeling of supporting a club that rips your heart out of your chest and kicks it over the crossbar on a penalty? Is this what it means to love your football club?

Perhaps there are American equivalents to this. Perhaps this is how Boston Red Sox fans felt after Bucky Dent hit that fateful home run in 1978, or after the ball rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series. Perhaps this is how Buffalo Bills fans felt after Scott Norwood missed that long field goal in Super Bowl XXV, or after the Music City Miracle knocked the Bills out of the playoffs in 2000. Perhaps this is how Kentucky basketball fans felt after Christian Laettner hit that shot in 1992.

But those were the big games. This was just a regular season game between two clubs in the league below the domestic top flight.

Perhaps this is what separates Association football supporters from other sports fans. Every game is the big game. As a famous local basketball coach once put it, it’s a game that means nothing, but it means everything. We Americans understand that concept on some level, but we still have a long way to go before we really live it every weekend like football fans in the rest of the world do.

Editor’s note: David Warner writes on football – meaning any game that involves a foot and a ball – at Dave’s Football Blog.

Photo credit: ruthbruin2002 on Flickr

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