July 1, 2014
By Charles Cuttone
World Cup magic is in the eye of the beholder
In the end, there was no magic. At least not enough to propel the United States, whose World Cup lasted 120 minutes longer than I and many observers thought it would, any further.
But, the magic really was in that they got this far. In Tim Howard having the most incredible game any goalkeeper has ever had in a World Cup, at least in the last 50 years. In Julian Greene, an 18-year-old whose very presence on the roster I and many others questioned, coming off the bench in extra time to score a goal.
And the magic was in the fans. The tens of thousands who traveled to Brazil to see games in person, and the seemingly millions who caught soccer fever, driving ESPN's and Univision's numbers through the roof and crowding pubs and parks and even Soldier Field to watch the games on big screens.
It’s true, the U.S. seems to catch this soccer fever every four years, like a case of asthma that comes and goes for some with the spring pollen. But this time is different. It’s different every World Cup, and what happens in the four ensuing years is also different.
It’s certainly a big change from the first World Cup I remember watching, in 1978, when a handful of games were shown on closed circuit in the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden. That's it - a few thousand people total in New York City watching, and I got to go with some of the other Cosmos staff because we advertised the games for the promoter.
Or the 1990 World Cup, the first of a string of seven the U.S. qualified for. A handful of those games were shown on TNT. The building my office was in then wasn't wired for cable, so I found a nearby sports bar and handsomely took care of the bartender to provide me with a table in the corner near a TV, which was the only one in the place tuned to the games. On five or six occasions, a long lunch, often with a different friend or business associate, was spent watching that corner TV with no one else in the place showing interest.
Fast forward 24 years. We decided to take in Tuesday’s game at a local bar and restaurant in Pocomoke City, Md., pop. 4,168, the town where my wife Linda grew up, where she played high school sports, and where her grandfather, James "Boots" Powell, was a three-letter winner in soccer in the late 1920s.
First we had to make sure the Riverside Grill would have the game on. They said they would, so we made our way over there. One of the more than half dozen TVs had the pre-game on when we arrived, and there were maybe a dozen other people in the place.
Slowly, however, it started to fill up and soon all the TVs had the game on. Most of these people were not there just because the team on the screen was wearing red, white and blue. They knew a corner kick from a goal kick.
There were screams and groans with every missed opportunity by the U.S., and cheers as Howard made every one of his 16 saves. The air seemed to go out of the place completely when Kevin De Bruyne’s eight-yard shot three minutes into extra time gave the Belgians a one-goal advantage. And then, when it went 2-0, there was a pall cast over the Pocomoke River, just like the setting sun that shone through the tall windows.
But as Green and his 18 year-old-legs energized the U.S. in extra time, so too did he energize the bar. One patron who brought a tiny American flag started waving it, and the huge American flag on Market Street seemed to blow in unison. And the screams of one more goal could be heard as some unsuspecting dinner patrons made their way into the restaurant.
The voices got louder each time the U.S. took control of the ball and made a push upfield. Even Clint Demspey drawing a foul just inside of midfield drew applause.
But there was no more magic. At least not in the legs of the U.S. Their World Cup set along with the sun over the gleaming river.
But sometimes, magic is in the eye of the beholder. I wasn't planning to write a column, just go watch the game over a late lunch, and ended up penning most of it on a napkin. But, as my former cousin and business partner, Alan David Stein, a local radio personality in New Jersey said on a voicemail he left me just as extra time was about to begin, "this must be a dream come true for you, everyone talking about soccer". Indeed, and lunch for two was less expensive than the tip I gave that bartender 24 years ago.