Good Sport: World Cup report: Fanaticism and fantasy at the bar

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by Jeff Laughlin

Tension pushed that bile/beer combo arising in our throats as our home country strived for an equalizer against Portugal. And when the US placed the ball for a corner kick tied at one against Ghana in the 86th minute.

That thick-spitted realism sat dormant until satiated. Then it rose again with Portugal’s 95th minute goal on Sunday.

We swallowed it, just as we always tend to swallow our pride when we compete in the world’s game.

The party that began with Clint Dempsey ended so abruptly, so disgustingly, that people left their beers half full, as if they wandered off to find meaning and forgot that meaning so often lies at the bottom of the bottle.

Amidst “I believe that we will win” cheers at Local House Bar, both US games in the World Cup brought hand-wringing and despair coupled with joyous, raucous chest pounding and hugging. Never do so many strangers embrace in elation as they do during the cup.

All the fans are there: the knowledgeable and the illogical sit side by side, watching the perilous fight. That might seem annoying, but the symmetry can be astounding. Armchair coaches actually have students. Former players can revel with part-time fans. And the beer flows like wine. Or something. The poetry of fandom often muddies once the bar gets full.

The lesson we learned at Local House shined brighter than any US result this week: We love our country, but fútbol is a cruel, wicked mistress. After being placed in the hardest pool in the world, the US performed admirably against horrific odds. A late header sent Ghana reeling, but the same kind of late header badly damaged our chances to advance to the knockout round. Four points in any other group might seem like the gods had chosen us, but with Germany in the queue, the US chances teeter uncertainly on the brink of disaster.

Still, the crowd at Local House, when the going did not look so rough, smiled brighter than the Brazilian sun for a while. The USMNT played well against two difficult foes and positioned themselves to move to the knockout round: They need only a draw in the final game of pool play to move on. Even ardent fans conceded that point after anxiety and dejection had eroded their morale.

Perhaps the best part about watching the World Cup is how long the chances linger for most teams. For two weeks, the possibilities whisper in your ear. Even during the game, the pace of a match rewards those who pay close attention. The sport moves glacially to some, but control and distance exist in every pass.

So, when John Brooks Jr. scored to give the US a lead, it was fitting that only a few of the screaming fans even knew he played for the US. His goal did not flash like Dempsey’s goal in 26 seconds or like Messi’s series of perfect strikes in this tournament. He will not widen interest in the sport in this country. Brooks did his job on a set piece and turned a group of worried, semi-intellectual fans into screaming mongoloids hell-bent on throwing out their voices and tearing the skin off of every hand they could slap. He brought together nameless masses all over.

Likewise, Portugal’s Silvestre Varela tore this country apart. Moments before, we all planned to walk away from our jobs; to take a day of remembrance for that time that we cheered so hard we couldn’t get up the next morning. All of a sudden, everyone remembered their responsibilities and problems. All of a sudden, every patron had to work the next morning. All of a sudden, it was just a game.

Our throats felt sore and our blood moved slower. That tension crept back up to redden our necks and faces. We all looked like we had literally seen the bombs bursting in air. Every conversation after the final whistle of “The Portugal Game” started with “Well…” or “If…” rather than effusive, jingoistic nonsense.

Now, the tension sits unabated, awaiting one of the best sides in this tournament. If the US run at the cup ends, we will all head back to work and slowly forget our new friends. The struggle will have ended the way we knew it would. Local House will go back to hosting fewer screaming weirdos rather than tens of them.

But if the US wins, we will return. And the tension can only rise. Here’s hoping they have enough beer to keep us even remotely sane.