UPDATE: What a game! What a win! Did you see it?
It was 24 years ago that my editors at my last previous job -- as a reporter in Manhattan for New York Newsday -- asked me if I wanted to write a feature about how hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were riveted by 1990's World Cup in Italy...specifically, the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who came from anywhere else on the planet other than the United States.
I eagerly accepted the assignment, which I vaguely recall hanging out for a while in a boozy Tribeca pub with some Brits in shorts and rugby shirts. (Good times!) The interesting twist in 1990 was that for the first time in decades the United States had qualified for the premier global sporting event. But my assignment didn't involve finding fans of the U.S. team -- because that would have been searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The average native-born American man or woman on the street was unaware that the U.S. even had a national soccer team (maybe just as well, as they lost all three games ignominiously), and were only vaguely aware, thanks to the occasional hordes of drunk Englishmen or Brazilians or whatever in their streets, that the World Cup existed.
For me, I'd always been soccer curious -- I'd seen Pele play with the New York Cosmos at the Meadowlands in the late 1970s and paid a little attention to the North American Soccer League before it collapsed in the early 1980s, but that year I started watching more seriously. Four years later -- when the World Cup was actually here in the United States in a blatant and somewhat successful effort to force Americans to pay attention (and when we had a cranky one-and-and-a-half-year-old and another on the way, so I never left my couch). I became something of an addict. Today, I root not just for the U.S. team, first and foremost, but also the Philadelphia Union in our own Major League Soccer and Liverpool in England's Premier League.
Still, I looked with envy to the passion in other countries -- how life in Colombia or Costa Rica or Spain comes to complete two-hour stop during the tension and the drama of a World Cup match. But every four years, America edges closer to that level of soccer nirvana. In 2010, bars erupted and horns honked when Landon Donovan scored a last-second goal against Algeria for the U.S. to win its qualifying group -- a group that included, ahem, England.
Now, the first match for the U.S. team -- against its surprising African nemesis, Ghana -- begins in just a few minutes. All day on social media, there has been little talk of much else. A short while ago, ESPN showed an overhead shot of the U.S. team bus arriving at the stadium in Brazil, like it was O.J. Simpson's Bronco or something. The first game of this World Cup -- between Brazil and Croatia -- was played on a Thursday afternoon when most people were at work and yet it drew 10 million viewers, or twice as many as watched hockey's Stanley Cup finals. The rating for tonight's game should be through the roof.
It's a dream come true. The United States is playing soccer, and the entire nation is waiting.
I'll see you on the other side, if I don't have a heart attack in the next two hours.