Beer tickets were $5 a piece. So, naturally, my buddy Vaughan and I bought four.
Not having the first clue what to expect from Richmond’s outdoor USA-Portugal World Cup watch party, if nothing else, drinking beer outside on a unusually cool June Sunday afternoon among the people couldn’t be a bad deal. Everyone was draped in patriotic colors. Except me. Everyone talked strategy, how many points were needed to advance, something about goal differential and a host of other logistics about the sport that made absolutely zero sense.
The atmosphere was the sole reason for my attendance.
There’s something wonderfully authentic about watching large sporting events among the masses. There’s an energy that grabs a piece of your soul, oftentimes allowing a person to become one with the train of emotion. Granted, it also could’ve been the beer. It probably was the beer, but seeing the U.S. take a 2-1 lead, it’s hard to deny witnessing damn near 500 people go apeshit all at once as not being one of those “this is pretty damn awesome” moments.
I know a few facts about soccer. One of them is that Cristiano Ronaldo is, by many accounts, the best player on God’s green Earth. He’s also one of the world’s most high-profile bachelors, with so many beautiful women attached to his belt buckle throughout the years even Derek Jeter blushes in approval. Throughout the course of the game, however, a common sentiment shared among most Richmonders was to openly mock Ronaldo. He was having a bad game, and even a World Cup novice such as myself saw that.
It proved to be Richmond’s first and most crucial mistake. In some weird parallel universe, Richmond cost America its most important World Cup game in years because that’d be the most Richmond thing ever.
The great Mark Trible has an adage about “poking a bear.” You just don’t do it. It’s stupid, and more often than not you’re left with the Jason Terry “I Eat Ass” face. If the late, great Tony Gwynn steps to the plate already going 1-for-5 in the ballgame with three strikeouts in the bottom of the ninth and a chance to knock in the game-winning run, you leave him alone. If Floyd Mayweather stumbles through the first four rounds of a fight, opting for the trash talk route probably isn’t the ideal course of action. Ask Darrick Martin or Chris Bosh’s ex-girlfriend how throwing in-game shade at Michael Jordan and LeBron James turned out.
Point is, “poking the bear” under any circumstance is a death wish. The taunting became more and more prevalent as the game progressed. The only thought at the time was, “I mean, I know he can’t hear us, but are we openly going to taunt the best player in the world?”
And then, it happened.
The entire sequence transpired in slow motion. The U.S. was 15 seconds away from giving Ronaldo and Portugal the Inside The NBA “gone fishing” treatment. Everyone saw what was about to happen though. The crowd basically gasped in unison,”OH SHIT!” They yelled, “Find Ronaldo!” And America did. Only they found him on an island, one-on-one with the game on the line. Soccer strategy not being my area of expertise, I’m sure America didn’t plan for this to happen.
Yet, with less than 30 seconds remaining, this brilliant country of ours — home of Sallie Mae and an incompetent Congress — left the best soccer player from here to Neptune iso’d on the wing. From there, it all sort’ve happened before anyone could breathe or blink. Ronaldo, who to my understanding was playing injured, dropped off a dime leading to the game-tying goal.
And unlike 99.98% of Americans, excitement was my only emotion.
Not because I wanted us to give up a backbreaking goal in the waning moments. I didn’t. I’m from America, the birthplace of Ricky Bobby and the life lesson, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” My 12th grade history teacher, Coach Driskill, lived by the adage, “Second place is the first loser.” A draw wasn’t a loss, but it wasn’t a win either.
But I appreciate all-time greatness when it jumps out and kicks a pass that somehow curved as if it was directed by a satellite orbiting Earth. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Disney-like accurate kick was one of the single greatest sports plays I’ve ever seen. It sounds like a “prisoner-of-the-moment” statement, yet it’s anything but. Whether or not Portugal goes on to win the World Cup is irrelevant. They probably won’t. In fact, they need a whole hell of a lot just to advance.
As the best player on your team and arguably your entire sport, there’s a different sort of pressure to deliver at the most critical moments. When it happens, praise showers down from the heavens, documentaries are filmed and, in the rarest cases, babies are named. When it doesn’t, by the prerequisite of the 24/7 media cycle world of modern times, we tear the person down, strip him of any good will he’s amassed before and figure out 2 billion different ways to ask the same question.
“What the hell’s your problem?”
The climate was hotter than Satan’s balls after four full-court basketball runs. We’ve already concluded Ronaldo was neither totally healthy nor playing his greatest game (or Cup for that matter), despite this crossover being something out of an Allen IversonAnd-1 mixtape. And if that wasn’t enough theater, the magnitude of the moment was something right out of a Hollywood script or the beginning of a story I’ll tell my grandkids some 50 years from now. His chief rival, Lionel Messi, was already heavy in World Cup story lines showing up on the grandest of stages, including a cold-blooded, game-winning sniper shot in the 91st minute against Iran. Ronaldo, himself, had yet to tally a goal. The weight of an entire country rested on his shoulders, and Ronaldo delivered a laser comparable to a Joe Montana post route to Jerry Rice. Or a Magic Johnson 90-foot bounce pass to James Worthy in a must-win Game 5 in the NBA Finals.
Making the moment even more trill, he walked off with absolutely no emotion. It was almost as if he was saying, “This is what I do.”
In the blink of an eye, he sucked the life out of Richmond, Chicago, New York City and every gathering of people donning America flags and face paint where watch parties took place. It was amazing to watch emotions matriculate from the thrill of the prospect of victory into the realization of what felt like defeat in less amount of time than it takes to cook Minute Rice.
Long gone were the jokes. Long gone was the jubilation of sending soccer’s biggest playboy home before actually confirming we were sending him home. Long gone were the “I Believe That We Will Win” chants and eerily present were quotes from random passerbys, “I can’t believe we f*cking blew that.”
We poked a bear, albeit a bear whose face is perfectly symmetrical thanks to (alleged) plastic surgeries. But that bear attacked. And that bear probably returned to a luxurious hotel room in Brazil somewhere with beautiful women ready to fan him and feed him various sorts of fruits on demand. And now America’s stuck in a must-win against Germany.
Life. It comes at you fast. Real fast.