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Dispatch from Manaus: The team that plays better doesn’t always win

Photo credit Instagram user rawmagee

Photo credit Instagram user rawmagee

The US team was in a stadium in the middle of a city in the middle of a jungle, getting ready to take the field to play Portugal. The sun had dropped behind the arena and it was getting darker. And hotter.

Manaus was built into the Amazon. Fly in on a plane or go out on a boat and you get a sense of the enormity of the uninhabited world surrounding it. Unlike other parts of Brazil, where the natural landscape—the stunning beaches, the looming mountains—seems as much a part of the city as the buildings, Manaus is a clearing in a forest. It feels like an intrusion on nature. The jungle hangs all around city, stifling heat and huge bugs reclaiming its streets and the people living in a place they don”t belong.

Here in the Arena de Amazonia, the US team was also in a place it didn’t belong: with a great chance of survival in the Group of Death. In the way a city is powerless against the land it inhabits, football teams are beholden to the powers of the game they play. And so the US won a game they shouldn”t have and Germany drew against a team they should”ve beaten. And now a win would put the US through to the knockout round after playing only two games. That last happened in 1930, the year of the first World Cup.

The stadium was abuzz with the enormity of the situation. For the second game in a row, the Americans seemed to have as many—if not more — supporters than the opposition. They dressed as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. They dressed as astronauts. One father-son duo from Nebraska cancelled their elk-hunting trip to join the ranks of the American Outlaws, the supporters group whose standing couldn’t be thwarted by ranks of angry Portuguese and Brazilian fans. Even the locals joined in: one stadium volunteer chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” into his bullhorn as shades of red, white, and blue washed into the concourse. That was the gravity of this night: Americans chose soccer over shooting guns, chose standing over sitting.

They all packed into the stadium and, at 5:07 local time, six minutes before Tim Howard would come out of the tunnel and seven minutes before the US team would follow, the first “U-S-A!” chants began. Then the game kicked off, and in less than 10 minutes the US defense butchered a clearance. In a perfect metaphor for the Ghana game, Tim Howard was all alone, face-to-face with the opponent and trying his damnedest to save his teammates. He couldn”t. 1-0 Portugal.

If giving up an early goal was a typical US start to a World Cup game, then what followed was decidedly un-American: the team responded. The US outplayed Portugal for most of the first half and, although they couldn”t score, faith was renewed. At the half, US fans belted “America the Beautiful” in the packed stalls.

Then that optimism dwindled. Michael Bradley fired a point-blank, sure-goal shot off the Portuguese keeper early in the second half, and it started to feel like maybe we”d never put one in. We were dgfev online casino running out of time. But the fans kept standing and kept cheering. And it only took one touch: a flash of orange, a white blur, and a swish of the net. Jermaine Jones had scored. The beer showers that had covered Natal moved West and Brazil”s tropical rainforest rained Brahma and Budweiser. It was 1-1 and it smelled like America.

After a few minutes of goal hangover where it looked like the US might only be able to play good football while losing, they resumed form. Another Michael Bradley missed attempt in the box, another Graham Zusi cross and the deft first touch of Clint Dempsey”s stomach and it was over. The US was going to win 2-1. They had dominated play in the second half. They had the better fans on this night. They deserved to win. They were into the Round of 16 and in control of a group where they were supposed to fail.

But the US is still the US, and Cristiano Ronaldo is still one of the best players in the world even after 94 minutes of not playing like it. One careless turnover followed one perfect cross. Portugal scored. It was the swiftest of equalizers in a game that didn”t feel that equal. Portugal fans roared in celebration, but it was the silence that you noticed; the silence of hundreds of Americans whose chant of “I believe that we will win!” floated away into the still night.

The Americans stood with their hands on their heads or bent over, spent. Tim Howard yelled and Portugal celebrated. It was hot and muggy and a moth the size of a bat floated carelessly on the field below—a moth so big it could be seen twenty rows up. It had been there all game, flying around the players. It was a reminder that this was still the Amazon and we were in a place we didn”t belong, and just as this one city could never overcome the jungle surrounding it, no one team—not even the US on this night—could be bigger than the game it played. It was the very thing that had gotten us here and the thing that broke us now.

Ghana was reminded of it and now we were too: football is ecstasy and exquisiteness and soul-crushing, and the team that plays it better doesn”t always win.

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  • […] “The US team was in a stadium in the middle of a city in the middle of a jungle, getting ready to take the field to play Portugal. The sun had dropped behind the arena and it was getting darker. And hotter. Manaus was built into the Amazon. Fly in on a plane or go out on a boat and you get a sense of the enormity of the uninhabited world surrounding it. Unlike other parts of Brazil, where the natural landscape—the stunning beaches, the looming mountains—seems as much a part of the city as the buildings, Manaus is a clearing in a forest. It feels like an intrusion on nature. The jungle hangs all around city, stifling heat and huge bugs reclaiming its streets and the people living in a place they don’t belong.” 8By8 […]

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