Ten Torturous Days, A World Cup Story


USA v England on the world stage.

Alas, we have arrived at an annoying pause from our beloved Arsenal as the World Cup is upon us, and for the second time in the last four renditions of this grand tournament, it will be a painful and conflicted group stage watch for yours truly.  As should be abundantly clear, I’m an American who grew up playing and watching “soccer” as a kid but fell in love with “football” while living in London in the late 1980s.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the concept of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) being in the World Cup was laughable.   After all, the last time “we” had been in the Cup was 1950, and, well, I won’t speak of that any further given the demographics of this blog.  So when the USMNT finally squeaked into the 1990 Italy World Cup via a winner-take-all qualifier v. Trinidad & Tobago – defeating TWO teams at once –  and an absolute worldie game-winning goal by Paul Caligiuri, I was living not amongst Americans but rather in the birthplace of football: England.

The 1990 World Cup was a formative moment for me.  Having fallen in love with the game through my discovery of Arsenal FC in the 1988-89 season, I was ready to experience the true mania of the World Cup from inside the beast – and it did not disappoint.  For a month I walked around belting out Nessun Dorma almost as expertly as Pavarotti himself – alas I was not yet as fat as him so the voice wasn’t fully formed.  I watched the underwhelming group stage matches with mates, easing my way in.  Then came the otherworldly knockout stages.



At a packed pub in Central London David Platt sent “us” into rapture in the 119th minute.  Yes, I said “us” as thus began my “Ich bin ein Englander” phase which 30+ years later still hasn’t worn off.  An incredibly entertaining victory over Cup Darlings Cameroon complete with audible shouting and screaming from the homes around ours had us dancing like Roger Milla.  I’d rather not talk about the semifinal as thus began my understanding of England’s pain, and the curse of penalty shootouts v. [West] Germany.   But what a final month of my two-year journey in England – I never stopped supporting the Three Lions after that no matter how reprehensible “cheering” many of the future players, Arsenal enemies all, would become. Oh, and that USMNT?  Never had a shot, 2 goals, 3 defeats and out with a whimper as expected.

The next four World Cups brought very little internal conflict as I was able to cheer on both the USMNT and my adopted Three Lions with little chance of the two getting in each other’s way.  Of course, that resulted in double heartbreak but after all, that’s what football is about:  heartbreak.   Then, on 4 December 2009, “it” finally happened.  Group C was drawn:  Algeria, Slovenia, England, and the USA.

For six months I paced, sweated, swore, cried, and vomited in anticipation of one of my loves eliminating the other.  I prayed for a drew that would allow for both nations to pass through the group stage.  And by the grace of the football gods, thanks to Rob Green’s howler (sorry):

and Landon Donovan’s epic 91st minute winner v. Algeria that still sends shivers down my spine:

I got my wish. Of course, heartbreak would still await in the round of 16 in the forms of Germany (with a lack of goal-line technology), and Ghana (with a lack of finishing the game).

From there the two nations would exchange underwhelming outcomes until in 2018 England not only conquered their penalty curse but reached the semifinals before succumbing to Croatia in a tournament completely free of American involvement.

As the 2022 draw approached, a familiar feeling of dread returned.  This time, both England and the USA qualified for the tournament with the talent to make a deep run and the possibility of being matched together.  While on a train from Dusseldorf to Cologne with shoddy internet on a football pilgrimage with my son we manically refreshed twitter for the draw results and as feared, it hit us like a punch in the gut.  And this time, no Algeria and Slovenia, but a strong Iran and a team ultimately decided as being Wales, who can beat almost anyone on their day.   I would have jumped off of the train if it wouldn’t have left my son clueless and without directions to the hotel.

So off we go again, ten days of clenched body parts throughout an extremely nervy group stage peaking with England v. USA Part Deux on “Black Friday” here in the states.  I suppose my rooting interests will hinge on the outcomes of game 1 on Monday – hoping both teams enter with 3 points and can have a nice kickabout for 90 minutes in a miniature “Disgrace of Gijon” redux if you will – and proceed to the group stages to face one of Netherlands, Ecuador, Senegal or Qatar. From there, it’s almost a fait accompli that the next meeting would come in the final on 18 December in Lusail.

Whatever happens over the next 10 days, whatever your rooting interests – please pray for me.  There’s a large likelihood of my family, my faculties, and my common sense all leaving on holiday and never coming back.  The sad reality of the situation is quite obviously this – the smartest bet for Group B?  Wales and Iran going through with ease.

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