PRETORIA, South Africa—I never thought I’d see a man openly weep at an American soccer game. But then, I never thought I’d see anything like Wednesday’s astounding U.S. win over Algeria. For more than 90 minutes, the match followed the familiar defeatist narrative: defensive lapses, squandered chances, a boobish referee disallowing a clean goal. Thousands of Americans had swept into “Dutchman’s territory”—an epithetic term, akin to “hickville,” for this heavily Afrikaner area—hoping for and really expecting a victory against an Algerian side that hadn’t scored a single goal in this World Cup. But the game refused to cooperate, and the tension in the shoebox Loftus Versfeld Stadium steadily mounted.
And then Landon Donovan showed up. Donovan has played as well as anyone in this tournament, and when he deservedly pounced on a rebound and slotted home an injury-time winner, he unleashed a celebration in the stands unlike any I’ve experienced before. In the lower section where I was sitting, howling people leapt into one another’s arms. Beer cups went flying. You couldn’t see the field for waving flags. The joy was unbridled and chaotic and of an entirely new degree. Long after the game ended, hundreds of American fans were still dancing on their seats. Hundreds more outside. Even the South Africans, who love to boogie at their footie, looked on in awe. Security guards had to break up the party.
An hour earlier, I thought the security guards would be breaking up something else entirely. A dark mood had seized Loftus. After a mad scramble in the box, Clint Dempsey knocked in a goal only to be whistled offsides. Another referee, another injustice. The muttering behind me turned ugly. These people felt wronged. An angry chant rose up: “Fuck you, FIFA! Fuck you!”
It’d been some years since I’d been among a crowd this on edge. The last time may have been at the Santiago Bernabéu when Portuguese legend Paulo Futre hammered Real Madrid, inciting a human surge that deposited a few people on stretchers. But in the many U.S. soccer games I’ve been to, not once did I think there might be trouble.
I wasn’t so sure this time, especially when England went up 1-0 over Slovenia and fans nervously whispered the news down the line: If the results held, Team USA would not qualify for the knockout round. As Altidore missed a sitter and Dempsey banged a ball off the post,the crowd wheezed and thrashed.In the 82nd minute, Anthar Yahia elbowed Dempsey in the box, drawing blood, and still escaped punishment. In front of me, a man screamed and dripped sweat in the cold air. Someone, I was now convinced, was going to be beaten savagely before the night was over.
Careening emotions like these have never been seen before during a U.S. national team match. Even this morning, hours before kickoff, Pretoria crackled with energy. When I arrived at the designated American Outlaws tailgate bar shortly after noon, the place was already brimming with makarapa-clad fans tossing back Castle lagers or sipping vodka concoctions out of plastic bottles. They belted out “New York, New York” and the national anthem. At one point, Sunil Gulati, the head of the United States Soccer Federation, strolled into the bar’s parking lot. Several fans stopped him for pictures until a pair of boohoos began roaring profanities at Gulati and scared him off. Their gripe: the picayune matter of not being allowed to bring personal banners to games. They were livid over it.
Let’s accept, then, that our passion for international soccer has deepened to the point where we clutch our heads at every missed shot, sob in the stands after dramatic wins, and carry personal beefs so beefy that in the parking lot of a bar we will roundly curse a man who has helped transform American soccer into a dynamic force. At dinner in Johannesburg a few nights ago, a British journalist jokingly wondered how many Americans here could name more than five players on their own national team. I’ve found just one American here who couldn’t (although more would undoubtedly turn up if I kept looking).
Soccer may be the only sport left that allows us to be exuberantly and guiltlessly patriotic, which is perhaps why some progressives have trouble supporting the U.S. team. We can get away with such outpourings of nationalism because, in soccer, we’re not a superpower. Imagine dressing up like Captain America and screaming your head off at a USA-Algeria basketball game. Not cool. But American soccer fans do scream. They bedeck themselves in flags and elaborate costumes. A national team game now looks like a cross between Carnival and a Revolutionary War re-enactment. And, thanks to Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and the rest of the U.S. national team, this wacky party will roll through South Africa for at least a few more days.