Last Sunday afternoon I went to an art auction in Mecox for WPPB, our local public broadcasting station. Really why I went was because I had a drawing of mine in the auction, a cartoon I had done called HAPPY NEW YEAR 2002 and they told me it had been selected for the live auction. People were going to hold it up and walk it around. I had never had anything of mine auctioned off like that before, people raising their hands and bidding this and that. I wanted to see it.
Before I left the house in East Hampton, however, I set a timer on the TV to record a show I wanted to watch. From 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., ESPN would broadcast a women’s soccer World Cup match between the United States and Japan for the world title. A lot of people had been talking about this. I never understood the attraction of soccer, but it didn’t seem like much else was on, and I wanted to relax in the late afternoon before heading out for that evening’s summer festivities here in the Hamptons.
Anyway, I watched the soccer match when I got home from the art auction. (Nobody bid on my cartoon. C’est la vie.) It was a nice afternoon distraction. But I have to say now I understand soccer. The entire country now understands soccer. In fact, the whole country pretty much shut down to watch this. I think, if what happened to me watching this event happens to others, this is going to be considered the seminal event that finally turns America into the soccer-crazy country that it has so far avoided becoming.
From what I learned listening to the sports commentators before the match began, America has faced Japan 17 times in women’s soccer in recent years and has won every one of them. America was supposed to make it to the playoffs. Japan was not. The Americans were heavily favored.
The game started. Physically, the two teams made quite a contrast. The Japanese were small and slight. The Americans were big and strong. The fastest people out there were the Americans. The only good thing you could say for the Japanese was that they were pretty crafty.
The Americans ran all over the Japanese in the first half. They also ran all over them in the second half. Most of the time, the Americans were swarming around the Japanese net trying to get the ball in. And most of the time, the Japanese would try to kick it out of the way to keep the Americans from doing it.
It is not easy using just your feet and your head to get a ball into a net on the other side of somebody trying to keep you from doing that. Again and again, the Americans fired away at the Japanese goal. They bounced it off the crossbar. They banged it into the goalie who only just managed to deflect it away from the goal by a few inches.
In the various short timeouts that occurred during the first half when somebody got injured and was lying on the ground for a few minutes, the Americans would assemble by their coach, who it seemed to me was telling them to just get rougher and rougher. On the other side, the Japanese coach seemed to be trying to find creative new ways to get the ball down to the other end.
Indeed, the Americans now began playing rougher. There were more violent collisions. The collisions would throw the Japanese players back, the Americans would come charging ahead. Midway through the first half, the Americans broke through and scored. At this point, I really began to understand this game. There were set situations in which you could do things. But there were screwy situations too. The idea was to sort of combine them both, hope your opponent wasn’t in an advantageous position and pray for luck. If it was there, there could be a goal.
But the Japanese team, not letting the goal bother them, played happily on as if this had never happened. If they got knocked down, they got up enthusiastically. They could not run as fast, kick as far or throw a ball in as quickly. But they just kept going.
And then I saw what it was about the Japanese that had resulted in their getting into this final by upsetting the powerful team from Germany. They were so alert. If the other team’s positioning was just slightly off, they could fire the ball laser-like down the field in an intelligent and very terrific thrust. If a teammate was down there, there could be a shot on the goal. It wouldn’t work, but they kept at it. They got shots that way.
It did put me in mind—this Japanese offense—of karate or Judo. There was this suddenness to it, a series of defensive parries preceding it, then, whammo. I think it is in their culture. They’ve always been smaller than their enemies. This is their reply.
Just before the half ended, one of these thrusts resulted in a quick goal. The Americans may have battered them and outshot them by a three-to-one margin, but they went to the sidelines for halftime with the score 1-1.
At the half, the commentators talked about the fact that in all of Japan, a land of 100,000,000 people, only 25,000 women play soccer. In America, a land of 300,000,000, about 30,000,000 girls and women play soccer.
There was talk about how lucky the Japanese girls were in this first half. There was talk about how with the physical beating they were taking they could not hold on forever. There was also talk about how wonderful it would be if the Japanese women brought home this championship to their damaged nation, so recently victim to earthquake, tsunami and nuclear breakdown all on one day.
As the second half began, I realized I was now rooting for them. I thought—what the hell is this? I thought—don’t say a word. Don’t ever tell anybody this. But I could not help myself rooting for them. They were like children, irrepressible, determined, confident and unflappable, and they went on and on and again they were losing.
The second American goal came midway through the second half. Again, it was inevitable. There were so many shots. It was bound to happen. So here the Americans were a second time, in the lead. Goals are so infrequent in soccer. This could do it for them.
During a time out, their coach urged them not to play for time, but instead go for a third goal. And boy they did try. But just before the match ended, there it was again—laser-like thrust by the little guys, right through the American defense, past the goalie and into the net. I leaped up and pumped my fist. Then I sat down to see what would happen next.
Time was winding down. Again the Americans pounded at the Japanese. And again and again the Japanese turned them away. At this point, with about 50 seconds left in the match, my wife came into the TV room and sat down.
“Oh I’ve seen this,” she said. She was referring to the fact I was watching this on tape. “I know how it ends. The Japanese…”
“I DON’T WANNA HEAR THIS!! I shouted at her.
“Okay, okay,” she said. And then she just sat quietly for a while and I thought—the end of that sentence, is it “lose?” or “win?” “Lose” doesn’t sound right. Damn.
The game ended at 2-2, and as a result they had a shoot-out. This is where one team puts the ball down in front of the goal and one of their players tries to kick it with one big kick past the defending goalie. The teams would alternate. They’d each get five shots. The one with the most in the net wins. And if it’s tied, it goes to sudden death. At this point, my wife left the room.
“I know how this ends,” is what she said.
The sudden death was not necessary. The Japanese got their shots in. The Americans, not as often. So the Japanese won and everybody went wild. People were jumping up and down cheering. People were jumping up and down crying. Personally, after a while, I wiped away my tears and sat back down.
It was said that it will take years for the Americans to get over this loss. But they will. Life will go on.
As for Japan, we won!! We won!! We won!! Don’t tell anybody I said that. [/expand]