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“I Believe That We Will Win”: Why Portugal’s Late-Game Stunner Might Be the Most Important Goal in the History of US Soccer

I don’t think the American comeback is worth talking about. This is a resilient team. Their fans (We) are resilient, and have a never-say-die attitude. The comeback simply reinforces this narrative (and Americans have never been able to look away from a good narrative, especially about sports). But do you know what does punch a good narrative in the face and then laugh mercilessly? An event occurring that directly contradicts the narrative. That was Ronaldo’s cross, and Varela’s goal.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Almost exactly four years ago I found myself sitting down to write a piece that I see as the predecessor to this one: Landon Donovan had just sealed what—until Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross in minute 95 of yesterday’s game—was the most important goal in US Soccer history. Words escaped me, as they do now, as I sat down to write about my experience watching that game: "Thank You, Team USA: Finally, American Soccer Fans Can Feel At Home," I wrote.

"As a life-long soccer fan it's incredible for me to see the passion that this World Cup has created in this country--it was only 8 years ago that we had to buy pay-per-view games to see the World Cup; 6 years ago we had to find the most obscure channel possible for the EuroCup; and even 4 years ago many people didn't even know the Cup was going on."

Later in the piece I relayed a story about sitting down in a pub with some people I’d never met and instantly feeling a deep connection with them—and to me, in New York in 2010 that was the epitome of my USA-supporting life. Sure, I’ll always have split loyalties—in fact, as a dual citizen, with memories of watching Spain in every international tournament since 1994, the USA might always be my second team.

So watching the band of heroes who delivered me my life’s second-greatest sporting moment crash out of Brazil spectacularly, I realize that there’s something deeply wonderful about disappointment (and especially the heartbreak of this type of failure): it drains and crushes you, but in that devastation are the seeds of something much deeper, something that brings us back after these moments. This is what it means to be truly devoted—it’s that kernel of your heart that doesn’t just immediately start thinking about next year, or complaining about this one. It’s the part of you that, while brutally disheartened, is happy that something as simple as this group of people playing this silly game brings about these emotions in you. This is the part of you that brings you back year after year after year in the bad times (for Spain, any time before 2008) and then makes you so giddy in the good times.

This is why Portugal’s late-game stunner might be, for this long-time Team USA fan (yes, I remember watching Alexi Lalas sit on the bench during the 1998 World Cup), the most important goal in the history of US Soccer.

On this June evening I was sitting on my couch, resolutely wearing my USA shirt, watching as a terrible Portugal struggled to execute against a strong American side. Cristiano Ronaldo (who is obviously injured) was barely moving, walking around in jaw-clenching pain, wincing as he picked his legs up. Even he couldn’t get anything going against a well-positioned American defense. However, Tim Howard, one of my (anyone’s!) perennial favorites, played a truly atrocious match, being bailed out time and again by Portuguese miscues or (as my American friend attests) the work of God (the post). I didn’t have high hopes.

[Side note: Real Madrid fans should be rooting as hard as we can for a Germany-USA tie. Cristiano hasn’t ever, in his entire career, looked this hobbled. He needs to come home and have a vacation, and maybe even should be shut down for the first month of the season. I couldn’t be more serious about this: the worst thing for Madrid would be Portugal advancing to the Octos. /endrant]

Sure, Nani’s strike on five minutes seemed pre-ordained: the USA would never do this the easy way. But something in me knew that there was no way the Portuguese would manage to keep a clean sheet against this resilient American side—and I was right.

Now, and here’s the crucial part of what I’m trying to explore: I don’t think the American comeback is worth talking about. This is a resilient team. Their fans (We) are resilient, and have a never-say-die attitude--this team proved that in 2010. The comeback simply reinforces this narrative (and Americans have never been able to look away from a good narrative, especially about sports). But do you know what punches a good narrative in the face and then laughs mercilessly as it lies, bloodied on the ground? An event occurring that directly contradicts that narrative.

That was Ronaldo’s cross, and Varela’s goal.

I’d seen this movie before. Well, not exactly, but I’d certainly seen the prequel: Cristiano receives on the wing, takes a couple of steps like he’s going to take on the defender, then stops—waits—then delivers a pinpoint ball onto someone’s head (Benzema, Bale, Di Maria—whomever). 1-0 to Madrid.

So when he looped that (perfect) ball in I knew what was about to happen. Because honestly, not even the suffocating hell-on-earth conditions of this rainforest nightmare, not even a serious knee injury, not even a demoralizing string of performances could take that pass away from Madrid’s playmaker from Madeira.

And then silence.

My friends and I sat in stunned agony. I’d never been on that end of Cris’s brilliance before. It sucks.

And then I saw what I’d never before seen from a collective group of (casual) US soccer fans. True agony. Gut punch-itude. The look on people’s face—when watching it, when talking about it the next day: it’s the look people get when their NFL team loses on a last-second field goal.

And today (the day after) was the greatest day I’ve ever had as a soccer fan in this country.

Today was the greatest day I’ve had as a soccer fan in this country because I can tell that this team—with their low expectations and their rabid enthusiasm and their ability to break (and mend) hearts—has created lifelong fans. Lifelong fans not just of this team, but of the sport—casual fans have become curious, willing to pick up the game. Bars that started showing Champions League games after 2010 might start showing EPL or Liga or Serie A or MLS (!!) games now. I see in this disappointment the beginning of a new sporting age in this country.

If soccer burst onto the American scene with Donovan’s goal in 2010, it truly arrived with Cristiano’s cross in 2014. So to all the casual fans roaming into this big world of club soccer for the first time—hello! Let me introduce you to Real Madrid, my first and only true sporting love. If you like what you see come and dive in—welcome to Managing Madrid.

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