By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – Chef’s Table, popular café in downtown. Mid-morning on a Wednesday. Fifty-two inch VIZIO TV mounted on a brick wall. Across from it, a handful of males – a mix of dads and sons – with eyes glued to the screen.
The focus of their attention? The World Cup match between the U.S. and Algeria. This would decide if America is a contender and will earn a slot among the final 16 teams or if they go home.
As with all matches, in the stands at the arena, the Vuvuzelas blared, like a hive of riled hornets. And, certainly, the mood among fans was feverish, both sides cheering on their combatants, abuzz with excitement.
America’s triumph would depend on a combination of things: the skill of the players behind the lead of Captain Carlos Bocanegra, the luck of shots on goal with regard to the positioning of Algeria’s goalie and the accuracy of the referee’s calls. Thus far, in this year’s World Cup, officials’ judgments had been much in question.
Algeria took the first potshot, about five minutes in, which actually ricocheted off the goalpost. The strike signaled that the game would be a fierce one.
The U.S. took the next significant shot – a rebound that Clint Dempsey booted, which actually went in the goal but was discounted due to the ref’s judgment that a player was offside. (A review determined that the call was a bad one, but the call still held.)
Weather conditions in Pretoria, South Africa, the site of the game, were perfect as the sun started to drop behind the stadium. “This weather is good for the players. They like this,” said Stanley, sitting nearby. Originally from Slovakia (land of hockey pucks), he’s now a Monroe resident and had played soccer in his home country. A stucco contractor, he had been on his way to Norwalk and decided to stop in and catch the game. “I used to watch the games at Roberto’s in Bridgeport, but he closed the restaurant.” We discussed who had been the best player and best goalie thus far in the Cup as the 1st half came to a close, the score “nil-nil” as the broadcasters noted.
By this time, a mom had joined one of the dad/son combos, and two other guys had come to sit in. All of us were now transfixed to the screen, wondering how the second half would play out.
Meanwhile, England was busy duking it out with Slovenia, with the score 1-0, England on top. One of our brethren here had pulled up that game on his laptop and was viewing it live. He turned the screen toward us all so we could also eyeball it as ESPN was not showing it as an inset. The broadcaster was, however, providing periodic updates.
The laptop’s owner was a fellow named Rumen, and he hailed from Bulgaria. I introduced him to Stanley, saying, “Bulgaria meet Slovakia… Slovakia, Bulgaria.” Overhearing that, another guy said to me, “Where are you from?” “Two blocks from here… “ then, feeling like I needed to qualify myself on an international level, said, “but I have German, Irish and Welsh roots.”
“The Algerian goalie (Rais M. Bolhi) played for Bulgaria,” Rumen pointed out. “He played in the championship.” Despite that connection, Rumen was rooting for Team USA.
Well into the 2nd, Clint Dempsey took another shot at Algeria’s goal, hesitating then firing. The ball ricocheted off the right post, sending up a collective groan here and at the stadium among the red, white and blue adorned fans.
“Look at this,” Rumen interjected. “Slovenia had three chances to score against England,” he said, showing me a replay from his laptop of three simultaneous attempts on goal that were deflected, blocked or wide.
Walking into the café at that moment was local personality, reggae band leader and philanthropist Mystic Bowie, with his sidekick Shannon. He joined our throng noting, “I was watching the game at home.”
His bassist Renard also strolled in and began setting up an amp and wiring in the alcove on the street side of the narrow cafe. He paused in the process to eyeball the screen.
The Vuvuzelas were at full pitch as the 2nd half 75-minute mark passed. At the 78-minute mark, USA’s Michael Bradley earned a free kick but ended up driving it right at the Algerian goalie. At this point, even former president Bill Clinton, attending the match and sitting alongside FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, looked anxious about the U.S.’ chances.
Dempsey took a karate chop to the face, which bloodied his cheek and lip. He poured a bottle of water on the wound and went straight back in to support his mates.
“Gang Green” (referring to the color of Algeria’s uniforms) kept up the pressure. In the stands, U.S. and Algeria fans alike braced themselves. The mood was similarly hopeful and prayerful in the café.
“C’mon guys!” called out Rumen.
At the 88th minute, Team USA looked beat and Algeria was definitely the aggressor. The broadcasters used terms like “desperate” and “exhausted” and wondered if the team could find a way to make a “dramatic” score.
The words had barely left the broadcaster’s mouth when, in the 91st minute, USA led a charge upfield… and Landon Donovan confidently booted the ball into the left corner of Algeria’s goal! We all erupted into cheers, fist pumps, high fives and soul handshakes as Donovan ran to the corner of the field, did a slide and was piled on by his exuberant teammates. He had sealed the deal, given fans what they had prayed for and pushed the U.S. into the next round. As the commentator put it, “You could not write a script like this… It was a Hollywood-style finish!” and “Mountainous drama!”
USA had certainly earned it after the disallowed goal, shots hitting posts and physical abuse. “It was looking like another huge injustice,” said ESPN, but, as hero Donovan said, “We’re alive baby!”
“I’m shocked and so proud of our guys,” Donovan added. It was a truly triumphant moment, one of the greatest in sports history.
USA! USA! USA!