The group plan was to take the bus to the Pelourinho neighborhood we visited yesterday to catch the first match of the day between Argentina and Switzerland, then walk to Arena Fonte Nova to see USA vs Belgium. In our wanderings through the Pelourinho we found a great place to watch the game. It was cool and the refreshments were cold, and they had the game in high definition. We could quickly see that our necessities were met. Or group of roughly fourteen settled in quickly. Followed by a group of boisterous Belgium supporters. One of the welcome truths about the soccer fans I know is that there is no animosity between fans. You hear a lot about soccer hooligans in other parts of the world, but I have not witnessed it personally. Our counterparts turned out to be great guys, and one of them was a car guy. He owned a Jeep, Fiat, and Lancia dealership in the town he was from and turned out to be a prince of a guy. If you could measure people from Belgium by this group you'd say they knew how to have fun, didn't lack for a sense of humor and really liked beer. They liked their beer a lot. Turns out they also know how to sing. Rough chants to cheer on their team. Loud. Before they left Belgium they took the time to have shirts made that had World Cup 2014 screened on them and their Brazilian name. For example Nicholas translated to Nico, Philip translated to Filipo, and so on. As a soccer fan you have friends in every corner of the world. Today was no exception. We had a smash up time with them and it never got out of hand, mostly because they could hold their drink. Argentina beat the Swiss, which I was hardly aware of because of my conversation with Nicholas "Nico" the car guy from Belgium.
The walk to Arena Fonte Nova only took ten minutes from where we were. I cannot say that Salvador is a beautiful city. There is rubbish everywhere. Things are not clean. Stray dogs roam all over the place aimlessly. In spite of all of this the spirit of the place couldn't be any more opposite. People are helpful, friendly and cordial, and my god do they like to have a party. Brazil will go down as a great host nation for the cup, not because the stadiums were beautiful and the streets were clean, but because in Brazil they want you to have a good time at their dinner table. They want to see you enjoying yourself. It might be about the money exchanged but it doesn't feel like its about the money. There is profit to be made, of course, but there will be enough for everyone and I haven't felt like a number while I've been a guest here. They really do give a rip. American Airlines take note.
The confirmation that our seats were two rows from the field was a relief. There had been a voice in my head that this whole thing could be a hoax. After all how could our tickets really be this good when more than a million people applied. From the first whistle the US played pretty well. The game was back and forth with opportunities on both sides of the ball. The skill was good. Not amazing, but good. The physicality was more than I was used to. The pace the athletes played with was truly mind blowing. Yedlin, ended up playing wing back on our side of the field the first half. He is a short statured kid who plays for the Seattle Sounders. He covers ground with alarming speed. Eden Hazard, for Belgium, is small but as quick as your eyes can see, and powerful. Clint Dempsey is smooth and strong. Tim Howard had the game of his life. We witnessed the record for saves in a game for a world cup. Timmy Howard you are, heroic. Sixteen well earn saves. Without Tim we would've lost the game by more than three goals. Vincent Kompany was solid in defense for the Belgians. Figuring into the game prominently, his huge presence on the back line kept the Americans at bay for most of the game. The Belgian team was a strike force. They had a few decent chances in the first half but so did the US. No longer laydowns on the soccer pitch for European powerhouses to over run. The team was resolute in play. Patient without relenting. I could see a confidence we had on the field that hasn't been present in past World Cups. I wish I could say the second half went as well as the first. Belgium pounced on us and began to put their stamp of authority on the game at the whistle for the second half. The tide was turning and Tim Howard was fighting it back. We did have a chance to win the game with a few minutes in regulation on a cross from the right side (by my recollection) but the ball sailed over the goal from less than eight yards out. Extra time was upon us. The US had the first significant opportunity in extra time. Nearly scoring in the first few minutes with a solid build up. Alas, it was not meant to be today. Lukaku came on for Belgium and the complexion of things changed. With fresh legs up front the Belgian strike force had new life and they scored twice, before the US put one in the back of the net. Julian Green had the loan goal for the US. At nineteen years of age we may see more of him in the future. To be fair he was fresh and the defense on both sides of the ball was spent. At the final whistle, Belgium 2 US 1. Heartbreaking.
There are a number of observations I feel like we can take away from this. We left our hearts on the field as fans and as a team. Connor was devastated and mad. The players were laying on the field spent from effort. In spite of the result I was proud to be associated with such an effort. We orchestrated a beautiful compelling game of soccer. Against a respected opponent. I was on the edge of my seat for much of the game. Wrung out at its conclusion. There is no doubt in my mind that the world is going to have to take US soccer more seriously as a result of this cup. We made a quiet announcement to the world that we are coming to the game and you'd better pay attention because if you don't we are going to beat you down. Winners stay. I look forward to the future with a renewed sense of hope for American soccer on the world stage.
Walking back from the game to the Pelourinho was not the same walk I was looking forward to before the game. One thing that did strike me, however, is that the culture of this sport is changing in the US. We have a seat at the table now. The opportunities for me to play soccer in Montana as a young man were limited. There wasn't a domestic league when I was growing up. There were no resources for soccer in high-school. My high-school soccer team was sponsored by the local YMCA not sanctioned by the school. In my first post I mentioned that soccer is a birth right in Brazil. Passed on from one generation to the next, woven into the cultural fabric. It is one of the things that makes Brazil, Brazil. We are not there yet, but as I walked back from the game we were two generations of players with a domestic league that is well attended and my son will play high school soccer. If he has children they will know all about soccer. They'll probably like watching the sounders and be fans of Liverpool. They will talk about World Cup 2014 and the time we met the Belgians in Salvador before the US game. Yedlin's name might enter the conversation. The noteworthy characters of this cup and world soccer deified in our memory for us to pass down from one generation to the next. The heart of my favorite game is pounding at home in the US and I partly have the current men's team to thank for that. I am in debt to them for propping open the door to the Church of the Beautiful game for the United States to finally step across the threshold. The embrace of the world is waiting for us. I can finally take a breath.
Signing off form Salvador, Brazil. Know that you will always have more than you need and never have less than you want.