Did you see that? Did you call your friends? Did you hug strangers? Did you share?
This is why we love games. This is why we invest and care and cry and scream and get angry — for the one breathtaking moment that Landon Donovan gave us Wednesday morning, when a little balding guy summoned the strength to lift our big country and give the United States a 1-0 victory against Algeria to advance to the World Cup’s knockout round.
There is nothing better in sports than patriotism. But hope is pretty close. And winning, too. And they all merged with that soccer ball in front of an empty net in the 91st minute over in South Africa. The feeling Donovan’s foot then produced, in a blink, was so enormous that you could feel the ripples of reverberation from a world away.
Over here, bars and offices erupted with joyous noise, and grown men wept. Most of life is not lived in this arena, of course. Most of life is bills and responsibilities and bosses and oil spills, and we need vacations from all that. But games, in moments like this one, allow us to exist and emote on a different and higher plane, living vicariously through that team’s bond, which can grow so large that it allows us to wrap even something as big as our entire country in something as small as a single flag.
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It is why America spends so much money and invests so much more emotion on sports — to escape, to vacation from life in this magical paradise. How often does anything outside of sports make you scream at a television or dance around your couch or jump up and down? Think about that for a second. You scream if you win the lottery or dance when your children are born. But you do it all the time in sports, from quarter to quarter, game to game, season to season, with something that isn’t even really yours. Donovan won the lottery Wednesday, not us. Donovan’s teammates are his joyous family, not us. But that’s the beauty of sports in moments like this: It can make all things feel so much larger, turning “us” into “U.S.”
It doesn’t last, of course. Heck, real life flooded in too immediately Wednesday, the news of Lawrence Taylor’s underage-rape indictment breaking with urgency into ESPN’s joy coverage before the fans had even left the stadium. In South Florida, the talk was the unfair firing of Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez. But chasing this kind of moment — hoping, praying, believing it will come — is what keeps us coming back to the arena even though there is always this kind of garbage strewn around it.
The lows, believe it or not, can be pretty good, too, and make the highs all the better. That’s why Pat Riley always returns to coaching — because Game 7, even when you lose it, makes you feel more alive than you ever can behind a desk. For 91 minutes Wednesday, you could feel the low that was coming — jokes and mockery and anger about how dreadful soccer is for never producing a goal. This tournament was about to be a disaster for American soccer (not just this team but this movement), and its endless quest to lure the A.D.D. sports fan who wants more florescent scoring. We were going to be eliminated from this tournament with a third consecutive tie — and a 0-0 one at that. That’s right. Playing three games without getting a single win or loss. So lame.
But then, just like that, in the one breathtaking moment we all visit this arena to chase, anger and frustration and disgust evaporated into an uncommon and sudden and shared joy. That doesn’t happen very often in real life, not outside the arena, not like that. After so much boredom and 0-0, against the odds and the refs and the other countries, keeper Tim Howard threw the ball from his own box, and the panicked and desperate American team blurred down the field, and the game was broken open like a heart loving for the first time. From one second to the other, we went from being eliminated from the world’s largest tournament to being one of only 16 countries promised more life just like this.
And here’s the coolest thing of all:
This isn’t the finish line.
It is merely the starting point.
Now is when this thing starts getting good.
Because we already have all the coolest things in sports — patriotism and hope and winning.
And now we have the underdog, too.
Dan Le Batard, Miami Herald sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.