Warning: Extreme Sports Geekery Ahead

It’s virtually impossible to make Americans care about soccer, and even harder to make them care about women’s sports, but seriously: you should all be watching the Women’s World Cup. Many of you watched the World Cup last year, and really got into it, and in many ways the Women’s version is even better: the games are thrilling, there’s no vuvuzelas, and the players look like this:

That’s not just eye candy, that’s Hope Solo, one of the best goalies in the history of the game–of either gender (plus her name makes her sound like a descendant of Han, which is awesome). On the American team, she’s backed up by two of the three top scorers in the Cup, giving us one of the strongest teams in the world and a favorite to win the whole tourney this year. The other top scorer in the Cup is Marta Vieira da Silva, leader of the Brazilian team and also heavily favored to win. On Sunday they played each other in the quarter-finals, and it was one of the best, most exciting, most maddening games I’ve ever seen.

The Men’s World Cup was famous last year for having bad calls, leading to accusations of corruption and, eventually, a public apology, which NEVER happens. The game this week between Brazil and the US was similarly riddled with questionable calls, but they happened to both sides and, in the end, the refs seemed like they were doing a fairly good job. The game started with Brazil accidentally knocking the ball into their own goal just 1 minute and 17 seconds into the match–the second earliest goal in World Cup history. I know I just said that the Brazilian team was awesome, and now I’m saying they started the match by giving away a goal; well, this was that kind of match. The US fought long and hard and crazy, finally scoring their second goal a full two hours later, the latest goal in World Cup history, giving them, in the process, the longest gap between goals in a single match in, as far as I know, the history of soccer. That’s a weird record to hold, but there you go, and it’s not one likely to be beaten anytime soon since most matches don’t even go that long. It was, as I said, that kind of a match.

The US held Brazil to zero for the first half, and then in the second the ref went insane and called a red card on a US player who fouled a Brazilian while blocking a shot mere feet from the US goal. There was no way that kind of foul was red-card worthy, but because it happened inside the goal box a yellow card gets automatically upgraded to a red card, so I suppose it was kind of excusable–if you believe that it was even yellow-card worthy, which some of the commentators didn’t. So it was a suspect call, but not a ridiculous one depending on who you talk to. The next call, on the other hand, was awful. See, when a player gets a red card two things happen: first, that player is ejected from the game, and the team is not allowed to replace them, so the US were now playing with only ten people on the field instead of eleven. Second, because the red card happened in the goal box, the Brazilians got a penalty kick: one kicker versus one goalie, with no outside help, at extreme close range. It’s incredibly hard to block a penalty kick, so this was practically like giving the Brazilians a free goal–except that the US goalie is Hope Solo, who can block anything. She deflected the shot, the crowd cheered like mad, and the ref blew the whistle and said it didn’t count because Solo had moved too early. The commentators, at this point, went back and ran through the footage over and over again, looking for any sign that she had moved early, but she was steady as a rock. The ref was determined to give Brazil a goal. For its second attempt Brazil sent in Marta, the top scorer in the world, and got the point. The game was tied, there was half an hour left to play, and the US was down a player. Things looked horribly unwinnable. But the US team never gave up.

When you’re short a player you have to choose: you’re going to have a weak spot regardless, so do you put it on attack or defense? With the game tied, the US couldn’t afford to slack on offense, so they put all their strength up front and trusted Solo to pick up the slack. She did so more than admirably. The second half finished with a tie, sending the game into two 15-minute blocks of overtime. Marta managed to land the craziest shot I’ve ever seen, kicking it over her head and backward to hook up, pass the defenders, and drop into the top corner of the goal like magic. She really is an amazing player, and if she’d made the shot just one minute earlier it would have won them the game, but overtime had already started, and they had to play the full 30 minutes. 30 minutes later, after almost a full hour of 10-vs-11 desperation, the US landed a crazy goal of their own, with a Hail Mary pass from Megan Rapinoe turning into a gorgeous headshot from Abby Wambach, the US team captain.

Not only did this goal happen after the normal time had ended, it technically happened after the overtime had ended, in what’s called stoppage time. See, in soccer, there’s none of the constant time-outs and whatnot that you see in games like American football; if the players stop playing for any reason, like a substitution or an injury or even a pause while the ref makes a call, the clock keeps running, and the refs keep track of all this wasted time and then add it on at the end. After Brazil made it’s overtime goal they decided to slow the game down as much as they could, playing around with the ball and keeping it away from the Americans as much as possible, on the theory that every second they don’t have the ball is a second they can’t use to score. This reached a ridiculous extreme toward the end as two different Brazilian players, within about five minutes of each other, collapsed in apparent agony and called for medics and stretchers to carry them off the field. If you can find the footage somewhere (I searched everywhere, but it’s not up yet), the second Brazilian to do this was awesome: she’s standing near the back line, twenty yards from the nearest opponent, and just keels over for no reason. The medics come out, the refs go over, they strap her into the stretcher, and about three minutes later they finally get her off the field, at which point she jumps up, runs to the bench for a drink, and then COMES RIGHT BACK ONTO THE FIELD. In a game renowned for its cheap “ow I’ve been hurt” fakeouts, this was the fakiest fake of a time-wasting improv show you will ever see. The refs didn’t call a penalty on her for it, but they added the full three minutes to the end of the game, and that is when the Americans finally scored their second goal. When you score in the 122nd minute of a game that’s only supposed to be 90 minutes long, that’s pretty much the definition of “never giving up.”

With overtime over and the game still tied, the game goes to penalty kicks, which as I said are incredibly hard to block. Each team gets five shots, and whoever makes the most wins the game. Once again, Hope Solo showed us just how good she really is, and managed to block two of them. One of the blocked shots, in a sad/ironic coincidence, came from Daiane, the same Brazilian player who scored the own-goal at the beginning of the game, more or less ensuring that she’ll spend the rest of her life blaming herself for Brazil’s loss. I also imagine she got a few wedgies in the locker room, assuming women give wedgies. Sad Daiane aside, the US team won the match and moves on to the semifinals tomorrow, playing France. you can bet I’m going to be watching.

So: one of the best teams in the world gives up an own-goal and loses to a team that doesn’t even have all its players. The game goes into overtime even though one team has technically never made a goal. The refs are inscrutable and the players are deceitful. Why did I love this match so much? Because it embodies everything I love and hate about soccer. It was thrilling, start to finish, and the players involved are just so dang GOOD. Yes, most of the goals came from what looked like pure luck, but it takes an incredibly talented team to create those lucky opportunities and then capitalize on them. Either of those teams, on that day, in that zone of excellence, would have demolished any other team they played against, but because they were playing each other the skill and the zaniness were catalyzed into a ball of chaos, and the fun came from watching both teams give it everything they had and somehow manage to control the uncontrollable. It’s like watching a bull rider: the slightest mistake will get them killed, but they hang on and do their best and make it work.

I love this game. Time for a soccer party tomorrow evening.

19 Responses to “Warning: Extreme Sports Geekery Ahead”

  1. Test comment. Your website does not appear to be borked.

  2. Test comment by request.

  3. Josh says:

    I can see the site, and post a comment!

  4. Greg Joseph says:

    I came for the borking, and stayed for the Solo.

  5. Dave Butler says:

    You are visible and I can post.

  6. It’s back. Congrats.

  7. Josh says:

    oh…and have you ever thought about writing sports? This was enjoyable and easy to follow.

  8. spencer says:

    It was a great game. I loved it, nearly made me late to church though… Can’t wait for the game tomorrow.

  9. Test post…

    And holy crap, Dan, you are a good writer. You made me interested in soccer for a few minutes. Sir, I salute you! :D

  10. Matthew Watkins says:

    I also love soccer. The game is just so amazing. Also, I can tell you exactly how to make americans love soccer. Stop subsidizing High School Football with public funds. That sport is expensive, soccer is not expensive. Natural economical factors would drive soccer to be more popular.

  11. I saw the wonderful plays on the news. I love your review and explanation. You ought to report it on TV.

  12. Steve D says:

    But what the rest of you don’t know is that Dan essentially summed up everything he knows about sports in general into this post.

    We were at dinner once following the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl Victory, and the manager of the restaurant noticed my Saints hat. He then proceeded to talk to Dan, myself and another of our friends, Nick, for a half hour. Dan mentioned something about golf to fit it with my sports rhetoric, and the manager turns to Dan and tries to have an in depth conversation about sports. It didn’t go well for Dan. It went extremely well for Nick and I since we got to laugh at Dan.

    Moral of the story? I like to make fun of Dan. I especially like to make fun of Dan when he talks about any sport other than fútbol. But yes, this was well done for a cylon pretending to be a sports fan.

  13. admin says:

    That post from Steve is a perfect example of why I try to kill him in every book I write.

  14. James says:

    I was listing to the radio last year around the time of the men’s world cup and heard the perfect explanation as to why soccer will never be popular in the US: the powers that be have failed to market the sport as ‘cool’. They’ve tried leaning on the tradition of the of soccer. Nobody cares. They’ve tried to show the influence of the sport in other parts of the world. Nobody cares. They’ve tried marketing players. Nobody cares. They’ve tried to get younger kids involved. They grow up, and then they don’t care. In the US, if you can’t market a sport as being cool, then you can’t market that sport at all. That’s why American Football is the number one sport in the States right now: because those, at all levels of the sport, who are marketing their product have been selling it as cool for decades. Soccer, in the US, has been trying to sell itself as a world standard that the US should conform to. And it has failed terribly, and forever will with that mentality.

  15. I don’t know how you managed it, but I… I think I want to watch a game of soccer. *stumbles away in a dazed fashion*

  16. Steve D says:

    That post from Dan is a perfect example of why I have fun making fun of Dan the Cylon. I like getting killed off in his novels. He does it THE BEST!

    And actually one of the big reasons for the poor visibility of “soccer” is the absolute inability to capitalize on it by way of marketing and commercials. There aren’t commercial breaks except at the half and at pre-match/post-match, so there isn’t any real revenue for it. It’s all sponsorships.

    I think the obvious solution is for the various companies to come up with commercials that are purely visual in nature (no sound), and run them in a picture-in-picture at the bottom corner of a match while it is going on. It would require actual brain power from the ad people (which, judging from the talent running Super Bowl ads, seems like a lost cause already), but it could be a way to televise more “soccer” with incoming ad revenue and get the sport more visible in the young public’s eyes.

  17. Adam says:

    Soccer is wonderful to watch, especially when you get to the international level. I’ll readily admit that I don’t enjoy watching as much of the MLS or other American soccer, the skill level just isn’t quite as high on the club level in the US. I will watch either the English Premier League or the Champions League if either of those are on TV because it’s the highest level soccer in the world.

    I agree with you that the game Sunday was amazing, I was watching it before I went to work and the entire game was thrilling. I’ll be the jerk here and say that I don’t normally watch women’s sports, but the international level soccer is amazing to watch whether it’s male or female.

  18. Christoph says:

    Finals!
    All in all, the US were the better team but just did not get it done in the first half of the game. The Japanese played well, and I for one am a little bit happy for them, what with ecological disasters and the like.
    Still, great game from both teams, and exciting until the end!

  19. Nate says:

    Just thought I’d mention that the covergirl for your blogpost is a UW graduate. Yet another reason to move to Seattle, Dan.

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