World Cup fever! Catch it.

I admit that up until now I have been the stereotypical dirty merkin. Soccer seemed like such a boring game, not enough shooting and scoring. And it allows tie games. Jesus! A tie! If nobody wins, what’s the point of even playing in the first place? OK, I admit I still feel this way about the ties. But after this morning’s U.S.-Germany game, I’m officially on the bandwagon.

My first real exposure to the sport was during the 1994 World Cup here in United States. The opening ceremonies and some of the early matches were held in Soldier Field, and all I was wondering was what all these foreigners were doing in town and what were they doing in the stadium used by my beloved Bears. Several of my friends were on our high school’s soccer team, and they tried to get me into the World Cup, but it was just so boring. I was getting a little hyped up for the Brazil game on the 4th of July, but the USA lost and so was my interest.

Then the MLS started up and my city was blessed with one of the best teams in the league, the Chicago Fire. Again I didn’t care, but then again neither did the local media. I remember reading some headlines about the Fire whenever they managed to earn one in the sports section, but none of the games were on television. The Fire did win the league championship one year, and I remember walking through Daley Plaza during a rally celebrating the win. I stood around for a little while to see what was going on, and overheard a conversation that pretty much summed up the situation nicely:

Bystander One: What the hell is all this?
Bystander Two: I dunno, some team won a championship.
Bystander One: Who?
Bystander Two: Well, it ain’t the Bulls.

And with that they walked off.

The 1998 World Cup in France didn’t even register a blip on the radar.

So I went into this Cup with almost no interest. My soccer-obsessed friends on the other hand were even more into it than before, and they didn’t have cable. This resulted in several late nights at my place while the guys came over to watch ESPN. While I initially grumbled about the boring play, I found myself slowly being sucked in. The amazing run by Senegal, beginning with their upset of France. Germany completely demolishing Saudi Arabia. And of course, the improbable run by my own United States. When they beat Portugal, a team everyone thought they would lose to, I began to take notice. I found myself staying up alone to watch the game against South Korea, my heart leaping into my throat as Brad Friedel stopped a Korean penalty kick early in the game. I suffered through the loss to Poland and us falling ass backwards into the round of 16. I celebrated another upset victory, this time over Mexico.

Excitement over the Germany game was reaching a fever pitch. I knew didn’t have a chance of winning, or did we? Could we do it? A Miracle on Grass perhaps? Then one of my friends gave me the call: “We’re going to a pub.” He had just spent a semester in London, which had only deepened his soccer obsession (he’s a huge Arsenal fan), and he had learned the true way to watch a game. So I hauled my ass out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and we made our way to The Abbey, an Irish pub on the north side of the city. The place was packed with USA supporters, and one lone German fan who we all hated. NBC News was there filming everything and interviewing people, so I might be on TV tonight (watch for the big lunkhead in the maroon shirt).

The crowd’s spirits rose and fell with the movement of the ball and fortunes of the USA team. I think the only time the crowd was pulled out of it was when the clock hit 7:00 a.m. and the bar started serving alcohol again. The Americans were in it for the whole game, almost always on the attack. The crowd cheering whenever the U.S. got a shot off, and gasping whenever the Germans got too deep. Everyone groaning when the Germans scored their lone goal at the end of the first half. There was almost a collective heart attack when Tony Sanneh’s header just missed scoring in the 89th minute. I have never felt such a sense of comraderie among sports fans. Even before the game began, everyone stood up and sang the national anthem along with the players.

Unfortunately, the German defense, led by the stupendous goaltending of Oliver Kahn, proved to be too tough. We did lose, but there was a sense of accomplishment also. We had played against one of the best teams in the world and held our own, always in the game until the very end. I think we could have won too, if we could have converted better on our scoring chances and if not for some bad officiating by Scotsman Hugh Dallas. A shot by Eddie Lewis bounced off Kahn and hit off the left hand of German defender Torsten Frings, who was standing on the goal line. Dallas didn’t call a penalty, and cries of “BULLSHIT!!” rang through the pub. There were also a series of penalties and yellow cards that seemed like over-officiating. The Germans are the biggest bunch of flop-artists I have ever seen.

But even after the game had ended, there was still a sense of hope among the crowd in the pub. The U.S. soccer team had shown that it could play and compete on the world stage and had also gained a bunch of new fans in the process. As everyone got up to go off to their jobs or wherever, we all looked at each other and knew that we were all thinking the same thing:

See you in 2006.