This excerpt appears in the book Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty
and Dark Side of Soccer by George Vecsey. Vecsey spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.
The Goal That Changes Everything
Pretoria, South Africa, 2010
The Americans were minutes from humiliation.
The long plastic horns of South Africa were blaring like klaxons of doom.
Landon Donovan and his teammates had been working for four years toward this day, but now they chased the ball around the field in a scoreless draw, needing a victory to stay alive. A good bit of the world was rooting for gallant Algeria to eliminate the United States.
Many World Cup matches end this way, with one team trying to kill the final seconds in a distant corner, with the other side as desperate as its fans back home.
In Italy in 1966, angry fans flocked to the Rome airport and threw eggs and tomatoes when the Azzurri landed after being eliminated—by North Korea. Che peccato. What a sin. In 2010, Americans were not yet at the stage of heaving produce at their lads but, still, expectations had been raised all over the States as a younger generation had become consumers—experts, in their own minds, about the world’s sport.
Soccer was having something of a boom in the United States, helped by networks like ESPN, Fox, and Univision. In New York and many other places around the country, signboards were popping up in front of pubs and restaurants, proclaiming: REAL v. BARÇA, 2 PM. American players were going to Europe for the money and the experience. Rich Americans were buying European clubs.
People back home cared now—maybe not to the point of shooting out the TV or jumping off a bridge (which can happen) but enough to post cranky messages in social media, criticizing the starting lineup or the tactics. In summery time zones across the United States, anxious fans were convinced the Yanks really should be able to beat Algeria. They were begging for a goal, as the vuvuzelas blared. At the southern end of Africa, it was June 23, early winter. Getting late.
Keep an eye on the ball. The adage applies to soccer writers as well as athletes. At my first World Cup in Spain in 1982, I could not follow the ball because the skill of the players, the things they could do with their insteps and knees and foreheads, was beyond my comprehension. Over the years, in eight World Cups all over the globe, I learned to continuously take mental note of who touched the ball, and how, and where it went—creating an endless sixty-second loop of memory that could be erased when those touches led nowhere.
Goals are always precious, always unique, and often come out of nowhere because of a nifty steal and a laser pass at the far end. You cannot afford to let your mind wander between plays, as I do at American football games, when I read a few paragraphs of a newspaper between plays that Coach sends in. In soccer, you must watch the ball every second because you just don’t know.
Was I rooting for the Yanks? Not exactly. American soccer writers are pretty independent; they criticize and report, but they also spend time around the players, and generally admire them for their pursuit of the game. The men’s national team and the highly successful women’s team are the sons and daughters of the hybrid nation—never more so than on the epic all-American romp that was about to happen in distant Pretoria.
Reporters and fans had watched the squad change kaleidoscopically from match to match, from year to year. The eleven players on the field were survivors of a long march, and some who had helped win qualifying matches did not make it to South Africa. “Good friends we had, good friends we lost along the way,” as Bob Marley put it.
Now, as the vuvuzelas yowled like hounds of hell, I spotted Tim Howard, the latest in a pipeline of supple American goalkeepers, prowling the goal line, anxiety on his face.
A few weeks earlier, when the United States played a tune-up in Connecticut, team officials brought in Bill Russell, perhaps the most successful American athlete in history, who had won eleven professional basketball championships as the center for the Boston Celtics and who had previously led his team to two college championships and one Olympic gold medal. A rebounder-poet named Tom Meschery once described Russell as “an eagle with a beard.” Now the eagle’s beard was white, and he stooped a bit as he strode across the field, but he still looked like the man who could swat the ball out of Wilt Chamberlain’s hands—fierce, purposeful, distant.
A few steps behind Russell was Tim Howard, part African American, part Hungarian, the nicest of people, who always talked civilly with reporters who covered the U.S. team.
Any fool can be a straight man. I knew Howard had been a star basketball player in high school back in New Jersey. I also knew he could handle my break-the-ice question.
“Did you tell Russell you could dunk on him?”
Howard looked at me quizzically, as if to ask, Are you crazy? Then he smiled and told us how Russell had talked about focus and intensity and pride. The main thing was, Howard had studied the aging eagle, up close.
Every four years, the World Cup moves to a different corner of the earth, becoming part of the history and politics of the host country. The spectators get a quick rush from watching the best-known athletes in the world march onto the field holding the hands of appropriately diverse and always appealing children. Giant yellow Fair Play cards are flashed, the pageantry so blatant yet somehow effective, making people around the world temporarily overlook the demonstrated venality and opacity of FIFA (Féderation Internationale de Football Association), the governing body of soccer.
Late in 1994, I wrote the script for a Brazilian documentary about the World Cup in the United States, just concluded. The title was Two Billion Hearts. I have encountered those thumping hearts in subways in Mexico City, at wurst stands in Germany. In 2010, I was feeling the pride of the African continent; I could sense two billion hearts, all pounding, including my own.
The whole world plays soccer. Two hundred seven nations were registered and ranked as of May 2010, with Brazil ranked first, possibly out of habit, and surging Spain right behind. Six nations were tied for last—San Marino, Anguilla, Montserrat, American Samoa, Central African Republic, and Papua New Guinea.
The United States was ranked fourteenth going into that World Cup while Algeria was ranked thirtieth, which made for a delicious first world–third world matchup. Algeria, although at the opposite end of a vast continent, was representing Africa.
Organized soccer had talked for decades about Africa being the future of the sport. Now FIFA had belatedly honored that commitment, making South Africa the host—a mixed blessing of worldwide exposure and crushing cost. Either way, the world was watching a World Cup in Africa, and the event seemed normal in just about every way, except that the season was winter instead of summer, and fans had to bundle up.
This match was being played in Pretoria, the executive capital of South Africa, in Loftus Versfeld Stadium, built for rugby, named for an early player and administrator of that white man’s sport.
During the terrible struggle over apartheid, officers on horseback had stormed through downtown Pretoria, lashing out at demonstrators. Films of that violence are shown at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. In 1995, this stadium was used for several matches as South Africa improbably won the Rugby World Cup and Nelson Mandela donned rugby gear, setting a tone of unity and accommodation. Fifteen years later, a soccer team from North Africa was giving fits to the United States of America.
It was getting dark, and cold, and very late. The sideline official designated four minutes of supplemental injury time, every second a bonus to the desperate Americans. The red-clad American fans hooted, but many more fans cheered as an Algerian defender played the ball backward to his own keeper, a common stalling tactic.
The Algerian players worked the ball down the right side. Normally, one of the strongest players would dribble into the corner and kill some seconds by grappling with the defenders. However, one player saw an opening, set up a parabolic pass across the goalmouth, where a teammate met it with his forehead. Cristiano Ronaldo or one of the German strikers might have hammered the ball into the far corner to finish off the Americans, but the Algerian lofted it directly toward Tim Howard’s chest.
Howard has a trace of Tourette’s syndrome and normally displays no visible symptoms except perhaps facial twitches now and then. As the ball approached, the condition did not affect his dunker hands. He got the feel of the ball and danced a few steps forward, glancing downfield. In another time and place, the eagle with a beard would have spotted Sam Jones or John Havlicek streaking downcourt. Tim Howard spotted Landon Donovan going in motion.
There was no time for a buildup, only desperation. Howard dished the ball with an overhand motion, bouncing it up the middle, where Donovan, with his sprinter’s stride, caught up with it, forty yards downfield.
Root for the story. That’s the rule for any reporter. The obvious story of this day would be Algeria knocking out the Americans. Then I would write a column asking why Our Lads, with all that money, all those youth programs, were actually deteriorating as a world soccer power since their high point in 2002, when the U.S. team reached the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea.
In our own provincial little World Series of baseball, back in 1986, I had the vague sense the Boston Red Sox were still haunted by some dank vapor, cursed for sending Babe Ruth to the Yankees. I would have enjoyed writing about their first championship after sixty-eight years of failure; instead, I wrote about the fluke ground ball that squiggled through some poor soul’s legs. In baseball, there is no ticking clock, but in this sport of surprises the stopwatch was in the hand of the lone official on the field. Wracked by jet lag, I had no journalistic premonitions as I sat in Loftus Versfeld Stadium. The match was moving in real time, as Landon Donovan picked up the pace.
He was the most beautiful of athletes, with the grace of an 880-yard racer rather than the churning legs of a sprinter. In a sport of ethnics, among sons of immigrants and holders of dual passports, Donovan was a beach boy, happiest when he could smell the Pacific. He had tried the challenge of soccer in Europe but declared himself a homebody, a Californian. He was intense, private, but it was a mistake to underestimate his drive, his toughness. Donovan had learned the second language of California, Spanish, from growing up around Mexican kids, and he was not afraid of sandlot roughness or bilingual jibes from hostile crowds in arenas like Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. He almost seemed to like it.
Donovan was the most potent attacking force the United States had ever sent onto a field. He could take corner kicks or find an open seam on the field or fight off an elbow to capture a loose ball—or just outrun everybody. In a nation that has produced great athletes in many other sports, he was the closest approximation to a star. In World Cup terms, he was America’s Maradona, America’s Baggio, America’s Zidane. Tim Howard made sure the right man had the ball.
Donovan caught up with the ball at full speed, opening up the field. In the past fifteen minutes, the United States had seemed to gain the edge in cardio fitness. Donovan raced past the Algerian defenders. All over the world, four billion eyes began to widen, the quick rush of this sport.
The temptation for Donovan, for any footballer, was to try too much. A basketball player knows he has enough energy and skill to race down the court and dunk, which is why scores often exceed one hundred points, from repetitive brilliance. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a soccer player might overreach, but Donovan found the incredible presence to lay the ball off to his right, where Jozy Altidore was racing.
A big striker of Haitian background, born in New Jersey, Altidore had traveled around the soccer diaspora, looking to be a star. Not known for speed or finesse, Altidore caught up with Donovan’s ball, controlled it with a touch far beyond his norm, and took a swerve toward the goal, past defenders, making the run of his life.
Again, there was the danger of doing too much. Instead of getting fancy, Altidore drilled the ball toward the goal, putting pressure on the keeper, who had other distractions: Clint Dempsey, an intense kid from East Texas, who grew up playing with Mexican friends and had gone overseas to eventually become the all-time leading American scorer in England. He had had a goal taken away earlier by an offside call that looked spurious on the replay; now the Yanks were running out of seconds.
“When the ball got played out to Jozy, I tried to make a run,” Dempsey would later recall. Altidore drilled the ball into the scrum in front of the goal and Dempsey got his foot on it, but as he tumbled forward he saw the keeper deflecting the ball and he thought, “Oh, no, this is not my day.” The momentum carried Dempsey into the goalmouth, like a human cannonball, making contact with the Algerian keeper before tumbling into the back of the net.
Any Algerian player might have blasted the ball out of danger—as Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain had done so acrobatically in the Women’s World Cup final of 1999—and back in the States those viewers not yet enchanted with soccer might have said, “But nothing happened!”
In this case, something did happen. That’s why we hold our breath and watch. After passing the ball to Altidore, Donovan had kept running with his beautiful 880-yard gait. He put his foot on the ball from seven yards out and flicked it into the net. Then he dashed to the corner of the field and slid on his stomach like a very happy baby otter, with American players landing on top of him, followed by reserves and staff members and goodness knows who else, a whole nation, in a sense. Redemption in the ninety-first minute.
“I was one of the last people to make it to the dog pile,” Dempsey recalled.
That goal, by young American players of vastly diverse backgrounds, immediately became the greatest single play the United States has ever made in the World Cup—considering the lateness of the hour, the distance traveled, the stakes involved, and the higher profile of the American program by 2010, its sixth straight World Cup appearance.
When I watched the video of the Donovan goal recently, I felt a surge of respect, all over again, for the sheer degree of difficulty. If Howard had distributed the ball in another direction, if Donovan had gotten giddy on his dash upfield, if Altidore had bungled his possession, if Dempsey had overdone his slide near the keeper and prompted a foul call, if Donovan had blasted the ball into the upper deck—all potential failures, an intrinsic part of this sport.
Instead, the American players killed off the last three minutes and celebrated on the field, still alive, at the center of their sport, at the center of the world.