Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Team USA: Let Us Not Forget

Those who have been paying attention for the past two weeks know that a great drama took place in Germany. A sport that many Americans rarely think about--women's soccer --seized the attention of our troubled nation as Team USA made a thrilling and glorious effort to win the World Cup. The high point, undoubtedly, was the victory in the Quarterfinals against Brazil, in which the USA scored on a marvelous set play in what was literally their last chance, in the final seconds of extra time.

Americans are strangely resistant to the beautiful game. Soccer is loved the world over, perhaps because it is a game that can be understood by anyone, a game that transcends cultural differences because its fundamental rule corresponds to the simple human reflex of kicking something. It requires no equipment beyond some object that can serve as a "ball"--in the favellas of Brazil or the muddy back roads of villages in Africa, a malleable piece of garbage and a group of kids is all that is needed for a soccer match of dramatic intensity. The wealthy youth of Europe with the most refined athletic footwear, a regulation ball, and a beautiful field are nevertheless engaged in the same game. Kick it into the goal. There are no rich or poor on the soccer pitch. It is a game that highlights our common humanity on the most basic level. And it demonstrates that even on this level, human beings manifest intelligence, tenacity, and a desire that reaches out for victory. What is this desire to win? It is an elusive and inexhaustible thing, ultimately, because even when one triumphs, the flame of desire to win again only grows stronger.

In soccer, triumph often comes in a sudden and explosive way, after much ponderous effort. Perhaps we Americans are spoiled by too much accessible gratification; it is difficult for us to participate, as fans, in the labor of a soccer match. But Team USA drew us in, by their hard work, by their tenacity, their refusal to give up, their incredible sense of being a team and representing their country. For a week, we were fascinated by soccer. We danced around the room and shouted like Italians or Brazilians when the space of players suddenly opened up like clouds making way for the sun and a GOAL shined gloriously before us.

Soccer is "beautiful" not only because of its gracefulness, but also because scoring a goal requires one to be in the right place, with expectation and attention, when the opportunity suddenly emerges from the obtuse struggle, like a gift. Soccer inspires wonder in me, wonder about the human being. What is this "human being" who takes something so simple as kicking a ball and turns it into an expression of the human desire for exaltation, for a triumph that never ends?

For Team USA, the end this year came in a loss in the finals to Japan. For awhile, it looked like the names of Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and the other heroines of the team were about to enter the pantheon of American sports legends. Perhaps they will anyway. They should. They gave us some of the most splendid moments in the history of our sports, they bore their loss with dignity and grace, and they remained always a team: human beings gathered together seeking a common purpose, a sign of destiny.

(Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, after the victory over Brazil)