Because the World Cup is a quadrennial affair, reflecting on tournaments past gives one the sense of pulling out time capsules from different stages of your life. It feels a bit self-indulgent to recount how these events impacted my life. But, I know all soccer fans have their own anecdotes to add to these and I'm anxious to read how the World Cup has bookmarked your life as well.
The US was just starting to warm to soccer. Unfortunately, it had not warmed to a professional soccer league and the NASL was now supplanted by its inferior indoor cousin, the MISL. The 1986 World Cup was supposed to be in Colombia. When they pulled out at the last moment, the USA put in a bid to host the tournament. They even threw former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger into the fight. But, we lost out to our neighbors to the south - close, but no cigar.
By now, I was a full-fledged soccer fanatic getting ready for my senior year at college. In an amazing gesture, my father offered to gave my brother and me the chance to go down to Mexico for the semi-finals and final. The World Cup was big-time, but not the global juggernaut it is today. All the arrangements were made. We were ready to go.
Then fate stepped, tragically, into our path. It turns out the travel agent was a fraud. People that had booked trips for the early round games arrived in Mexico only to find that hotel and ticket vouchers were worthless. Legal action would follow. But, on the day of my flight, I instead stood painting crosswalks and stop lines somewhere out on the streets of Hoffman Estates.
The tournament itself was still mainly a Spanish-TV affair. My Germans performed well but were defeated at the last stage by the greatest player ever. Diego Maradona had earlier slain England with two powerful lefts. Once with his foot, culminating a hypnotic zig-zag through half a dozen or so bedazzled Brits; the other with his hand, aided by divine intervention.
Most noteworthy about this edition of the World Cup was the re-appearance of the USA. Paul Caliguiri's long-range strike in Port of Spain ended a 40-year drought and sent a bunch of mullet-headed, short-shorts-wearing Yanks to the big dance for the first time in 40 years. This was also my first World Cup as a person of legal drinking age which meant it was my first time watching live soccer in a bar. I was living in the Bay Area, collecting data for my Master's thesis.
My home-away-from-home was a British-themed pub called the Brittania Arms. Because of the time zone difference, I was introduced to beer for breakfast and something called a Scotch egg, which was a hard-boiled egg that had been breaded and deep fried. It was probably the last one I'll ever eat. TNT was now providing English-language broadcasts, but the proprietor of the Brittania refused to show them because they broke away for "adverts". My, how times have changed for the better in that respect. Although I had my USA to root for, I still kept up my support for (eventual winners) Germany. This prompted some good-natured shouts of "Get the Kraut" from the mostly Anglophile clientele.
As for the soccer, the team that stood out for me was Cameroon, a nation I had barely heard of. The Indominatable Lions, with their garish green and red kits, made a fantastic run through the tournament. Keeper Thomas N'Kono produced these booming punts that reached the opposition's penalty area while Roger Milla lit up the scoreboard and danced for our pleasure.
The big dance finally came to the US - a dream come true for most. But your friend and humble narrator was halfway across the world fighting the good fight in Uganda teaching math and physics in a mission secondary school. Luckily, one of the good fathers was a bit of an electronics whiz and Uganda TV broadcast all the games. So, I got to see the Yanks in all their sartorial glory put together one heckuva run for a marked outsider. I can vividly recall the bulky, console set out on the porch surrounded by 50 or 60 people of all ages. No sports bar could match the enthusiasm of that gathering. Although many thought this was an ill-considered piece of charity on the part of FIFA, it came as no surprise to me that the tournament turned into a financial bonanza that has yet to be surpassed.
Apart from a made-for-TV second round matchup between the US and Brazil, the game that really stood out for me was Italy v. Nigeria. The priests at the mission were mostly Italian. But, everyone else in the village was rooting for the Super Eagles. It was all in good fun. But, I don't think I ever saw Fr. Giannino so happy as when Italy pulled off that miracle, last-minute comeback.
Back home and living in Champaign. The community World Cup experience again came from some of the local watering holes. Summer in a college town is fairly quiet but access to soccer games on television had become much less a novelty. However, the establishment was never very quiet when the Selecao was playing. The Brazilian students made each game a party, all the way to the final. It was also in this tournament when our current fearless leader, then-striker Jürgen Klinsmann, forced the US to realize they weren't in Pontiac, MI anymore, and the expected steady rise to world supremacy wasn't going to be without its share of setbacks.
The team of the tournament was the hosts, France. And not just because Le Bleus lifted the Cup. The French victory was more significant because it, again, put to ridicule the shameful pretext that nations should apply a racial purity test when selecting their squads. France '98 without Zidane would be unthinkable to anyone but the knuckleheaded mouth breathers that espouse such views.
For me, this was the last World Cup of my (not so) swinging single days. That's probably good because the games were all played in the middle of the night. For a dedicated fan, this meant getting home from work, eating dinner quickly and setting the alarm for 2am. Sometimes I'd snack, sometimes I'd ride the exercise bike. If DVR's existed, I certainly didn't have one so setting up the VCR to record a game was still a bit of a project. Fortunately, the Spanish broadcast was still over-the-air, so it was possible to sneak back into the warehouse to check on the progress of the 6am games.
The team of this tournament was the USA, who put together their finest performance of the modern era. Well, maybe it was really South Korea who, in addition to making the semis, pulled a Zusi for us. But, it is the US performance that defines this tournament for me.
Every goal evokes its own special memory and I can't list them all. But, the diving header from Arlington Heights' favorite son's to put us up 3-0 against the highly favored Portuguese (sound familiar?) and Landon Donovan sprinting behind the goal after scoring the dos to Mexico's cero spring to mind. Then there was a battered Cobi Jones displaying eight fingers to remind El Tri who was moving on to the quarterfinals. And finally, another loss to another current Group G opponent, Germany, in a game that could easily have gone the other way, on an uncalled handball on the goal line. Donovan wept.
Four years later and there were now 3 more people in the Kieffer household - so there was now a balance to be struck between the non-stop action from Germany, and the demands of a family with two small children. But it always helps to be a little creative - like planning the installation of the ceiling fan to coincide with the France-South Korea game. Kickoff times were much more reasonable but now required some PTO to catch them live.
Expectations were high for the US; expectations which were quickly dashed by an abysmal showing against the Czechs. There was some redemption against the Azurri before we were introduced to the team that would prove to be our nemesis for multiple World Cup cycles. The Black Stars of Ghana duly dropped us out at the group stage.
One aspect of my job is to attend trade shows and, as fate would have it, I was scheduled to work a show that started on the Sunday of the World Cup Final. As much penetration as the tournament has made into the national consciousness, there is still quite a ways to go before such travesties (imagine scheduling a show on Superbowl Sunday) are a thing of the past. Even so, as soon as extra time began, the show went on an unscheduled break as most of the attendees had thronged the hallways where TV monitors were tuned to the game. Man of the match was definitely Zinedine Zidane, the best player on the pitch and now infamous for his viscous head butt of the insufferable Marco Materazzi.
2010 South Africa
The rotation of the World Cup through all member confederations finally found its way to Africa. South Africa was the logical choice; being the most prosperous country on the continent and successful host of the Rugby World Cup a few years earlier. By this time, I realized the only prudent course of action was to take a copious amount of vacation time during that period. The timing of the games meant it was possible to burn a few half days here and there to stay well acquainted with the whole vuvuzela-fueled spirit of the occasion. My explanation to several of my confused co-workers was that the first round of the World Cup is akin to the first week of the NCAA men's basketball tournament; with underdogs and upsets around every corner. Again, someday soon, these references to traditional American sports will be unnecessary. But those of us working on first evangelization must still speak in the language of the locals.
The USA made things interesting again. The draw was kind to the Americans and cautious optimism was the mood going into the tournament. Hype was heavy and John Harke's Britspeak was in full force as the first game against England approached. Lady luck smiled on Clint Dempsey. Or maybe it was his late sister that guided the ball past Robert Green for the tying goal. But, the soccer gods (and some horrible refereeing in the Slovenia game) set up a dramatic final first round game against Algeria.
If you don't remember where you were when Donovan scored THE GOAL then I don't even know why you're reading this article. Here - feel that again for a moment.
For me, business travel had again beckoned. But, I was able to convince my co-worker to take an earlier flight to Minneapolis so we could catch the game at a hotel that was listed as soccer friendly. He tapped away at his smartphone. I gobbled away at my fingernails. I was in a fog the whole rest of the day and tried to sneak peeks of the Germany-Ghana game to see which team we'd play in the second round. Germany. Ghana. Sound familiar? Of course, it was the Ghanaians that again broke our hearts.
And it was at that moment when I decided that this watching-it-on-TV stuff is for the birds. I needed to be there in Brazil in 2014. And so another 4-year countdown would begin. But, this time, it also involved putting a little money away each month to make it all the more special.
Next up on Journey To Brazil: Who needs two? - Gettin' Ready