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Four more years

My life in Cups

The author’s England scarf, which he says is “not likely to get a lot of action this month.”

Michelle Pollard

In June 2002, with my wife in Paris visiting a friend, I killed most of a good morning wadding up and booting a ball of newsprint out the open window of our French villa, a la Nuno Gomes, star forward of Portugal and handsome to boot.

A week later, friends from Seattle would visit, Okie émigrés twice removed. We cooked, drank wine, took walks through vineyards, swam in the Med, and stole World Cup moments when we could in cafes, watching Frenchmen watch Frenchmen die on the vine: Senegal (nil-1), Uruguay (nil draw1), Denmark (nil-2). In soccer-football, unlike football-football, your team’s score always goes first, even in defeat.

We’re talking the same French who won the thing four years prior! But, with Zidane out nursing a bum thigh, the squad was hopeless. Elimination, however, did not quiet the nation. We were in Lyon, eating the only Michelin two-star lunch of my life, when Turkey surprised Senegal in the quarterfinals. My gut swollen, the weather unusually hot, we hit the street to the sound of car horns and war cries.

“What is it?” my wife asked the doorman.

“It’s the Turks, madame,” he said. “They’ve beaten Senegal.”

We followed the gravy train to the sun-scorched Place Bellecour, where myriad Turkish hommes away from home celebrated victory atop a statue of Louis XIV.

My World Cup craze began in 1994—the first ever on U.S. soil. I’d fallen for the first-incarnation Roughnecks in the late Seventies but moved on. Then, my mate and then-Okie, Bret, invited me over for the Ireland-Italy match. We drank Guinness and Moretti in homage (a plan that would get challenging come Argentina v. Nigeria).

The Roy Keane-led Irish surprised the Italians 1-0, and we drank to that. Morrissey later hailed him in song:

Roy’s keen oh Roy’s keen
Roy’s keen oh Roy’s keen
We’ve never seen a keener

As in all Cups, there were heroes—and goats. Gheorghe Hagi, “The Maradona of the Carpathians,” who bore deadly spikes in lieu of fangs. The Super Eagles of Nigeria finished atop Group D, which included Argentina and Bulgaria, led by the menacing Hristo Stoichkov, “The Raging Bull,” part-ballerina, part-bouncer. Andrés Escobar, who’d assist a U.S. victory over Colombia with an own-goal. He was shot six times outside a Medellín nightclub a week after the Cup.

After that, everybody needed four years to cool off.

I’ve always had a thing for England, inexplicably so. They haven’t won a World Cup since 1966, have a knack of toppling in the worst fashion, and my DNA doesn’t bare it out. While I’m 40 percent Europa and 37 Ireland-Scotland-Wales, I’m a mere 5 Britannia. There’s more Scandinavian in me than that.

“England has always carried an oversize mystique, like UCLA or Notre Dame on the NCAA scene,” said Steven Goff of The Washington Post. “Substance often falls short of perception.”

On that note, we gathered at Caz’s Pub on East Brady Street one early afternoon in 1998 for England-Argentina. Michael Owen, barely legal, scored on a magnificent pass from David Beckham, who was engaged to Posh Spice. But it was Owen, the spittin’ image of Anglo-Saxon, the face of an Agincourt pageboy, we couldn’t take our eyes off.

“Too cute,” said Jeanne Tripplehorn, more into the shorts.

And that was as good as it got. Beckham got red-carded for a silly retaliation by referee Kim Milton Nielsen, a Dane. (England would get back four years later in the Round of 16 with a solid 3-0 gutting of Denmark.) The Lions lost penalty kicks.

I decided not to go back to work.

In 2006, France came storming back from the embarrassment of 2002 to make the final against Italy. They were led by the feisty winger Franck Ribery, literally the face of France, who had a champion’s nose and a scarred mug (courtesy of a childhood car crash) that only embellished his ferocity. I knew such a girl in middle school.

France lost on that most ignominious of football traditions: the penalty shootout. The shootout is the Beautiful Game at its ugliest, two teams so insurmountable that two hours of play (90 minutes regulation plus two 15-minute extra periods) can’t separate them, forced to kick at each others’ goalies from a range not quite point blank but close enough that to miss is to suffer the ultimate humility.

Well, penultimate. Worse: having to play football in a baseball stadium (see below).

I hadn’t been to the Creek Casino since the days of bingo, and never in the morning, but there we were drinking Starbucks and watching Mexico and South Africa, the 2010 host nation, in the World Cup debut of Javier Hernández Balcázar, El Chicharito, or the “little pea.” My Mexican pals felt lucky to escape with a tie.

My own patriotism was tested when we crammed into the back room of the Fox & Hound at East 71st Street and South Garnett Road to watch the Yanks and Lions. An old friend from college came to the pub, but I was in no mood for nostalgia.

Another draw: 1-1. Bleh. Neither club would make it through the round of 16, with the U.S. falling to Ghana (again) and England humiliated by the Germans. Bad officiating didn't help: The referee and linesmen all missed a Frank Lampard blast that slammed the crossbar and fell four feet behind the goalie—and a good two feet over the line!—that would have evened the score.

Germany won 4–1, but a 2–2 game is a different beast altogether. Or so I tell myself.

Four years ago—where did the time go?—we drove downtown to watch the Yanks play Portugal its second match of the Group G round robin. From the grandstand at ONEOK Field—home of Tulsa Roughnecks FC—the players on the big screen were the size of ants.

“I remember the scoreboard being, I don’t know, bigger,” I said to my kids, both shaking their heads.

The Yanks took a too-good-to-be-true 2-1 when Clint Dempsey deflected a cross off his gut. That counts. Silvestre Varela drove home a header in stoppage time on a Hail Mary cross from, who else, Ronaldo, to tie it. “Believe,” read the hand-held sign in the signs, and I so wanted to.

That summer, our side felt wobbly ever after, the highlight being Tim Howard’s 16 saves in a 1-2 loss to Belgium in the round of 16. Howler magazine put him on the cover with the headline, “Let Us Praise Tim,” Howard looking heavenward, Christlike, bearded, lips artfully parted: “Father, if You are willing, take this Cup from me.”

The wind hit the sails with Germany’s 7-1 dismantling of favored Brazil. Small children bawled in the stands. Grown men swallowed pride in great chugs. It felt like watching the world end in real time.

For certain rabid fans, four years separates hope from sorrow. Even for Russians, whose own pitiful team made the bracket automatically, as host club—the equivalent of letting a beer-belly head pro tee off in the P.G.A. So what if Putin bribed FIFA, international football’s (mis)governing body? It’ll make watching them lose that much more fun. Anyway, no nation in the world is without a closet.

With the U.S. failing to qualify for the first time since 1990, I won’t be conflicted cheering for England. (And the U.S. Women, always a safer bet—and, honestly, a lot more exciting to watch—will defend their championship at the Women’s World Cup in 2019.)

As a backup, I’ve Iceland. And Norway. How can you not love a club managed by a guy named Lars Lagerbäck?

1) The great (and handsome) Diego Forlán, all of 23, was a sub on that squad. Eight years later, in South Africa, he’d take home the fabled Golden Ball award for best player of the tournament. Uruguay only managed a fourth-place finish.

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