At five minutes, the World Cup final stopped being an ordinary game.
At a little over fifteen, it became a legend.
I don’t use the word lightly. But what else can you say when a U.S. player kicks the ball from midfield – from 50 yards out, the sort of kick that nobody’s tried since junior high school – and it lands in the net? When it’s not just a fluke goal, but the capstone to a barrage, the fourth goal to strike home in less time than it takes to order a pizza?
That’s when you know you’re in unmarked territory. And oh, man, did it feel good.
Not just because the game was a rout. After all, I’m a Denver Broncos fan. I know all about routs in championship games, usually from the wrong side. There’s a point where every additional score becomes a physical blow, where it starts to feel like the age-old nightmare of going to school in your underwear – exposed before the world with nowhere to hide and no way to escape until that final whistle blows.
Even when you’re on the right side of that, it can start to feel cruel.
But this one didn’t have the same harsh aftertaste. Not to me, anyway.
It’s hard to say exactly why.
Maybe it was the Japanese. In blowouts, we talk all the time about having nothing left to play for but pride. On a night where no one could have blamed them for surrendering – had the rules and the refs allowed it – the women of Japan refused to just mark time. They fought. They rallied. On a wildly uneven stage, they even allowed a moment’s worry that maybe, just maybe, patience could undo the American lightning strike.
Maybe it was the sheer unlikelihood of it all. In the U.S., everyone knows soccer as a low-scoring game, too low-scoring for the tastes of many. To see the early shots go in, and in, and in like a video game or an NBA matchup (is there a difference?) added a level of wonder, almost awe.
But mostly, I think it was the joy.
You could see it in the U.S. players. You could see it in the U.S. crowds. This had become … fun. A pleasure in its own right. You know, like it was a game or something.
For 90 minutes, a simple joy had taken over the grass.
I’m not sure we appreciate how rare that is.
It’s not easy to get unalloyed joy into the spotlight anymore. Too many of us know the backstories or have learned to wait for the other shoe to drop. The steroid use that makes a record a mockery. The dark history behind a famous name. It creates a weariness, a reluctance to trust or let go. A certainty that if we do, we’ll get burned once again.
And the worst burns come from the greatest trust. The ones that seemed to personify the joy of a child in a grown-up’s body (never mind any names). Those are the ones that can make you wonder if any pleasure is as innocent as it truly seems.
So when something like this comes along, can anyone be blamed for grabbing on with both hands?
OK. A World Cup victory – even a 5-2 World Cup victory – is not going to cure cancer, end war or restore Pluto to its rightful state as a planet. But if, for just a moment, it restores some joy and happiness in this place, hasn’t it done all we could ask?
Hasn’t it done what sports are supposed to do?
So one last time, as the cheers fade into history. Thank you, ladies of the U.S. soccer team. Thank you for the thrills and the excitement and the memories that even now may be inspiring a new generation to try and try and try.
Thank you for the unapologetic fun.
For everyone watching, this was truly a net gain.