And then, delirium.
In a bar 3,884 miles from the winning goal, packed and proud, chanting and cheering, spraying beer and hopping up-and-down in that sing-song dance of a winning soccer fan, heaven came to St. Petersburg on Monday evening. It came a lot of other places, too, in small bars and sports pubs and cozy speakeasies, because the great moments tend to travel a bit.
In this instance, it was a jammed bar called MacDinton's in St. Pete, where glory arrived in the form of a 2-1 victory over a Ghana team that has vexed this United States team before. It was there that the World Cup came to town, to this one and a lot of other ones. It was there that the truest joy this sport can claim was shared with the most exuberant fans you could imagine.
The excitement was there, and then it was drained from them, and then it was back again. Strangers beat on each other's backs. Passersby shared a moment.
And suddenly, the sport of soccer wasn't very far away at all.
Suddenly, it was here, and it was real, and it was terrific.
This is what the sport can give you. This is what those who scoff at it will never understand. This is the passion and the moment and the magic and the wonder. This is the United States 2, Ghana 1, and today, who doesn't dare to dream?
Oh, did the United States need this game. The World Cup is just getting started, but already, everyone knew what this game meant. The Americans had drawn powerful Germany, and they had drawn talented Portugal, and yes, they had drawn stubborn Ghana. To have any chance of success, any chance at all, the United States was going to have to win from the start.
Still, there is something uniquely optimistic about a soccer crowd. Something wonderfully hopeful. The day is always sunny, and the food is always tasty, and the company is always good.
And so they came with flags draped around their shoulders, and bands tied around their heads, and T-shirts and jerseys and little spangled Uncle Sam hats.
Most of all, they came with hope in their eyes.
Too often, the fans of other American sports seem to cloak themselves in their cynicism, as if their dread could somehow protect them from disappointment. Sometimes, it seems as if they have a love-hate affair with the very sport that drives their passion.
But not soccer fans. It is as if they take so much guff from others that they are able to see the nuance in their sport. Oh, they know the odds, and yes, they have seen disappointment. But along the way, they have also tasted the spectacle. Along the way, they dare to believe.
They believe in Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach who did not believe in Landon Donovan.
They believe that, somehow, this team will get past this Group of Death.
Yes, they believe in this wonderful sport of theirs.
And so the fans crowd into the bar, feeling the importance of this game already. The tables are gone in a hurry. The shoulder-to-shoulder turns into overlapping fans. How many sports bars are this like this in Tampa Bay? How many in Florida? How many in the world?
Yeah, that's how many people care.
Look, it is easy to be a fan of American football. By the time the important games are played, only the front-runners are left, anyway. And it is easy to be a fan of baseball. The game happens every day. It will build you up, or it will grind you to dust.
But soccer? You wait four years for a shot at the World Cup. And if you are a nation such as the United States, you have an unsteady history as it is. Consider this: In the previous five World Cups, the United States has won only four games. Four.
And, yet, the fans believe.
You want to know who had some doubts? Klinsmann, the coach, that's who. Several times, he has suggested that it is "not realistic'' for his team to win this World Cup.
He is, of course, correct. Down deep, everyone knows that. On the other hand, there were a great many people who thought the head coach was the last guy in the world who should be saying it out loud. Some accused Klinsmann of lacking confidence. Others suggested he was sandbagging.
Now, of course, Klinsmann is forgiven. He certainly didn't coach as if he lacked confidence, for instance. If he can now get a tie against Portugal on Sunday, then advancement is a real possibility.
What's that you say? Yes, it's only Ghana, and Ghana is only the 82nd largest nation in the world, a country often compared in size to Oregon.
Ah, but it was Ghana who knocked the United States out of its past two World Cups. No, that's the wrong sport. This isn't Kentucky's football team.
But that has always been the thing about soccer. It has always been easier to make jokes than to invest emotionally, hasn't it? And here's an admission: I've made some myself.
Granted, it would be easier if the Americans were dominant. It would be easy to swagger about being the best and letting the cockiness take hold.
But we aren't.
And who else sees the beauty in that.
Yet, there continues to be a civil war among fans. I've written about it before. You can hate track, for instance, and it's okay. You can hate figure skating, and no cares. You can hate tennis or lacrosse or wrestling, and no raised eyebrows. But those who love soccer, and those who do not, seem to take great effrontery that the other side even exists.
I know this: Today, soccer is winning.
Today, it is charming and passionate and successful. Today, it is efficient and skilled and charming. Today, those who watched it had a lot more fun than those who did not.
Soon, they will watch again.
And what are you doing on Sunday?