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A U.S. fan enjoys the atmosphere ahead of the match against Algeria.
It was a hot day in Manhattan. A few friends had gathered to watch the U.S. play England at a small bar not far from Times Square. When I got there, people were stacked on the sidewalk getting a peek at the TVs inside. I squeezed my way into the bar and headed toward the back, where my friends were until the French owner stopped me.
“Are you for America?” he asked sternly with a gruff, drawling Napoleonic intonation. It certainly didn’t sound like a question of sport; it sounded like he was asking if I believed in American ideals of democracy and free speech, free enterprise and unalienable rights.
I didn’t have time, so I shuffled along with a dismissive "yeah."
At the beginning of the tournament, I had had a frank discussion with one of my colleagues.
The World Cup, I said, is the one event that really tests your national allegiance. In theory, I don’t know who I’d root for in the very unlikely event that Honduras or even Mexico met the U.S. in the quarter finals.
Let me back up: I’ve lived in the United States since I was five. My first language was Spanish; I was born in Nicaragua, but half my family lives in Honduras. My wife is Mexican-American and that inexorably links my daughter to our southern neighbor.
My paternal grandparents have never been granted a visa to visit my home, to see where I grew up, even though I’ve invested a life and a career and a family in this country.
So, yeah, who would I cheer for? I don’t know.
This colleague seemed incredulous.
But it’s true: Unlike the Olympics where countries are represented by plenty of athletes who you may like or dislike based on things beyond nationality, football outfits are a unit; there’s one of them and you live and die by that representation of a country’s might.
That’s why that question – Are you for America? – had so much resonance. Cheering for the U.S. team is more than a nod to the striking power of Landon Donovan or the patient, selfless defense of Carlos Bocanegra. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of national allegiance.
That’s why that question has been bothering me for days.
Then I watched the U.S. play England and Slovenia and finally with their backs against the wall, one loss – or even a tie – away from a plane ride home, I watched them play Algeria. And guess what? My heart raced the entire game. It was a tight, beautiful match in which the U.S. moved the ball with grace yet missed so many opportunities to send Slovenia home.
In the first half alone: 10 shots; three on goal. Herculez Gomez almost capitalized on a Rais M’Bolhi misstep. And at the 37th minute Jozy Altadore missed a heartbreaking shot.
At the same time, the Brits scored against Slovenia making a trip home for the U.S. even more of a reality.
It was agonizing; it was crushing; it was heart stopping to see a nil-nil score into injury time. And just as I had given up, we mounted one final counterattack. Altidore crossed to Dempsey who took the shot, but the ball bounced off the Algerian goalkeeper and seemingly out of nowhere Donovan flew into the area and netted it.
I think I screamed “goal.” I know for sure, I jumped out of my chair with thrill on my face. And it was at that moment — when I was overcome with inexplicable relief that we had at least one more round in this thing -– that the answer to that uncomfortable question became clear:
I am for America.