Friday, December 25, 2009

Part One: Dispatch

I was stumping around the house on a foggy vernal morning back in August. A familiar jangle sprang from my pocket: a text message from my friend who worked at Ticketek. "All whites playing in welly in november. Tickets are 40. Neil and i goin, u in?" I figured it would be fun to see the national soccer team play; if nothing else, given the source we were likely to nab some good seats.

And so it came to pass that, just over a month ago, I was among the 36,000 who witnessed the Greatest Soccer Event in New Zealand History. The All Whites1, having fought their way to a draw in the withering heat of the Persian Gulf (which feat was explicitly framed as heroic by sundry Kiwi media to an almost farcical degree2), were returning to a sold-out home arena and a final, must-win qualifying match3 for the World Cup, the country's first real chance since their heady and short-lived debut in 1982.

We were seated across from the end of the penalty box on the North side of the pitch, perhaps 20 rows up. This proved to be astoundingly good placement: centered enough to provide an excellent view of plays' evolutions through the midfield, but directly above the goal at which both of the game's crucial moments unfolded.
1: New Zealand has a curious theme in the naming of its national teams. Off the top of my head, there's the All Blacks, the rugby team; the Tall Blacks, the basketball team; the All Whites, the soccer team; the Black Caps, the cricket team; and the Silver Ferns, the netball team (whose uniforms consist of black shorts and black jerseys). Really, calling it a theme is inaccurate, since that implies an superordinate idea (and consistent application); what they have instead are branchings from the progenitorial All Blacks.
2: Being from Vermont, I am very familiar with the peculiar, earnest pride exhibited by a small, strongly self-identified body politic at any wider recognition. And yet, being from America, I find it bizarre to experience that in the context of international sports, without the distancing effects of a self-contained professional sports culture and casual dominance of our chosen sports (and casual, if diminishing, dismissal of the sports at which we underperform. Yes, that's code for "soccer". Hell, even that formulation of American "underperformance" relies on the implicit normativeness of America winning). None of this is particularly surprising, but experienced firsthand, it still elicits a certain wonder.
3: Since away goals count double in ties, a draw of 1-1 or greater would have won Bahrain a World Cup berth just as surely as a win outright, which contributed to an awesome collective moment of diegetic pants-shitting in the second half (see sub).

Now, I am not by any means an expert on the sport of soccer, and can't provide much structural insight about either team's play4. Rather than spending a lot of time relating my rather culinary (Adorno uses this term wonderfully [and rather more damningly] to describe sensual, rather than analytical, musical sensibility) take on the flow of the game, I'm centering the narrative on the two decisive events of the game.
4: From what I could tell, Bahrain had a very good striker to whom they generally tried to channel the ball, while New Zealand seemed to lack any such focal player, although they got a lot of milage out of the playmaking of their midfield, particularly their left wing.

In the 45th minute, as the first half dwindled to a close, the All Whites forced Bahrain's defense into giving up a corner kick. Once put into play, the ball rebounded successively off of a Kiwi head, a Bahraini elbow, the ground, a cleat-sheathed foot, and a wide white nylon mesh. Erumpent jubilation, lingering through the end of stoppage time.

The teams switched sides at the half, meaning the New Zealand side was now desperately committed to preventing the ball from entering the exact physical goal they had just spent 45 minutes attacking. They did not appear to view this as a particularly apt metaphor for anything. After perhaps 25 minutes (I really don't remember), a Bahraini striker pushing the ball up the right sideline cut left into the penalty box. About half a pace in, his legs met the All Whites' left back, who had stuck out his foot to block the ball's progress, and he went sprawling. The ref blew his whistle; the bottom dropped out of the TSB Arena. Just as before, all 36,000 of us cried out in unisonous reaction, but in a totally different timbre. A people in joy whoop, shriek, holler; they use the whole of their vocal range. A people in shock, anger, and grief cry out in communicative, if not articulate, protest, using only the relatively narrow range in which we use words.

It was very quickly apparent that a penalty kick was inexorably happening. The crowd felt somehow hollow, pithed. The Bahraini player placed the ball absurdly close to the goal5 and backed up very deliberately, taking the feel of his feet with each step. He paused, collected himself, and began to run towards the ball, gathering momentum and channeling it all in a low, liquid whip through his torso and leg to the precise point where boot met ball.
5: One thing that really doesn't translate to television is just how terrifyingly close to the goal a PK is. There's a reason a keeper faced with a PK always seems a bit like a deer in headlights-- he is about to be shot at by a man who can not only see the whites of his eyes but the trapped sweat starting to bead on his eyelashes and who gets to figure out where he'll aim and how he'll disguise it at his fucking leisure.

I was recently struck by a car while riding my bicycle. The sense of horror and vulnerability and the awareness, abruptly present like awareness of your breath6, that time is passing and there's literally nothing you can do about that, all these were the same.

Boot met ball. The keeper, lunging to his right at the moment of contact, got his hands squarely in front of the shot, deflecting it straight back. The voice of the crowd, shouting impotently at the shooter, suddenly and organically expanded in both pitch and volume. People jumped, screamed, and grabbed each other in an overflowing of communal ecstasy and relief. One felt the deep gut sense that daunting odds have been overcome somehow teleologically, the sense people are really talking about when they call something "miraculous" and mean it. It was intoxicating. The stands across the pitch turned white as people waved their shirts. I got hugged by the homophobic stranger sitting next to me; I high-fived an on-duty cop. And while there was still time left on the clock, the sense that Bahrain's last best chance had come and gone was palpable, and reflected in the play and body language of both teams. A cavalcade of increasingly desperate full-pitch kicks were hoisted into the teeth of the All White defense to no avail. The match was over.
6: Sorry, guys.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you guys got a guest post over at FD -- love what I'm reading here. This post is a gem of smart yet not bloodless writing. I loved the bit about happy crowds vs. the grief-stricken.


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