It Hit Like Thunder

I didn’t mean for it to be a moment. In fact, I had intended to eat breakfast at home, to go directly from the shuttle stop up to my cube on the second floor and work on my project until the rest of my peers showed up and started messing with stuff which would inevitably make my status as primary oncall person onerous as I’d chase around the alerts their activities triggered. But instead I’d missed my alarm, woken up by my wife with only about twenty minutes to get out the door. Breakfast had fallen by the wayside, other morning routines were abbreviated or discarded altogether. Everything was done with haste.

Even as I entered the building, I was intending only to grab something small to eat and a cup of coffee. There was work to be done, I didn’t have the luxury I usually enjoyed to lounge around the cafe and read a book or enjoy my meal in a relaxed state of leisure. When I passed through the door, I was somewhat surprised to see so many people. I was familiar with the way they’d been broadcasting the World Cup matches on the intermittent flatscreen TVs that lined the cafe wall and projecting it on the huge screen usually reserved for Powerpoint slides during company meetings, but typically the onlookers were limited to a small handful of football devotees. It wasn’t until I noted that USA was playing that it registered why this day in particular had drawn such a crowd.

I’ve been recording many of the World Cup matches this year. I’m not even all that sure why since I can hardly be called a devoted soccer fan. Something about it just grabbed my attention this time around. Maybe it was the four-year cycle, maybe it was having worked recently on a site devoted to European sports, I don’t know. But I had this game set to record like so many other, so I knew I could watch it when I got home. That had been the plan. There was really no reason to stay and watch; I did have plenty of work to attend to.

Still, something made me find a spot near a power outlet, set up my computer, arrange my breakfast just so and try to multitask, watching the game, starting my work, finishing my food in as much unison as possible.

At first I sat down during halftime with the score still tied at 0-0. It gave me a chance to collect myself work-wise, eat most of my meal and catch enough of the recap of the game so far to know what the stakes were. Basically it was win or go home: Slovenia, the team that had been on the other end of the curiously bad call a few days before that had cost the US a come-from-behind victory, was losing to England. Here, Algeria had threatened early but the US had since taken control of the game though they found that key goal elusive. A tie wouldn’t cut it anymore, it had to be a win. I finished the last bite of my cereal and hit send on an email, more or less catching up for the moment. The second half kickoff got the game back underway.

As play progressed, I noticed more and more of the seats in front of the screen filling up. Others with unfinished work filled the tables next to and behind me. A crowd grew over near the coffee bar, paying more attention to the game than to their lattes and mochaccinos as the orders were shouted out over and over with annoyance by the baristas. The US missed a close chance and a collective groan went up. I got a page for a new issue, and spent some time only glancing at the screen while I coordinated with my boss and a colleague on a security issue. As the problem settled down and someone went off to work on it, my attention refocused on the game.

A man in a red jacket walked through the doors to my left and stopped dead in front of me, completely obscuring my view. “Excuse me,” I said pointedly. He either didn’t hear or didn’t register it as being directed at him. I gave my tablemates—strangers, all—a sidelong glance and tried again, louder and with more vigor: “Excuse me!” He didn’t budge. Exasperated, I jumped one seat to the right so I could at least see around the guy. Just as I did so a glorious chance unfolded, with a man on the far side of the net breaking free. His shot was hesitant, as if he couldn’t believe how easy it looked. He missed, but there! On the opposite side, uncovered, a second striker roared past the defense, staring at nothing but a ball and an empty net.

He missed.

The gathering crowd collapsed in agony. “So close!” came a number of laments. I shared disappointed looks and shook my head at the unknown co-workers around me. I checked my email again, switched windows and ran a few diagnostic commands. The action was back underway, and now that the play stoppage had allowed the man in the red coat to move on, I settled back into my original seat. More people joined those watching: Women who were relaying results via Blackberry to their significant others at some other company that didn’t feel broadcasting sporting events during business hours was appropriate; contract workers who were supposed to be cleaning the soda fountains ignored their duties and leaned on the walls with arms crossed and concerned looks on their faces; high-ranking executives switched their beloved iPhones to silent mode and gathered in the standing-room-only cluster of people waiting just inside the doors for a reason to celebrate or dissipate. I drained the last of my coffee and raised my eyebrows at the guy next to me, who had abandoned his pretense of work and folded his hands on his closed laptop lid. I kept mine open, but I as finding it harder to look down.

Algeria suddenly had a break, a defensive collapse by the US and three green-shirted players danced casually into the box, all of them ready to dash the hopes of the room. The goalkeeper, Howard, made a great play and the defense recovered just enough to avert catastrophe. Everyone buzzed with nervous sighs and a momentary release of anticipated tension. We watched the clock count down from 85:00 to 88:00. The announcer spoke grimly, reminding the audience unnecessarily that the Americans would just have to push the ball down the field now, trying to keep it in the offensive half as much as they could and take whatever shots presented themselves. Slovenia didn’t seem to be offering a tying goal that would help, we still needed that one score.

The clock passed the 90:00 mark, pushing into stoppage or overage or injury time, depending on who you asked. A brash man in a ragged and ugly polo shirt lurked over my shoulder, watching the smaller flatscreen above, a little behind and to my left. He shouted unheard instructions and encouragement at the players, directly into my ear. “Come on! Still time! Still some time! We can do this!” I might have been annoyed with him in another context. Here, it was a source of comedy and an atmospheric necessity. He was a true believer, the kind of guy who really believed in Dave Barry’s concern rays. If he himself wanted it enough, it would happen. It was all he had to give, as a fan, and he gave it his all. “Here we go!” he reminded no one, slapping his hands together noisily.

Four minutes, said the sign. That was how much they would extend the match. Two hundred and forty seconds to accomplish what an hour and a half had not yielded. The play began and Howard took the ball, tossing it down to a midfielder, Donovan, and I glanced at my screen. No new crises, no new messages demanding my attention. My breakfast tray was empty, save a few crumbs and a discarded napkin. I looked back to the screen. Everyone seemed to stop breathing, narrowing eyes and leaning a few inches forward. A play unfolded.

The first shot came in and the Algerian goalkeeper stopped it, but the rebound squirted free. I didn’t see what became of the keeper, I was busy watching the ball roll lazily through two defenders who raced to converge on the loose ball. Donovan, who had started the rush up the side, came seemingly out of nowhere. I don’t know how he beat those defenders, but suddenly he was there and the ball was sailing. The sense that it could be deflected or somehow twist just off course made teeth clench and knuckles grip table edges. Time crawled.

The net rippled from the force of the ball hitting it, and the room exploded.

We jumped to our feet, clapped, and whooped. We pumped fists and high fived our neighbors, strangers or not. The noise was deafening. Then for a moment we paused and turned back to the screens. This had happened before, this had happened in the same game. They showed the replay. They didn’t mention the referees calling it back. The goal would stand. We resumed our celebration.

There was a bit more of the game, there had been less than a minute of the injury time elapsed when the goal was scored. But most of it was taken up by a lengthy protest from an Algerian player who got yellow- and then red-carded. His teammates griped some, too. The clock kept running. At last they tried to start the game, but the four minutes were over. A few unenthusiastic kicks later the whistle blew several times, marking the end of the match. Another round of applause and cheers went up. I smiled at people I didn’t know. They smiled back, with a slight tilt of the head. We’d been there for it. We knew. Go USA.

I closed my laptop and returned my dishes. I gathered the rest of my belongings and nodded silently at the guys who were standing around the tables, also packing up to go back to their cubes and offices. It felt like the end of every sports movie, where the hero finds a way to make it happen at the most dramatic moment possible. Only it had happened in real time, in real life. It could have gone the other way. That Algerian could have scored late and made Donovan’s goal a mere equalizer that landed with a dull thud of disappointment as the US walked away unable to overcome the challenge. But it didn’t. Instead it hit like thunder and it ignited a cafe full of co-workers and, for just a minute, made everyone happy to be there, glad to be working in that place at that moment, sharing that triumph with people just living their lives and doing their jobs. People just being American.

In the grand scheme of things, it was a very minor and very temporary victory. The team moves on, but the next obstacles are even more insurmountable. But sometimes you have to relish the present. Tomorrow will worry about itself, the Good Book says. Soccer isn’t even our game, Americans will tell you, but for a couple hundred Silicon Valley early-risers, it was our game. And we shared it, and the moment, together.

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