“USA to confront archnemesis,” the headline blared. I just don’t remember where I saw it, whether on Sunday or Monday. Having been traveling from San Sebastian, Spain to San Francisco all day Sunday and then some and being out of the news loop, I was a little punchy by the time I saw the headline. I assumed it meant that we were going up against Russia or North Korea or the Ayatollahs of Iran playing brinksmanship of some kind. Those three would count as archnemeses of the USA, in my book.
Ghana? Never occurred to me. But when I saw the subhead, it mentioned Ghana. Ghana? What have we ever done to or been done to by Ghana? Ghana, I had to Google it Wednesday to find out that it’s a country in Africa (I knew that much) with about 25 million people and a land mass of 288, 400 or so square kilometers and a Gross Domestic Product of $90 million. Think of Arizona with about four times more people, and that’s Ghana.
It took a while to sink in. It’s about soccer generally and the World Cup specifically. Evidently, Ghana has beaten the USA twice in the past several years at World Cup competition. That’s the Ghana of 25 million people in an area somewhat smaller than Arizona putting the hurt on U.S soccer teams twice when it counted. I don’t have a very good understanding of soccer, frankly, so that may be why I didn’t get the “arch nemesis” tag. Now I do, although I still don’t quite get soccer. I know it’s all about kicking, bopping with the head or otherwise causing the ball to go into the other guy’s net. Low scoring is pretty common. There’s only one official on the field, I think, and his or her word is final and complete and unarguable as far as I know. That’s kind of refreshing in professional sports.
The World Cup started while we were in San Sebastian last week. All the bars and taverns were getting ready for a crush of business that night. We ate in one place and eventually had to take the money up to the proprietor and tell him what we’d had because he’d obviously forgotten all about us as he got absorbed in the match between Brazil and Croatia. The Spanish fans were definitely favoring Brazil that night.
Families were out in the bars. Kids were with their parents who were drinking wine or beer, eating a snack, a “tapa” or “pintxo” as tapas are called in the Basque country. The kids were wandering around at 10 and 11 at night, watching the game and just hanging out. I took a walk down to the beach and there was a little cabana bar set up on the sand with a bunch of chairs and a big screen TV and there were families there watching the game and drinking and yahooing and having a grand old time. There was something really wholesome about the whole thing — not like Super Bowl or World Series, which are good sports, but not what we think of as family entertainment.
I watched a bit of the Brazil-Croatia match in the taverna, and I don’t remember ever seeing such athleticism in any sport. And I’ve seen a lot of sports in my time. It seemed kind of chaotic compared to baseball or even basketball and football (American football). They leaped and twisted and gyrated and flew every which way and still managed to maintain some control over the ball for the most part. It was inspiring and astonishing, and I can now understand why the whole rest of the world loves futbol.
Apparently, players can play for their home country team rather than their professional team, which is kind of cool. So, guys who play for Manchester United or Real Madrid or Barcelona as professionals can go home and play for Portugal or Ghana or Mexico or Germany or wherever they’re from without it being some kind of betrayal of the team that pays them the big bucks.
I understand that the USA did finally beat Ghana earlier this week, but I also saw that Spain got beaten by somebody who shouldn’t have beaten them, which I’m sure must have made for a lot of unhappy Spaniards who probably had to go out and eat some tapas and drink some wine and wait till next year or whenever the next World Cup is. The kids are probably just as happy to be out till 11 p.m. hanging with their parents and friends and family, booting a ball or a Hackysack around on the beach till they all go home.
I can’t wait to find out who our next archnemesis will be.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.