Sitting on Top of the World

You don’t get the World Cup Finals without a lifetime of preparation. Mine started with my first soccer (football to the rest of the world) game, an international friendly on Mexican soil. The American squad were all Montana high school students on a church trip to Patzcuaro to help build the first stone silo in the state of Michoacan.

I had never played or seen a soccer game, but I was a three-sport letterman. I was in very good shape, as were my teammates. Early in the game (match to the rest of the world), my friend Gary Curtis made use of his very long legs to prevent a Mexican youth from dribbling around him. We were feeling pretty cocky. The Mexicans changed tactics, instituting a ball-possession, one-touch-pass offense that had us chasing the ball the rest of the match. These were very talented athletes, some possibly as old as the 9th grade and others more like 5th- or 6th- graders.

I did score once when I sprinted past the defenders, ran onto a long pass from Gary (it might have been a shot), and bounced the ball off the side post and into the net when I fired from close range on the wide-open goal. The Mexicans were making what I thought was a congratulatory sign, but have since learned that it is the signal for off-side.

Later I moved from a one-game player to wise coach of my daughters’ tiny-person soccer teams in Helena. Somebody who knew the 7 rules of soccer gave a quick overview to various parents who were coaching the different teams of what we called swarm-ball.

Pat and I can sympathize with the parents of American Hope Solo and Japanese Ayumi Kaihori, because we are also parents of goalies. Robin didn’t last long in the position. We have a picture of her as the goalie doing a cartwheel while the ball was rolling past her into the net. She did become a state champion gymnast, but never hoisted a soccer trophy.

Molly, though shorter, was an outstanding goalie. At the state meet for the U-12 traveling teams, the head Helena coach told us she was the best goalie at the meet. That didn’t make us feel any better when we were rushing her to the hospital after she bent over to collect the ball near her goal and her defender made a mighty kick to clear the ball, but caught Molly in the head instead.

Being a player and coach isn’t enough. We began our World Cup preparations in February when the FIFA web site laid out the rules for buying tickets online. We made the expensive decision to attend the final game, not knowing who would be in it. I got online 2 hours after it opened, and got two tickets in the top of the stadium, two of only about 3000 left in the 53,000+ seat arena.

We knew all the hotels in Vancouver would be booked (they were), so we scheduled a room with a dear friend in Bellingham, Washington, only 53 miles away (farther in kilometers). We got to spend the 4th of July with her and her sons, their remarkable wives, and the terrific grandkids — Kevin, Kate, Jacob, and Ellis. We got to see fireworks, but the real ones would come the next day in Vancouver.

In Vancouver, our pre-game preparation consisted of trying to find a place to eat that didn’t have lines more than a block long, and sharing the excitement of the thousands of Japanese fans and and tens of thousands of American fans in face paint and Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe jerseys. I had on my Abby Wambach shirt, while Pat looked ready to play striker in her Sydney Leroux gear. Every now and then on the streets outside the stadium, someone would start shouting “USA” or “I believe that we will win!” or “Marry me, Alex” and others would join in the cheer.

We sat near the top of the stadium, but marveled at how well we could see the whole action on the field, so much better than on TV. A couple of rows behind us was a woman who carried a yellow card in her pocket and waved it whenever the ref didn’t call a yellow card penalty when a Japanese player fouled an American one. On my side was an Australian who married a Canadian woman. He said he was leaning toward the US side, but wouldn’t mind seeing a Japanese victory.

We sang the US anthem lustily. Everyone rooting for the US, which was the vast majority, seemed to be singing. We were respectful as the Japanese players and coaches sang along with the solemn and beautiful Japanese anthem.

We had hardly sat down when Megan Rapinoe slotted a ball into the box and Carli Lloyd smashed it home. We we looking right down the goal line, so we could see it perfectly. Then it was replayed on the jumbotron screen which was about at eye level for us. We were high-fiving everybody around us, although the couple behind us weren’t very good at it (we all were to get more practice at it). The Australian-Canadian man was high-fiving in all directions, and had clearly made his choice.

A couple of minutes later, Carli Lloyd’s second goal looked like an instant replay. The noise was deafening. Pat and I hugged. She exclaimed, “This might be as exciting as the birth of our children!” The third goal by Lauren Holiday almost caused the roof to blow off the stadium. Good thing the center of the roof was open. The fourth goal was another Carli Lloyd one, this time from the midfield line 60 yards away when she saw the Japanese goalie Kaihori was too far off her line. We were getting hoarse already.

Pat began to worry. She says you can’t trust sheer joy — it tempts the fates. She was right. The Japanese women did not give up, but started connecting on their ball-possession, one-touch-pass offense that made me think of those sneaky Mexican children who kicked our butts in that “international friendly.” They did score twice, but Tobin Heath added an insurance goal for the US and we all held our breath through the final few minutes until the closing whistle prompted a collective sigh of relief followed by a prolonged ear-damaging-as-much-as-any-rock-concert cheer.

Virtually all 53,324 of our closest new friends stayed in their seats until the awarding of the trophies to Hope Solo for goalie of the tournament, Carli Lloyd for player of the match and player of the World Cup, to Japan for second place, and the US for first. The US fans were very respectful of the Japanese, never booing, and always applauding. The only booing occurred when the FIFA officials marched out to award the trophies.

The only thing that could have made the day better would have been if Sepp Blatter, the president of the corrupt FIFA organization, had handed the trophy to Carli Lloyd and then had been grabbed by two Canadian Mounties, hoisted overhead and carried off, with the the Canadians in the crowd chanting,”We have an extradition treaty with the US.”

As it was, we had to settle for a bucket-list thrill, right up there with having children — just as noisy but less painful for Pat.

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Rusty Harper is outrageously happy because he is retired and living with the love of his life, Pat Callbeck Harper in Helena, Montana. So why does he inflict these ramblings on the rest of us, you ask? Because you deserve it. If you aren't smart enough not to read this stuff, then you have to suffer through it. Maybe that builds character, though I doubt it. Think of all the positive things you could do with the time you are wasting on things that occur to me in the night and then sound strange even to me when I write them down in the morning. Bake a cake. Complain to your Senator. Run for Congress. Do something.
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