a giveaway, a tackle, a hug, another four years
Was it just a hug or something more? And what can we all learn from that most intimate moment filmed for millions to see? Penn State writing teacher Casey Wiley looks for long-term meaning in an emotional moment as he wraps up the fan’s four-year cycle… before it begins again.
An End To Things
by Casey Wiley
“Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada, pues nada.”
—Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
I’ve searched online for the 31st minute of the U.S. versus Ghana game, the moment Ricardo Clark is pulled and then held by his coach. I do not know precisely why I was searching, but standing in a bar in Hoboken witnessing the scene live I felt something, and, post-World Cup, I’d like to try to feel it again.
I’m dangling the scene, or maybe the recollection or recreation of the scene. I should have TiVO. I should just have a friend replay the damn thing for me. I should give this up. But I remember it like this: Rico plays defectively, commits an egregious error, is yanked. The unremitting game even stops for his error. Slumping off the field he looks at the least like a boy ready for admonishment. Versus Ghana, Bob Bradley had wanted fresh legs for his dog-tired, only-hope midfield, and he must have had confidence in Rico’s defensive knack; the aim was for Rico to plug the holes in the central defense and allow Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, to attack when necessary.. That is truth, but the following is legend: Rico is one of his boys. Bob Bradley is his son’s father, of course, but he is also Rico’s. They are all his sons.
No, that’s a poor metaphor. But I know that Bob Bradley held him for a long while. What was he holding onto?
So. Am I remembering correctly? Rico touches hands fishly with Mo Edu (who then races onto the field). The dejected midfielder slumps toward the bench, probably seeking blanket or jacket and hood, pining to disappear. But he is embraced by Bradley who wears a puffy down winter coat. I witnessed this in a crowded, steamy Irish bar down the street from a handful of other crowded, steamy Jersey bars; surrounded by hundreds of U.S. supporters, I was very alone, had been driving from friends in Syracuse to JFK to pick up my girlfriend, was engulfed by these warm, damp people, bobbed solo.
I’m getting off track here, but I’ve been off track for a few weeks now ever since the U.S. lost, ever since I fought my way out of the bar into the late afternoon hot sun. Crowded city streets. I bought a damn Quizno’s sub and a watery coffee, deviated into a decaying park a street off Washington and sat on a bench maybe fifty feet away from four women about my age. Gazed towards Manhattan. The women chatted and laughed on about weddings. Eventually I found myself paying the seventeen dollars to get out of a parking garage, recognized myself on this highway going south, that street, some neighborhood on the Island, altogether sort of lost on my way to Queens. I’d like to say I was feeling angry from the game, but that isn’t true. I was feeling guilty. Guilty for following this team so rabidly and tirelessly, for villain-izing Slovenia, Algeria, Ghana, for actually feeling sorry for, making excuses for, the U.S. as team, as country—like we need any of that.
I thought I’d be playing the what-if game post-Ghana, but that all remained tucked away because we simply didn’t deserve to win that game. (Ghana had, what, three chances and capitalized on two of them; Clint, Landon, Bradley, Jozy all resembled tired men; our defense was scattered….)
I don’t know how else to put this but as I drove toward JFK I was feeling most guilty about quite simply loving this group of twenty-three, for giving myself to them, for reading-about-them-listening-to-them-talking-about-them-pondering-and-wondering-about-them; I felt stupid for believing that I knew these players intimately—that being the key word: their on-field tendencies, of course, but more of this: Chuck Davies’ blown curfew and car accident and peeled scalp and wild-fast, then slow recovery and the fit/unfit Twitter junk; Feilhaber’s claim in one mag interview that he’s the best dancer on the team, that Holden (jokingly, I think) just won’t shut up in the locker room; Tim Howard’s (overcoming) Tourette’s; Landon mentioning Bianca on live TV post-Algeria, oh-my-gawd-what’s-going-to-happen to them! I had simply overloaded myself with personal information, most of it useless and unrelated to Men with Ball on Field, and now, Saturday afternoon E.S.T., everything was simply over.
And I wanted to know nothing more.
Chewing that sub in hot, sticky Hoboken—an old lady’s attic in July—young people all over the place one street removed, beer and Saturday, I felt, finally, a sense of relief: this U.S. team—my boys—were simply not that good, and we deserved to lose, and losing is final.
But what is so final about Rico’s hug? Well, then.
Then I tried to forget things for a while.
I admit I haven’t seen the replay of the Hug, but I’ve thought of it more than Gyan’s sweet goal and our central defense scrambling or all those failed chippy, weary crosses late on our offensive end. It’s easy and crowd-ish to say that I do not like Rico, but it’s true. Bob’s son, his true son, the real star, appears uncomfortable playing alongside him of late—he knows that Feilhaber attacks with spunk and skill, that Edu is a more stable defensive presence; with one of these two by his side, Michael B. is able to slide ahead and attack or track back to kill. His abilities are freed. After the early England goal—a Rico plus Gooch flub—Rico simply exists on the field. He is plainly decent, fine; he is: eh. But versus Ghana I was okay with him starting, even defended it to a friend: fresh legs from a game off. He’ll be hungry, I said.
And then there was the giveaway and the yellow and Ricardo Clark was no more. 31st minute, Bob Bradley holds Rico’s head closely. Intimately. Watching from this bar of strangers, believing sort of unconsciously and definitely pompously that I know this American team and this player, I felt like I should have understood precisely what to do at this moment, as if I stood on the sidelines right there in South Africa. But what do I know of creating and holding and teaching? Do I scream, thrust my finger toward the bench? Do I blame myself?
How can I believe to be so intimately close to this team and then withdraw in this ultimate emotional-intimate moment? How can I sneer and boo this kid and turn my back on him? And does any of this mock-concern matter? Simply, what is this strange bond we form with our teams?
Bob Bradley, wearing that puffy, dark winter coat, engulfs the young midfielder; at a glance, the two could be cuddling in a sleeping bag; they could be lightly wrestling. Rico averts his gaze; he cannot look into those eyes, but the bald man does not want to hurt him, and this man, the lines on his face distinct, holds the boy’s head, no, cups his head as he once cupped his newborn son, and he slides to his left so one face holds steady in front of the other—a mirror of sorts; the older man, this father, whispers something, no, declares something—a long something—says this into the boy’s ear. What are the words? To the outside observer the boy is realized suddenly as small, thin as if he had no business existing on that field with those guys. He is pulling away. To what?
Standing in that bar I recall hating most of those people, me included, watched Rico’s giveaway and then the desperate yellow card tackle, and finally his dismissal; we wrote the kid off justlikethat, scratched him out, tossed him to the side like a spitty cigarette butt, but suddenly we saw the Hug. It was a forgiveness to all of us. If Rico could be forgiven on such a lofty stage, surely we could be forgiven too. And then I felt strangely okay about Rico Clark, or about that hug, or about the end of things. The Hug, I realized then or now, is the final gloomy, desperate, heartbreaking, faintly beautiful action that we can hold onto from the U.S.’s run; the rest is anything but silence; it is wild and sweaty and debatable. It is sailed crosses and too-long passes and feeble shots and could-have-beens. It is washy and foggy and steamy, that old lady’s attic.
Pulling Rico early was a desperate, necessary action. Sure, the U.S. still had a good shot to win (and then who knows?), but there was something so hopeless, so freakin’ personal about that coach/player connection that the game mattered strangely less to me after that moment. Maybe I was realizing that I had been wrong about Rico being fine in this game (and I would have taken “fine”). Maybe that dull feeling building in me was the beginning of the relief that I would feel post-game; of course I didn’t know this team on any true personal level; the guys are not friends, they are not enemies; I am merely a distant fan, lulled in by the World Cup and the incessant discussion surrounding it: the Twitter feeds and websites and round-the-clock reporting.
I was wrong about a lot of things. What else am I wrong about?
I cannot say post-hug that I knew we were going to lose, but I can say that my fandom is a complicated lust, a surrender of body and mind, an allowance for these guys and this game to control me. Like a 2-1 defeat, the Hug is an emotional end to things. And I needed that.
But I, and you, and you, you, you, walked away. A few of us maybe held each other—but that’s cheesy and not true. Most of us just drank another beer and cussed out Appiah and our central defense and then looked toward…four years: our youth system and Landon’s and Clint’s ages and a defense.
Don’t get me wrong; I wanted nothing more than to see this U.S. team win, but even now I know that can’t possibly be true, and I feel strangely clean admitting this. Right now I know this team distracted me so beautifully for those weeks; I felt—surely—anguish and elation; the thing bulging and riling in my chest and stomach during the second half versus Algeria was the feeling, I swear (and I duck as I write this), of panic’s dull growth, of receiving spotty news of a friend in a car crash, or maybe something just less than that; and with that late Donovan goal, that feeling—a release, a breath—was the knowledge that that person had walked away from the car’s mangled remains—walked away! I know now that this team is done, and I feel myself, and I am still here. And mostly present. I am near and far, distantly aware of superior soccer having been played in South Africa, while the rest of me teaches and looks for an apartment and eats and tries not to think about soccer.
When asked by a reporter about his implied unfortunate choice to start Robbie Findley and Ricardo Clark, Bob Bradley’s response was plain, boring, just like him: “It is what it is,” he said, shrugging. Maybe the Hug just is what it is; I’m making it out to be big and bold like a giant helium balloon that is nothing more than flimsy material; maybe I should have let this scene go, thought just as much about any other soccer moment, or—how about this—considered anything but soccer; for remembering and replaying must be some sign of support for a team that doesn’t know me from any other dude, and a player—a new villain for us to growl at—who may not see time in another World Cup. But I allowed this game to be pressed to my face for a month, and this hug is finally something true and personal, the sweetest and realest glimpse into the lives of two people on my team. All those magazine interviews and Twitter feeds, the piles of second- and third-hand information, become suddenly foolish.
In my flimsy attempt at dangling the Father/Son metaphor here I had just assumed that we, the fans, the distant ones living everyday lives, would act as father figure here, the ones comforting, the ones forgiving, but might we be the flawed ones, the ones in need of holding?
Casey Wiley teaches writing at Penn State University – Altoona. He’s working on a book about stand-up comedy, social humor and why he’s not very funny. Read Wiley’s past contribution to the Diary Project about being a soccer fan in an NFL office: Dolphin Days.
Photo found at Match Fit USA.