It was shaping up into the kind of Hollywood ending Americans live for.
Down against Slovenia 2-0 in the first half of World Cup play last week, the U.S. team had clawed back through grit, determination, and skill to a 2-2 tie. But in Hollywood scripts this is only part of the rising action. The climax is always, always, the winning save, the winning hand, the winning play, and, in this case, the winning goal. The storyline had Americans in bars, living rooms, and gyms on the edge of their seats anticipating one more photo finish like the tens of thousands of blockbusters, chick flicks, buddy comedies that play in Americans' inner psychic DVRMs that can be called up in an instant. We've seen this movie before and know how it ends.
And sure enough, it came as scripted. On a Landon Donovan free kick into the penalty box where players jostle and grab each other, red-white-and-blue American team member Maurice Edu breaks free and bam! kicks the ball at point blank range into the back of the net. Goooooaaal! The United States, 3 - Slovenia, 2 with just minutes to spare! Yesss.
Freeze frame. This is as it's supposed to be. After the messes along the way, here was a neat and clean ending. A circumstantial underdog (since the team of a nation of 300 million was favored to triumph over the team of a nation of 2 million, it became the underdog once it allowed itself to get into the 0-2 hole) pulls off the come-from-behind upset. Americans always overcome adversity by determination, skill, and a singular belief that yes, they can. In fact, this is the same American team that had come from behind a record number of times in their qualifying matches.
Setbacks can always be overcome. Like here in Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Perfect. Just perfect story. The Americans take control of their destiny. They face adversity and climb back. It reinforces Americans' view of themselves. This is not just a great soccer game, not just a win against Slovenia. It is, at a deeper level, an affirmation of American self image of how they play on the world stage.
Whistle is blown. The goal is disallowed. What?! This can't be. Let's see the replay. See, there is proof. No foul! No handball! No offside! It's a legitimately clean goal. But due to the referee's whistle, there's no recourse, no do-over, no mulligan, no override of the decision no matter how much the Americans protest or the replay shows. The replay! Look at the replay! Was it a foul? Was it a handball? There it is that there was no it!
We do it in football and basketball and baseball and hockey. It makes sense. It leaves no doubt.
How can this call stand?
It does. The remaining minutes drain away. Game over. The scoreboard results are 2-2. Instead of 3 points that would have assured the U.S. team qualifying into the next round with still one game to go, they get a measly 1. Rather than a pure comeback story, it's an unsatisfying comeback into a ... tie. That's not a comeback. That's not an ending. That's a book with the last page torn off. That's a movie with a missing reel. This is not an American story that the U.S. team is in.
The players with the white diagonal stripe yell at the ref, the fans with American flags painted on their faces boo, the viewers with beers in their hands hiss.
Most fans of any of the other 31 teams in South Africa would also be angry if this had happened to their team. But in listening to the American rage there is a sense of usurpation. Of an identity-robbing Malawian referee. How dare he.
In cross-cultural terms this is a violation of the American sense of "internal control," a phrase coined by researchers Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hapden-Turner when describing cultures with a deep belief that they can control the environment around them. John Wayne saves the wagon train. Bruce Willis defuses the nuclear bomb. Jack Bauer takes out the Russians, the Islamo-fascists, the narco-terrorists, the traitors at the last minute. Time after time after time. No matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how overwhelming the odds, there is always a hero that comes through. The Americans win by the sheer power of their efforts and self confidence more so than education or skills. It is a right, a privilege, a birthright no one can take way. Even a referee's whistle should be overruled by almighty technology.
But soccer, that most fatalistic of sports, will not oblige.
In its external control worldview, where things are more at the whim of fate and the gods, in soccer there is not much that can be done. Asi es el fútbol, that's how soccer is, say Latin Americans when a team is wronged in a controversial play, when a favorite falls before an usurper. What can you do? Alexi Lalas, former World Cup player on the American team and now ESPN commentator understands this. When, after multi-angle replays of the fateful moment are dissected, and it's clear it was a botched call, he says, "You know, that's what I love about soccer. It's unpredictable. Gotta accept and move on."
His fellow anchor seems to swallow an "ugh!" in response. That's just not right! his body language screams capturing the feelings of millions of Americans, many of whom have just recently jumped on the World Cup bandwagon. Culture shock in soccerland. This cannot be happening.
But it is.
Asi ....es... el fútbol.