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The Day We Learned to Love Soccer

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Yesterday, our President replaced his top general in a war we can't seem to win,
thousands of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, and housing sales and the stock market continued to slump. Yesterday was a rough day in the life of America, but it was also a day that began with people across the country waking up early to watch their soccer team play a do-or-die match against Algeria in the World Cup.

They dominated the game, they built careful attacks that almost succeeded several times, and they were thwarted by another good goal disallowed. But then, just three minutes away from World Cup elimination, they got the miracle goal that millions of tense fans were quietly praying for -- advancing into the knockout rounds as the leaders of their group for the first time since 1930.

One of the most interesting things about watching the World Cup is how the personalities of the different nations are visible in the way they play the game. Brazilians seem to almost dance with the ball, the German team passes with perfectly ordered, precise movements, Brits have collars on their jerseys, and South Africa's team celebrates goals with song and dance. As for America... well, we have a peculiar gift for resilience and last-ditch salvation.

Our children count the last seconds of game time in their heads when they shoot hoops in driveways. When they swing baseball bats in backyards, they say to themselves, "Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded." We learn it young because it isn't something we have to learn; it's something that is just in us. As Landon Donovan said in his post-game interview, "this team is what America is all about."

Last week, in my hometown of Los Angeles, the Lakers won the National Championship. There were movie stars in courtside seats watching the millionaire players close a 12-point deficit to win the game. It was a fine display of athletics, but what it possessed in glamour it lacked in purity. After the game, Lakers fans vandalized their own city in "celebration." They burned cars and they assaulted a bus driver, among others.

Perhaps the very fact that soccer has not been widely embraced by America until now has preserved it as one of the least tainted of American sports; maybe its purity lies in its obscurity. These men on our National Team mean so much more to us now because they meant nothing to us a month ago. They are not celebrities, they are not multi-millionaires, and we don't read about their lives in grocery store checkout lines. So, when we see them out on the field, we don't see our vain ambitions in them. We see ourselves in them. And what we saw yesterday filled us with pride and self-respect at a time when we really need it.

We are in perhaps one of the most challenging eras of American history. With a Gulf Coast in peril, an overseas war with no end in sight, and an economy still in the grip of an historic financial slump, it's hard to face our realities. But yesterday, the young men of our National soccer team showed us something that affirmed the inner greatness of a troubled people. They showed us why we must always continue to believe that great things can happen to those who work hard and refuse to give up.

However far we go in this World Cup, we have already won a glimpse of the strength at our core. Perhaps soccer will become huge in America one day. But let's remember it as it is now, while what makes it big is that it is still small. While one little tap of a ball into a net by a young man a few thousand miles away has the power to make us see the greatness in soccer and remind us of the greatness in ourselves. So of all the things that happened yesterday, let's remember it as the day when the sport that didn't matter showed us what matters most.

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