THE BLOG
06/14/2006 05:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

World Cup Fever #3

Good having this refuge from the daily spectacle of American democracy tipping and disappearing slow-motion, undercarriage ripping, oily smoke billowing, over cliff side. (The NY Times editorial today called a new bit of Rovian viciousness "revealing." After six years of bold-faced lying, cheating, stealing and bloodshed, What exactly further is to be revealed?)

But I err: the chilling bit is, There's almost silence on the footage above. Barely a peep from the fourth estate as the frail ole craft of democracy slides into...what, the Orwellian abyss?

But hey: I found my World Cup team.

Arriba Espana!!

Today against Ukraine in the stunning heat, Spain stunned. That's the best I've ever seen them. I'll bet the best anyone's ever seen them. A thrilling team today, all gears meshing. Imagine saying that about Spain, who's existential errand seems to overturn in a ditch and crush Spanish hearts. David Villa, wisely up front in place of feeble national mascot, Raul, was a terrific pacy threat. El Nino, Fernando Torres, whom I've watched live twice, showed how he can thrill: he gallops like a racehorse, long strides eating up the turf. He teamed up with the great-hearted Barcelona defensive lion Carles Puyol on a truly gorgeous goal: Puyol got the ball, crashed through a tackle by spinning about off-kilter, tottered on, passed the ball, kept on tottering and lumbering forward, got the ball back in the air and placed a soft header onto the grass for El Nino to gallop onto and hammer home. Yow, instant highlight classic.

The only mar on the game was the preposterous pseudo-penalty called on the poor dumbstruck heatstruck Ukrainians.

But the real personal thrill for me? I have had drinks with the scorer of this World Cup game's first goal.

It happened a couple years ago, in the Basque restaurant kitchen of Juan Mari Arzak, dean of Spain's great chefs. My girlfriend Anya is a food writer who writes much about Spain and its culinary glories; we know Juan Mari and his chef daughter, Elena, well. We called in at the restaurant late, for a drink with Juan Mari, and were ushered into the kitchen, with a whisper in the ear, "Some soccer players are there with him!"

Soccer is a big deal in Basque Country, as sport and food were really the only means for Basque identity to express itself during Franco times.

There sucking down gin-tonics at the chef's table were the great twinkle-eyed chef and two Real Sociedad players: a wily looking veteran defender introduced as Aitor. And a young blond good-looking kid named Xabi Alonso, whose name I recognized vaguely from the sports papers. I sensed the air of stardom. "Hi," I said, bright and innocent,"I know your name. What position again do you play?" Xabi, one of the great celebrities of Basque football, flinched ever so slightly and informed me he was a midfielder. I chatted on brightly about the upcoming game against Real Madrid ("Boy, must be a challenge, out there with Raul and Roberto Carlos and all!" says I. Xabi shrugged.)

That's most of what I recall, other than the players and their flashy young girlfriends/wives guzzling gin-tonics, which the Basques like to drink from glasses big as punchbowls. Anya and I left, but apparently things went on til almost dawn (Arzak is a legendary soldier of the night). The young folks didn't carry their liquor so well, falling down on the steps or getting sick, I was told.

Anyway, Xabi shortly went on to Liverpool, where Anya and I would point to him on TV and cry, "Look! There's a big time soccer player we know! Our Xabi!"

And now our man Xabi has scored at the World Cup. I got a signed Real Sociedad team shirt after the meeting at Arzak's. From number fourteen: Aitor.

Normally, judging from taxi drivers, the Basques could care less about the fate of the Spanish national team. I bet they're honking their horns tonight.

Torres plays for Atletico de Madrid, the lesser of Madrid's teams, the "socialist," working class team. They too are heartache machines usually. Their fans' desperate cry of devotion, roared out by the teeming thousands at their stadium, El Calderon, is "Atleti--hasta la muerte!" "Until death..." snicker Real Madrid fans, rolling their eyes at the poignancy of it all.

WORLD CUP LOOKALIKES

Michael Ballack (Germany midfielder): Matt Damon
Gianluigi Buffon (Italy goalie): Leonard Nimoy
David Beckham (England midfielder): David Beckam