On Sunday night I watched the US women’s soccer team lose to Japan in a Scottish pub in France. At half time a large group of drunk/high Australians harassed the bar. With the exception of France, I have lived in each of the countries listed above for at least a year. The bringing together of all of these nations – Scotland, Japan, Australia, USA, France – in one place, in such a random way was a bit surreal. It was at once familiar, foreign, comforting and confusing.
We watched the game at the Auld Alliance pub, the go-to spot for Scottish TV to show the Tartan Army (the collective name for travelling Scottish sports fans) after a big game in Paris. The Auld Alliance has 8 screens to watch sport, friendly staff behind the bar, beer from the Caley Brewery on tap, and haggis on the menu. Like many Scottish pubs there was more room for standing than sitting, however there were still a few seats at the small number of tables when we arrived. We chose a table. My back was to the bar but my husband, sitting on a rickety folding chair, could survey what was going on.
“This is all very strange,” he said. “It’s like we’ve just stepped out of Paris and into Scotland. This is just like a real Scottish pub.” He continued to look around searching for what exactly made it feel so un-Parisian. “It’s got an edginess to it …”
“Grittiness?” I volunteered.
“Yeah, gritty, that’s the word. It feels a bit unpredictable, like you just don’t know what might happen.”
I took another look around. It did have a ‘spit and sawdust’ feel that we hadn’t seen since we’d been in France. You wouldn’t be surprised if the large floor space in front of the bar had been sticky with beer. A polyester ‘Bonnie Scotland’ flag that still bore fold creases was hung unceremoniously with thumb tacks/push pins over the door. The slightly rancid, heavy cooking oil smell of the 10 euro burger+chips+beer deal was thick in the air.
However, it was a Sunday night, we were in to see a women’s soccer/football match and it wasn’t that crowded. I thought it was unlikely that there would be any trouble, but my husband seemed less comfortable. Two British guys propping up the bar with their bellies shouted, “When’s the real footy starting?” suggesting they’d rather see a men’s game. Maybe my husband was right.
The match started and I felt a bit sick to my stomach. I don’t get to be an American fan very often and soccer/football is my game. In the first minute, the US forced the Japanese keeper to make a save. Then wave after wave of good attacking play by the US resulted in a ball in the outside of the net, a bad miss, a shot off target, 3 more shots off target, an excellent save by the Japanese keeper, a shot that bounced off the goalpost, a corner, a shot that went off the crossbar, another off target shot, and another… but no goals.
Halftime and I was exhausted. We needed to score. One quick counter attack from Japan and all of that good US attacking play would be for nothing.
My husband went to the bar and I noticed the place was really filling up. It was then that the Aussie’s arrived. The fact that they were Australian was really incidental, as the cocktail of youth, alcohol/drugs and being abroad in a large group can reduce normally well-behaved people of any nationality to bad behaviour. In fact I am sure I have behaved badly in similar situations. While they looked like they were probably nice little rich boys on a college trip when sober, the large size of the young men, their saucer-shaped pupils and their erratic movements made them feel a bit scary.
Being an American fan abroad always makes you a bit more likely to be a target. While fairly indiscriminate about whom they harassed, several of the young men decided to pick on me. My husband at the bar heard, “You’re from Ohio” in a loud, mocking American accent, and then turned to see two of these guy’s faces literally in my face. He quickly came over to my defence. It was first time in our 20-year relationship he had felt the need to do so – the gesture was unnecessary, but, I suppose, sweet.
Others in the group had taken over a table occupied in the first half by a US fan. I told them that the table was taken and they pretended to only understand French. The US fan came back, started yelling at them in French and the group looked at me and whined, “Do you understand what that lady is saying?”
My husband tried to talk these guys into leaving us all alone. The Scottish barman intervened, “I don’t want these drunken children in my bar.” He then asked my husband, “Are you their teacher?”
Shocked by the misunderstanding and wounded that someone could think he was old enough to be this group’s teacher my husband scowled, “No mate, I was trying to help get rid of them. I’m just sitting here watching the game with my wife.”
After being told they were not going to be served and after a few flares of drunken, pathetic bravado the large Aussie crowd started to leave. As they left, it looked like a group member was stealing a women’s handbag. I grabbed it so he could not get away. It turned out to be a false alarm and I got a lot of abuse from the ‘non-thief’. The whole incident left us a bit riled up and feeling a bit old. I reflected that there was a time when I would have handled the whole thing with much more ‘charm’, and less like a narcy teacher. My husband decided he needed to go out and get new trendier glasses to make him look younger.
Thankfully the second half started and stopped us crying in our pints. It meant more of the same from the US: a shot that went off the post, 2 more off target, a corner, a good save by the Japanese keeper. Frustration! The US kept knocking at the door with no luck. Then finally it happened. After a long ball from the back, substitute Alex Morgan shot from the top of the box, GOOOOOAAAALLLLL USA!!!!
At last! The sense of relief rolled through me and made me feel a little faint. However, breaking the haze of my euphoria was the sound of the big bellied boys at the end of the bar cynically chanting, “USA! USA!” just so they could make fun of any fans who joined in. Whatever – we’d scored! We were ahead in the World Cup final! (USA 1 – Japan 0)
Before the game, I watched a series of Nike produced videos detailing the US team’s preparation for the World Cup entitled ‘Pressure Makes Us’. Several in the series featured the range of physical tests that the team goes through – agility, tread mill, yo-yo, squat, sprint. None of them mentioned any mental training that might help a player and a team become a champion. Yes, soccer/football is physical sport but you must have the mental strength to make good decisions and the concentration and determination to make goals and defend well. Probably the hardest thing for people who have never played to understand is that you also need mental toughness to be able to hold on to a lead and win.
I wish the US team had done a bit more mental strength training. After they scored, you felt their relief but they lost focus. It was all Japan. With only 10 minutes left to go, sloppy defending let Japan get a sloppy equaliser. (USA 1 – Japan 1)
There was a huge cheer. A Canadian man excitedly shouted, “Game on!” At the start of the game, most of the Auld Alliance crowd was neutral or disinterested. Now however, the large crowd was gripped by the drama and quality of play. Most had chosen to cheer for Japan.
At the same time a very loud, high-pitched squeal cut through, and almost silenced, the other cheers. Earlier in the game I’d enjoyed hearing the familiar sound of excited Japanese coming from the woman at the next table. Not so much at that moment.
“HEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” she continued.
I’d seen Japanese soccer fans when I lived there so I was not nearly as surprised as the rest of the bar by the sound that seemed much too big to come from such a small person.
“We’ve got a squealer at table 18,” said the startled Scottish barman with a wink and a smile to the rest of the bemused spectators.
It quickly became clear that the game was headed for a draw and two 15-minute periods of overtime. Overtime play started and the US looked focused and dangerous, but they needed a goal. A US corner, a shot, another shot and save, another shot, then Japan on the counter attack. “EH!EH!” a few more squeals from the next table. Then, the US, the ball down the left, a beautiful cross into the middle – Yes! Yes! Yes! – the amazing Abby Wambach powered the ball into the back of the net with her head! Yes!
“We’ve got another squealer at 17b, “ said the barman. This time he was talking about me. Damn strait I’m squealing! We were back in front! (USA 2 – Japan 1)
But could we hold on this time?
The second fifteen minutes of overtime was predictably all Japan. The US looked a bit more in control at the back than before. Maybe it was going to be the dream win. Japan shot off target and then a battle in the midfield for possession of the ball. US substitute. Japan shoots and is denied by US goal keeper Hope Solo. 3 minutes to go. Japan corner kick. The kicker takes a few steps back then looks to her teammates in front of the goal. She takes two steps forward, thud, the beautiful cross is in the air and then the ball is off Homare Sawa’s head like a bullet into the back of the net. (USA 2 – Japan 2)
‘EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!’ No one in the Auld Alliance, indeed no one watching the game, could believe what was happening. Japan, the team that had never once won a single game against a European or American team in its history before this tournament, was back in the game at the World Cup final against multiple world champions, the USA.
The US couldn’t believe they lost their lead … again. They needed to score or it was a penalty shot out. They got the ball, shot. A Japanese player was given a red card and sent off for dangerous play. The US shoots again and again. The whistle blows and it is time for penalties.
I leaned over and said, “Ganbatte ne!” or “Go for it/ Good luck!” to the Japanese woman at the next table just before the penalty kicks … and, I almost meant it. I understood why most of the pub was cheering for Japan. Discounting the bellies propping up the bar and probably others who weren’t cheering for Japan, but against the US, this was an amazing underdog/come-from-nowhere kind of story that any sports fan would love. In addition, everyone wishes nothing but good things to happen for Japan after the horrors of the last year. However, as far as I was concerned, Japan coming in second place would have still been a great sporting story.
It was time for penalties. I didn’t fancy the US’s chances of holding it together for the penalties after seeing them fail to protect their lead twice. But, I still had hope!
The hope didn’t last long. They fell apart even more than before. First US shot, saved by the goal keeper. Japan scores. Second US shot misses the net! Japan scores. Third US penalty, saved by the goal keeper, again! Japan scores. US player Abby Wambach put the ball in the net to keep the smallest hope alive. Japan scores. Game over. USA 2(1) – Japan 2(3) Japan – World Champions. Wow, what a game.
The loneliness of defeat was punctuated by being in a Scottish bar in Paris surrounded by people who enjoyed the game but largely didn’t really care. Even my husband, can’t just take up the American cause with the same passion. I had to phone an ex-teammate in the US for proper commiseration and a wee cry.
I have passionately supported Scotland, Japan, Australia and France in various sporting occasions, and even against US athletes, in some instances. This is because I love sport generally and love hearing about athletes and team stories. I find these stories much more interesting than nationality. This game told a great story that will be remembered for a long time for the historic nature of the win but also as a great advertisement for football. However, no matter how good the story, when it comes to women’s football, for me it will always be USA! USA! The team are amazing and should be very proud of what they achieved. Thanks for the wonderful ride ladies!
To see highlights of the match and to get more information about the Women’s World Cup Finals, click here
[Photo credit: Photos of Auld Alliance Pub from http://theauldalliance.com/]