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No cheering in the press box, or a rumination on the greatest joy in sports

Imagine the baseball playoffs happened only every four years and only four teams got to play. Imagine the intervening years were one long tournament to see who got those four spots, one of which always seemed to go to the Yankees. Imagine there were baseball teams that had never gone, some that had only gone once. Imagine fans that prayed for a chance to see their teams step on to the field in the World Series just once in their lifetimes.

You can’t. I can’t. And it doesn’t matter, really, because there is no hypothetical that would convey with any accuracy the sheer ecstasy a World Cup birth can bring to an entire country. The Yankees in this case are Brazil. Yes, I’m talking about soccer, a sport that makes many a silly American laugh or sneer or take pride in the fact he hates the sport precisely because the rest of the world loves it and say, “We have our own football, and it’s better, and we still call the winner of the league ‘world’ champions.”

But, you know what, it’s his loss. That guy won’t cry like a little girl when his team simply makes it in to the big tournament, won’t run to the middle of the street after the game to see it flooded with fellow fans, incredulous and delirious, because the national team did it. They’re in. WE’RE IN! He won’t see his president declare a national holiday the next day because for the first time in 30 years, they’re in. WE’RE IN!

All of that happened in Honduras on Wednesday night, right after Jonathan Bornstein of the U.S. Men’s National Team headed in a goal in the waning seconds of its final World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. For the U.S., the goal tied a meaningless game–they had punched their ticket to the 2010 “finals,” as they say in Europe, four days before. For Honduras, it meant the “catrachos” hop-scotched Costa Rica for the North and Central American region’s third automatic bid to the greatest sporting event in the world. It will be the country’s second ever trip to the World Cup and the first in 27 years. Most of America wasn’t paying attention when the goal happened. Honduras was on its knees. And afterward, it was euphoric.

It’s an unwritten rule in sports journalism that you don’t cheer in the press box. Sports writers are impartial observers, not fans. Even at The Daily Tar Heel, students covering UNC basketball games were not allowed to wear Carolina blue to the games. You can love the team as much as the next guy. You just can’t wear it on your sleeve. Same goes for the guys in the booth. Sure, most teams in every major league here in the U.S. has regular season radio or TV announcers who call the games with a soft-spot for the locals, but the biggest games get the biggest pros. So for the greatest play in the history of the Super Bowl, the call went to the monotone Joe Buck.

Listen to that Honduran play caller crying as he announces the U.S. goal and Honduras’ entry into the World Cup. It’s hard to imagine any American play caller getting that emotional about anything. Sure they get excited–Gus Johnson is good for that much–but has anyone actually broken down in tears on the air? It wasn’t just the play caller either. If you listen close, you can hear people in the background yell “Gol!” right before he does. The whole booth was watching and praying. The whole country was. And when it was all over, the whole country celebrated.

Honduras is a special place for me. I spent four formative summers there as a teenager, starting right after 8th grade, when my dad was transferred there by Chiquita. He doesn’t work for Chiquita anymore, but he’s still there, still growing bananas. The older of my two younger sisters doesn’t remember living anywhere else and the younger of the two never has. I have dear friends from those summers who I still keep in touch with, and memories that will always make me smile. So even though I root for the U.S. National Team, I wanted that Bornstein goal for Honduras.

It’s a poor country, one wracked by gang violence and currently embroiled in a political fight between a democratically elected, yet politically dangerous Chavez-wannabe and a quick-to-the-crackdown replacement government that resorted to a military coup at a time in history many believed Latin America had finally left that regrettable tactic in the history books. Honduras needed Bornstein to make the goal. And now, he’s a national hero. There was a palpable joy in Honduras’ celebrations, but also relief and maybe some hope that everything will be OK. Soccer has done this before.

Franklin Foer’s book “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization” is a fascinating read. Using everything from local to international leagues, Foer looks at how certain squads are microcosms that illustrate the defining political questions of our time. The trope holds up in some cases better than others, but the underlying truth is that no sport, no social gathering place, figurative or otherwise, has the ability to affect the power structures that govern the world like soccer. That may not seem plausible to Americans because no sport played in the U.S., certainly not soccer, is capable of bridging the painfully entrenched lines in the sand between Rush Limbaugh’s right wing and Rachel Maddow’s left.

Moments of tragedy have united us–the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the mass shooting at Virginia Tech–but just as quickly, it seems, the old divisions rear their ugly heads, bigger and uglier than before. We are a much, much larger country and much more diverse than Honduras, so bringing everyone under the same tent isn’t as easy as heading in a goal from a corner kick (and that’s not really all that easy). Maybe there will never be anything we all agree on, nothing that will drives us all to dance in the streets with joy. I suppose that’s OK. Few countries, few peoples, will every feel get to feel what Hondurans are feeling right now. I’ve come to expect the U.S. to make it to the World Cup every four years. My little sisters might never know this feeling again. They deserve it. Honduras deserves it.


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