Since it started way past my daughter’s usual bedtime, she couldn’t keep her eyes open and she fell asleep about ten minutes into the game. That’s why she missed Slovakia’s first goal against Italy in last Thursday’s do-or-die match. The Italians played like amateurs the rest of the first half – no rhythm, no organization, it’s as if there were only 11 individual players and no team playing against the Slovakian Team. At halftime, after posting my disappointment and frustrations on both my Twitter and Facebook accounts, I carried my sleeping daughter to her room so as not to get disturbed by the occasional bursts of verbal cheers and jeers from me and her mother. My latest online status update at that point: “I don’t think I can stand another 45 minutes of torture.” They’ve been to the World Cup finals 16 out of 18 times, have won the Cup 4 times, the last time just four years earlier, watching them fumble in the first 45 minutes was just heartbreaking. The score stood at one to nil, things can still get better in the second half.
And then Slovakia scored a second goal in the second half. I gave up on Italy at that point. But then, by some miracle, they slowly found their game and finally scored a goal – 2 to 1, the score now stood. It’s wasn’t over, after all. And then that brief flash of brilliance turned out to be a fluke for soon after, Slovakia upped their lead once again with a goal. With just around 10 minutes left in the game, the defending champions were behind by 2 goals. It was already clear in the minutes that followed that the Italians would be leaving South Africa sooner than the whole world expected. And despite scoring a second goal, the Slovaks simply had the win and the right to move on to the round of 16 within reach – all they needed to do in the dying minutes was make those minutes die as fast as possible.
And then the referee blew the final whistle. One of Italy’s younger players dropped to the ground and cried his heart out, and a veteran walked over pull him back to his feet. He put his arm around the young player as they walked out of the stadium – the young man would probably have another chance to be part of a champion team four years from now, while the veteran knew that this was his last World Cup. Italy was only of the so-called big teams who everyone thought had realistic chances of making it to the top in this World Cup to be booted out in the eliminations. France was also sent home early, no thanks to their players who thought that their personal issues and attitudes were bigger than their country’s aspiration.
The next day, the whole of Italy mourned their team’s loss. "It was the darkest and most terrible day in the history of Italian football," according to the editorial of Italian newspaper, La Gazzetta.
Here, most Filipinos were intoxicated by the Game & win by the L.A. Lakers over the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association finals, which, to rest of the world, seemed more like an unwelcome TV commercial in a month-long main feature. Most Filipinos, when asked why they’re not into football, would say that the sport is boring since most games don’t go beyond having 2 to 3 goals made, some even end in a tie at zero. Unlike basketball, they say, where you are treated to a goal – a dunk, a triple, a fade-away, an impossible lay-up - every 24 seconds. But that’s the beauty of football, it is so easy to play but not too easy to score. Each goal requires so much to make – strategy, skill, stamina, speed, cunning, anticipation, improvisation – that not one involved takes it for granted. Not the players, not the coach, not even the people in the stands. And when a goal is finally made, unlike in basketball where you’re bombarded with anywhere between 40-60 goals in a game but hardly remember any one particular shot after, a soccer goal can stay in your head forever. It can push you into extreme sadness or elation, depression or excitement, depending on who kicked that ball in between those posts, every time the image of it pops into your head, hours, days, weeks, months or even years after it happened.
As my wife said our goodnights to the children, our daughter woke up as her mother tucked her in tighter under the blanket in her bed. “Who won?” she asked. “We lost, baby,” her mother said. Almost the whole family chose Italy as their top team in this World Cup (Our eldest chose England instead). She started crying that we decided that for that night, she could sleep with us in our bed.
I wonder how it would be like when the time comes when our own country would finally make it to the World Cup, and we’re actually rooting for our very own team? But that would take a while yet. See, we’re too busy waiting for Darwin’s law of natural selection to be repealed so that Filipinos would be genetically competitive in basketball, that we fail to realize that there is this one sport where we can actually really excel. Because in football, height doesn’t really matter, much less skin color. Its number one requirement is heart. And we’ve got plenty of that.