Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Losing Hope, Gaining Perspective

You’re probably wondering what Pipi and I were doing in a place that we don’t seem to like very much. We asked ourselves the very same thing in Hangzhou, a city that thwarted our every attempt to find anything charming about it.

Hangzhou had one last disappointment in store for us. And no, I don't mean the hostile Buddha above. He doesn't mean it; he's just sporting a Sanskrit character that predates the Third Reich by centuries.

I'm talking about the United States’ defeat in the game they played there. It was an unpleasant match, played in stifling heat, with a hostile crowd that really had it in for the United States. The opponent was Brazil, and we got to know the Chinese word for that country, Ba-Shi, very well because the crowd chanted it non-stop. They cheered when Brazil got the ball, exploded when they scored, and roared with approval when the Brazilian players literally danced circles around the Americans with needlessly ostentatious and taunting footwork. I’m not sure where this antipathy comes from. My guess is that it stems from the 1999 World Cup, which came down to a final game between China and the United States. It was tied 0-0 through overtime, and was settled with a shoot-out, which the United States won by one shot. The goalie in that game was Brianna Scurry, the same goalie who played in this Brazil-U.S. game, and I think the Chinese fans were happy to see her shellacked.

So the game wasn’t that much fun to watch, but it did at least remind us of why we’d come to China in the first place, and to Hangzhou in particular. And we had a giddy moment at a lunch buffet at the fanciest hotel in town when former U.S. star Julie Foudy walked right past our table. (We were too shy to say anything, but we did revel in our proximity to soccer greatness.)

The next day we took the train back to Hangzhou, and things improved immediately. We both really like Shanghai, and instantly felt like we were on vacation again. The soccer became more interesting as well, with a dishy controversy erupting over comments made by the starting U.S. goalkeeper. Hope Solo, who had been the starter for about two years, was suddenly benched by the coach right before the Brazil game. When the U.S. lost that game, Hope responded with a juvenile tirade mocking the coach’s moves and implying that the keeper who did play is past her prime.

The team responded by basically saying they couldn’t be her friend anymore. She was banished from the team to the point where she not only wasn’t allowed to sit on the team bench for the next game, she apparently wasn’t allowed to eat with them or even go to the stadium to watch the match. I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to sign her yearbook, either. Newspaper reports said she still would probably fly home with the team but I don’t think she did and I actually would know because THEENTIRETEAMWASONMYFLIGHTHOME.

Sorry, being starstruck has made me lapse into capitals again. What I meant was, the entire U.S. women’s soccer team, except for Hope Solo, was on the same flight that Pipi and I took home.

After spotting players all over Eastern China, and the Shanghai airport, I finally decided to overcome my shyness. The team boarded before us and were scattered all over the coach cabin as Pipi and I got on the plane. When I found myself momentarily stalled in the aisle next to the row where Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly were sitting, I made my move. I leaned over and told them I’d really enjoyed watching them play. Abby Wambach thanked me very sincerely for coming all that way to watch. She also apologized for not bringing home the trophy, which kind of flustered me. I stammered that they’d done well, the line started moving again, and the awkward moment was over.

What I wish I had said of course, is that there was no need to apologize; that we were disappointed after the Brazil game, but that the consolation match against Norway was so good that it redeemed all the drama that came before. So Abby, if you’re reading this (it’s okay; we all Google ourselves sometimes), please don’t feel like the team’s performance was anything to be sorry about. We loved watching the matches and were honored to be in the team’s company flying home. And I’m sorry about talking in run-on capital letters when we met. It’s a problem I promise to work on before the next world cup.

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