Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The USA v. Ghana Game

Arenas Das Dunas in Natal
Last night was the night for the USA v. Ghana game, which would be the highlight of the four-game World Cup trip.

We got lucky that this game just dropped right in our laps.  When planning this trip, we decided to just plant ourselves in one city and see the games that passed through.  I gave my friend Steve four choices among the 12 World Cup host cities in Brazil that were places (a) I had not yet gone to, and (b) wanted to go to, and (c) where Brazil would not be playing since tickets would be impossible and the town would be chaos.  So that meant the choices were Recife, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Natal.  Recife and Natal were beach towns.  The hotel situation would be better in Natal.  (We didn't know that the stadium transportation situation would be SO much easier in Natal.)  So we picked Natal.

Then the schedule was announced and sitting there on June 16 as our "Group G 3 v. Group G 4" game was USA v. Ghana.  For those of you not "in the know" about international soccer, Ghana is, literally, the bête noir of USA soccer.  (Literal translation of "bête noir": black beast.)  Ghana has knocked the USA out of the competition in the last two World Cups and here they were, in the so-called "Group of Death" with Team USA, along with Germany and Cristiano Ronaldo (a.k.a., "Portugal").

This game was most definitely an elimination game.  Given how tough Group G is expected to be, it is very reasonable to think that the loser of this game would be, for all practical purposes, eliminated from the competition.  And given Germany's destruction of Portugal earlier in the day, the door was wide open for the winner of this game to advance to the knockout rounds.  But first either the Stars 'n Stripes of the USA or the Black Stars of Ghana would have to survive the other.

And I was there.

During the Bataan Death March walk back from the Mexico/Cameroon game a few days earlier, we had a chance to scope out parking options en route.  We decided to park at the lovely, upscale "Shopping Natal," about a mile south of Arenas Das Dunas.

Pittsburg, albeit misspelled, is a restaurant in Shopping Natal
We ate at the Chinatown restaurant in the mall food court, which was a legit Chinese restaurant.  My chicken  and ginger in green onion sauce was awesome, the perfect balance of east and west.  (For the record:  I don't like my Chinese food too Americanized, but I definitely don't like it too authentic either.)  I did not see the "Pittsburg" restaurant until after we ate.  It's a burger joint.  I don't know if they put french fries on the burger, which apparently is the now thing in Pittsburgh USA.  I'm guessing not, since they spell "Pittsburg" not like the Pennsylvania Pittsburgh, but the Kansas Pittsburg.  Or is it the California Pittsburg?

After a nice supper, we joined the throngs walking to the stadium.  Shopping Natal was fairly close to the edge of the security perimeter where car traffic could pass no closer, so it was a wise parking decision.  Except for the fact that I failed to note where in the underground garage I specifically parked the rental car.  Plus you can add in the uncertainty of whether the mall parking garage would still be accessible once the game ended.  It "probably" would be, I thought, but considering this was not an officially FIFA-sanctioned parking situation, one would not know.

Walking to the stadium
You might not be able to tell this in Natal, since the pavement is dry and does not appear to be raining.  Natal is the City of the Sun, so says the travel brochures.  Apparently we are hear for the entire year's worth of rain showers.

The walk to the stadium was only a mile.  And soon enough, about a half hour before game time, we were in our seats watching the pre-game warm-ups.

Before the game
The standard opening ceremonies were even nicer seeing your own countries' colors live in another country.

Opening ceremonies
And it was very nice hearing the "Star Spangled Banner" sung loud in another country.  The "U-S-A U-S-A" chants, those I could live without.  But the national anthem?  Quite nice.

It was a good thing we were there early as Clint Dempsey of Team USA scored the first goal 30 seconds into the contest on an amazing act of ball control to get around a Ghanian defender.  But, then, you detect that things were going wrong.  USA could not handle the ball in the midfield and the Black Stars were constantly on the attack.  USA goalie Tim Howard was coming up huge time after time.

And here's your soccer lesson ju jure of the day no dia.  Why is Ghana's team the Black Stars?  Is it because everybody is a star and the players are, well, you know, black?  No.  No.  No.  No.  The red, gold and green flag of Ghana has a single black star in the center and is the only international flag to feature a black star.  Hence, ipso facto, Q.E.D., they are the "Black Stars."

The first half ended with the USA holding on for dear life 1-0.  In the second half, USA was better at handling the ball -- much better in fact -- but Ghana was still relentless on the attack.  Ghana substituted its star Michael Essian into the game and I was afraid it would have the same effect as Ivory Coast subbing in its star Drogba, which shot a bolt of electricity through his national team.  Essian, however, seemed to have no impact, but Ghana was relentless and finally got one past Howard.  1-1.  The crowd went wild.  Even though the USA fans were larger and louder, the local Brazilians were clearly pulling from the Black Stars.  So the Ghana fans, their numbers multiplied with the locals, were ecstatic.

I was sure Ghana would not be done scoring.

Action shot. This is sports photography at its most personal.
Oh, and by the way, I like the continual drumming from Ivory Coast more than Ghana.  Ivory Coast's drumming sounded ominous, like it was saying, "we will find you and we will kill you."  Ghana's drumming brought the party.  Which is nice.  But it's not ominous.

Back to the action.  USA then got a corner kick with only a few minutes left to play in regular time.  As soon as I said, "The only way for Team USA to win this game is to make something happen on a set piece," some kid named John Anthony Brooks made something happen on a set piece.  The place went wild.  Ghana had nothing left in them.  Even with five minutes of added time, Ghana could do nothing.  And then the final whistle blew:
Scenes from a victory
The Curse of the Black Stars had been lifted.  USA finally beat Ghana.  And, weirdly enough, given how Portugal self-destructed against Germany, USA is now in a strong position to be the #2 team to advance from this group.  But neither of these teams is beating Germany.  And USA has to better control the ball in the midfield and not make Tim Howard do all the work to get past Portugal.

It was then time to walk the mile back to Shopping Natal.  The rain had started back up because, well, it wouldn't be a World Cup in Brazil without rain, now would it?  We got back to Shopping Natal quickly.  The mall was still open (nice), but I couldn't remember where the car was parked (not nice).  The security guard in the mall walked us to where in the mall you pay to park.  Seven reaies to park!  The equivalent of $4.00 US.  For a major sporting.  That was less than the cost of riding in the cab from the hotel door to the hotel gate in Olinda.  He then walked us around the parking garage until I remembered we were parked on D1 (deh UM).  And there was the black Fiat.

Well, of course there would be a black Fiat there.  Every car in Natal, at least in Ponta Negra, Natal, is a black Fiat.

Anyway, I will tolerate no bad talk about mall cops ever again.  Well, mall cops in Brazil.

I used to do these vacation blogs and they were mostly pictures held together with a little commentary as the mortar.  So far, this has been mostly commentary with only a few pictures.  We are about to switch into the "vacation" phase of this trip and out of the "sports spectator" phase.  Which, hopefully, means more pictures and less talk.  Hopefully.

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