Any game is a great game

By Natalie Dicou

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany-My family of die-hard soccer fans began its quest for World Cup tickets around Christmas time. By then, it was almost too late. Only a few ticket lotteries remained, but we crossed our fingers and hoped that, by chance, we’d still get into a few games.

To our great disappointment, we only managed to score tickets to the USA-Ghana match, a game destined to be either a meaningless sleeper or the most important match for the Americans thus far.

Luckily for us, the latter turned out to be true. If USA beats Ghana and Italy beats the Czech Republic, the United States will advance into the prestigious knockout round of 16, where the tournament becomes single elimination. We’ve since learned, after meeting several Americans who didn’t get tickets to any games, that we didn’t fare so poorly after all. Apparently, tickets were extremely hard to come by.

Six weeks ago, a box-not an envelope-arrived by Federal Express. Its contents: the precious tickets, each with an individual’s name typed onto it. Apparently, when entering a game, fans would be asked to show their passport to verify that the ticket was indeed theirs. If you wanted to give your ticket to, say, your mom, you would have to endure the hassle of paperwork.

The Germans, we’ve been told, are a “rule-making and a rule-following” people.

Germany’s inherent need for order upset FIFA, the ruling body of international soccer, which worried that stadiums would be half-full, since angry fans would be standing in long lines outside the stadium as each passport was examined while the match was being decided inside.

When the Germans realized they would never be able to efficiently get people through the door under this system, they loosened their rules. And suddenly, tickets-at least to undesirable games-emerged. So when a scalper offered us five tickets to Trinidad and Tobago vs. Paraguay, we jumped at the chance. We’d had our fill of watching games on massive screens in the melee of the surrounding cities. It didn’t matter who was playing-we just wanted to get inside a stadium.

The entire city of Kaiserslautern was transformed into a miniature Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday. Its joyous fans burst into spontaneous parades. Men performed funky dance moves on 6-foot-tall stilts that I could never reproduce on solid ground and people dressed in butterfly costumes with 30-foot wingspans clogged the streets as tourists stopped to watch. More than once I thought to myself that these may be the happiest people I have ever come in contact with.

With massive smiles revealing Hollywood-white teeth, they danced, sang, ate and drank during the hours leading up to their 9 p.m. game. With a little more than 1 million citizens, Trinidad and Tobago is the smallest country ever to play in a World Cup, and it had a lot on the line Tuesday night. After a loss to England and a tie with Sweden, a win against Paraguay would catapult T&T into the elimination round.

After going through a security line that was far more lax than that of the 2002 Winter Olympics, we were allowed into the stadium. A sold-out crowd of 46,000 sang and waved thousands of flags. The introduction of the players sent a chilling jolt up my spine. Flash bulbs flickered throughout the crowd as one of the most sincere displays of patriotism I’ve ever seen unfolded before me.

The vast majority of fans were rooting for Trinidad and Tobago, the sentimental favorite since they still had a shot to advance. Paraguay was out either way. They waved their flags-red with diagonal black and white stripes-with such contagious hope and emotion that, by the end, any neutral parties feeling the energy in that stadium were almost surely pulling for Trinidad and Tobago.

Paraguayans, on the other hand, were just as passionate in support of their dead-in-the-water team. To the fans who had come all the way from South America, the standings no longer mattered. It was about national pride, stepping onto the world stage and showing they could play.

In the first half, devastation struck Trinidad and Tobago after a dreaded own-goal; and, once again, we were all reminded of the cruelty that lies beneath the surface of soccer. Trinidad and Tobago had been dominating the game, getting many chances, and then came the fluke that all but killed the team and its fans.

Knowing now that they needed two goals to advance, they finished the half looking like a different team: a slower one that had just seen its dream slip away. They came out fighting in the second half, but never could get the ball through the net, ultimately losing 2-0.

The contrast between the jubilant Trinidad and Tobago fans that had entered the stadium just hours earlier and the crestfallen ones that held their heads in their hands before exiting the stadium was heartbreaking.

But within a few blocks, many seemed to realize the triumph of making it to Germany and were singing once again. Their tie against Sweden may be the biggest sporting success in the country’s history, and they will take that back to their tiny country knowing that they’d gone up courageously against the world’s best.

In that sense, the World Cup is similar to the Winter Olympics. There’s always that one guy from Jamaica or Cameroon-the only athlete representing his country-who walks into the opening ceremonies alone, hoisting his flag for the entire world to see. He’s there to luge for his country. He doesn’t have a shot in hell, but he’s always smiling.

The Associated Press