You can’t plan falling in love. It’s not how it works, as poets, singers and movies have instructed us down the years.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in my apartment in New York and like every soccer fan on the planet, I was so glad that the World Cup was here and on television.
Now, as the first match of Group B, Chile-Australia was supposed to be a plate of spring rolls — spring rolls being the most democratic of starters — before the gourmet dinner of Spain-Netherlands later in the day.
The Chileans, playing on their home continent, were heavy favorites against the yellow and green clad Socceroos, who many pundits picked to have the poorest showing in Brazil.
And the game wasn’t yet 20 minutes old when Chile demonstrated their class and put two in the back of the net.
Now, I didn’t have any real emotional investment in the game, perhaps with a slight pull toward Australia. I have a host of cousins in Sydney, but I’ve never been to visit and I haven’t seen them since I was a boy.
And, well, the Go-Betweens, one of my go-to bands in periods of severe emotional crisis are from Brisbane. (By all means, go find “Bye Bye Pride,” by the Go-Betweens. I’m certain the song will make your day better.)
But with La Roja up 2-0, I made that classic sports fan transition from “watching the game,” to ‘having the game on.” I think we’ve all been doing a bit of that during this absolutely glorious World Cup.
I had the game on my computer and was listening to it while doing some work. For the next 10 minutes, I clicked over only when I heard the mix of announcer excitement and ambient crowd noise come to crescendo during an attack.
At about the 30th minute, after hearing a couple of those, I turned my full attention back to the game. Australia, despite being down two goals against a much better team, kept coming at the Chileans, who were already content to defend.
In the 35th minute, Australia’s Tim Cahill, who plays his club soccer for New York Red Bulls on the west bank of the Hudson in Harrison, N.J., headed in a cross from the right to get one back.
It was now 2-1 and Australia was out of the coma and starting to walk the halls.
I was now all in for the second half and whatever mushy part of my brain that regulates all my hopes and dreams began to pulse.
It wasn’t a chemical reaction out of loyalty or allegiance to a team I follow. There wasn’t the panic. The USA games will, as if they were cigarettes, get me in the end. I know that.
It wasn’t a comparison to the United States either, though Australia is a young team, and like the USA, is still sorting out an identity in a nation where soccer isn’t the most popular sport.
In the second half, the Aussies played with such effort and drive. They challenged every Chilean attack and played with coherence when they had possession.
It was like Australians had at halftime developed some machine for converting passion into sound soccer.
Now of course, soccer is in the end about getting something from a match — a win, three points, or a draw, one point — but unless you’ve got money on it your focus can wander into the game’s nuances.
And the Aussies played on, every pass was good music, every attempt on goal the perfect thing to say.
A weird mix of fear and happiness came over me. Air hissed out of the pit in my stomach that first opened during puberty.
No, it can’t be.
Love is like real laughter, it’s like weather, it is undeniable when you meet it.
And there I sat at my table, completely and totally in love with the Australian soccer team.
Now, they were still down a goal, but I hoped for an equalizer. It was plausible.
Chile dashed that with an injury time goal, making it 3-1 with the whistle lodged between the referee’s teeth. I was disappointed, but I was glowing.
This was, after all, love. But then I began to think.
Now, as any drug dealer or those of us who watch movies and TV shows that feature drug dealers know, you don’t put pure grade out there. The shit gets cut with something. Now, I began to step on my love with thought. And the manifestation of the love-thought mixture is projection: If this is love, what does it mean for me and what does it mean for Australia? If Australia knows that I’ve fallen in love, will that change things? Will I become I different person? Will they? Will my love change them? I’ve been in love before and how did that work out? Is it more of the same?
And I began to worry in terms that sound like bad Elvis Costello lyrics: my love is poison. I didn’t want to hurt them with something toxic.
The Socceroos next match was in five days time, an impossible fixture with Holland, the attractive side that had just thrashed world champions Spain, 5-1.
As a soccer fan, I’ve always enjoyed watching the Dutch, the 2010 runner-up. At their best they remind me of Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount college basketball teams — always looking to score and doing so with style.
My fears for the match rested not in an Australia loss, but that they wouldn’t play in the manner that shot me in the heart.
In the 20th minute, Arjen Robben, the Bayern Munich man whose speed and rapaciousness with the ball make him one the can’t miss players in this World Cup, dashed through the Aussie defense and buried a splendid shot for 1-0.
“Damn it,’ I said to my roommate’s cat, Westley, who shrugged. Cats are in a perpetual shrug.
But with Robben-like quickness, a warmth came over me. My love for the Australians was born out of their response to a bad situation.
A minute later, Cahill uncorked a volley that went flying past the Dutch keeper. The equalizer was glorious: the timing, the connection and way the net swallowed the shot.
Everyone likes to have their emotions validated and reciprocated. We now trusted each other. There was a bond. And now we were both wondering how the world would deal with us and how we would negotiate this new circumstance.
And life, now great, got even better. Nine minutes into the second half Australia’s Mile Jedinak converted a penalty to put Australia up 2-1.
This is a song. This is flowers. This is fiction made real, like Jeff Daniels coming off the movie screen in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo.”
It happens retrospectively, but every love relationship has an apogee. It could last a lifetime, or it could be half an afternoon. Duration is irrelevant and this was it.
For Australia and me, this was it and it lasted four minutes. In the 58th minute, Robin van Persie, whose bird -in- flight header against Spain provided this World Cup an iconic moment, made things level with a professional finish off some nifty quick, short passes in the danger area.
Ten minutes later, Memphis Depay blasted a dipping shot that bounced a few yards from goal, which flummoxed Mathew Ryan, the 22-year old Australian goalkeeper for the eventual match winner.
Still, the Aussies fought on and I kept hope alive, shielding the lit wick from the breeze. But for the first time since we fell in love, there was that creeping sensation that this wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t going to last the season. We weren’t going to make it to the third game with spot in the knockout round at stake. It was over. To keep calling would pointless and painful.
After the Netherlands game, my eye wandered a bit, to Bosnia-Herzegovina who were playing in their first World Cup and to Ivory Coast, with Chelsea legend Didier Drogba coming off their bench.
Sadly, life got in the way, and I didn’t watch the Aussies match with Spain, which they lost 3-0 in a meaningless game. You let it go. School’s starting soon or the boss needs that report by Wednesday morning.
The World Cup is a summer fling, but summer flings matter, sometimes quite a lot.