Soccer? I don’t even know her.
We all had our goals. The men waving the Mexican flag had driven from the Bay Area in rush-hour traffic to see their country’s Monterrey soccer team battle England’s Preston North End at Raley Field. The Americans in Beckham shirts were taking a chance on a “new” spectator sport. Expats in soccer jerseys from Portugal and Brazil roamed the stands with hungry looks, jonesing for a soccer fix in this upstart nation that refuses to recognize the world’s true football.
Expectation permeated the nearly full stadium, strengthened by urgent percussion on the inflatable thundersticks distributed to spectators by bare-midriffed Tecate girls. In the midst of all this noise and hope, as the players ran warm-up drills across the field, I paused in my second-row seat to give thanks. First, because I was not wearing the Dinger suit in 106-degree heat, as I had on my last visit to Raley Field. And second, because my goal that evening was simple. All I wanted from my first live soccer match was to hear the announcer yell, “GOOOAAALLL!” Simply put, it’s one of the happiest exclamations on Earth.
When the clock on the scoreboard flashed 0:00, I slipped my 20-ounce Tecate (which, at $8.75, functioned as my entire dinner) into a cupholder and grabbed my thundersticks. The crowd cheered, thundersticked and played drums and trumpets. Both teams ran downfield, red-uniformed players weaving in between athletes wearing white and navy stripes.
I had no idea which team was which. Swallowing my embarrassment, I turned to my neighbor. “Preston North End are the stripy ones, right?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, with a shrug. “You’ll be able to tell which is which by how many cheers they get.”
This seemed like a brilliant strategy since, as one would expect in California, the Mexican fans far outnumbered the English. However, it proved problematic when the teams got closer to scoring. Was the crowd cheering for the red guy who almost scored or the stripy guy who blocked him?
I became vividly, humbly aware that I will never be a sports reporter. I couldn’t even figure out when to bang my thundersticks or, for that matter, how to gracefully hold the large, red, turgid cylinders on my lap. I grabbed my Tecate and downed most of it.
Twenty minutes into the game, a man in front of me was joined by his children, who promptly asked, “Which team is Preston North End?”
“The red team,” he replied. I pumped my fist in victory. I finally knew which team was which. Now I was ready to … pee.
The super-sized Tecate had raced through me and I was in pretty desperate need of a bathroom. Still, goals happen rarely in soccer and I didn’t want to miss the first one of the night. I tried to remember whether soccer periods were 30 or 45 minutes long. When the clock reached 30:01 and the players kept running, I took a chance and sprinted up the bleachers to the bathroom, straining to hear the announcer.
As it turned out, the first goal happened well into the second half, when Monterrey’s Humberto Suazo finally got one past the Preston team. The crowd erupted into cheers, trumpet blasts and shouts of “Viva Mexico!” I noticed, with no small disappointment, the announcer did not yell “GOOOAAALLL!”
My personal goal thwarted, I took comfort in smaller joys. For example, the children in front of me were beating one another with their thundersticks, which was much less annoying than the sound of the noisemakers being used properly. The Delta breeze blew softly. The ziggurat glowed in the distance, almost as brightly as the faces of the Mexican fans when Monterrey defeated Preston North End two to zero.
In the last minute of the game, a young father ran along the dugout roof with a Mexican flag in one hand and his toddler daughter in the other, laughing and cheering. We’d all shared another gorgeous summer night at Raley Field, which was everyone’s unspoken goal.