In November 2008, on a Sunday afternoon in Buenos Aires, I happened upon one of those mini-riots peculiar to the moments immediately before or immediately after any first division soccer match. I was walking in a neighborhood by one of the larger train stations, when a train arrived from the vast outer suburbs of the capital, releasing a horde of young fans dressed in red—partisans of Independiente, if memory serves. They burst through the station, and out into the street, and did the sort of thing that fans like these sometimes do: they went at a newspaper kiosk, for starters, and swiftly destroyed it, scattering racks of news dailies into the streets, spilling a cooler filled with sodas. They kicked over a few trash cans, and shook a lamppost with such vehemence—five or six young men working in tandem—that it rocked dangerously on its concrete base. Those of us caught in the sudden turmoil were split into two camps, those who ran (a minority); and those who pushed cautiously to the edges of the space, ceding right of way, as it were, to the young men in red, and watched the spectacle.
I was in the second group, and from where I stood, I saw a boy of fifteen or sixteen in the crowd, dressed in the typical style of a pibe from the villas: long, baggy shorts, laceless sneakers without socks, the traditional Argentine mullet. He was, demographically speaking, indistinguishable from the rioters, except for the fact that he wore a blue and yellow Boca Jrs jersey. For his own safety, he should have been looking for a place to hide, but instead he was trying desperately to free himself from his mother and sister, who had the boy all but wrapped in bear hugs. They were saving him from himself, struggling to wrap a sweater over him, to cover the offending jersey, but he writhed and shook them off, yelling insults all the while at the fans of Independiente. Mercifully, they were too delighted by their own mayhem to see this boy—this lone Boca fan—who dared challenge them. It wasn’t long before the sounds of police sirens could be heard in the near distance, and the fans of Independiente scattered, full of adrenaline, in the direction of the stadium. They were joyful, on edge, eager for more petty violence. And the boy was just like them—only without the joy. Mother and sister released the young man, and he tore off the sweater in disgust. He was humiliated, and shaking with fury.
The entire episode couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes, but it had made me very tense. There was no telling what those fans might have done if they’d spotted such easy prey. I felt somehow proud of this boy, and also keenly frightened for him. Think what bad decisions, what consequences lie ahead for a child with this kind of outsized pride, and this level of recklessness. In the aftermath of what had not happened, his mother and sister wept. He glared at them.
I’ve thought a lot about this child since, and more than once in this tournament. Sometimes fans show more intensity than the teams they support, of course; but there are lessons here for those who play or want to play. This daring that flirts with self-destructiveness, this grit—it’s one of those magical qualities of sport. It is related to pride, close to desire, but goes further. Teams that have it tend to succeed, even in games where they shouldn’t. Teams of great talent who lack this relentlessness tend to flame out. There is a kind of attacking soccer that arises from not caring about the consequences, from identifying so completely with the jersey and what it represents that you’re willing to risk anything. This kind of play isn’t always pretty, or smart, but it is moving and exciting to watch. Individual players have it: those that do, become more, not less visible, as the match progresses. They demand the ball. They welcome pressure. Teams down 0-2 at halftime often fold—but sometimes they respond, as the U.S. did today; sometimes they have what that fearless boy had. There are teams that simply lose—and there are teams that disappoint on an almost spiritual level: France and England, most notably, seem to be going through the motions, which is absolutely mystifying for teams of such skill.
One of the great things about the World Cup is that over the course of the month, you never know which teams will demonstrate this grit, which teams will find it within themselves, begin to believe when all logic would say otherwise. In addition to the United States, Algeria had it today. The Swiss had it a few days ago. Mexico embodied this quality yesterday from start to triumphant finish.
It’s a beautiful thing to witness—how the collective psychology of a team shifts in the course of a match, and they enter this fugue state. They become believers. I can’t wait to see who will be next.