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Losing and Winning in Brazil

Valley’s Fans Watch as the U.S. Stumbles to World Cup Success

  • Maggie Reade, 11, of Lebanon, reacts as Germany edges the ball toward the goal during the US vs. Germany World Cup Soccer Match at Salt Hill in Lebanon, N.H., on June 26, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Maggie Reade, 11, of Lebanon, reacts as Germany edges the ball toward the goal during the US vs. Germany World Cup Soccer Match at Salt Hill in Lebanon, N.H., on June 26, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ken Reade of Lebanon, N.H., braces himself during a tense moment while watching the United States play Germany in the World Cup at Salt Hill in Lebanon, N.H., on June 26, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Ken Reade of Lebanon, N.H., braces himself during a tense moment while watching the United States play Germany in the World Cup at Salt Hill in Lebanon, N.H., on June 26, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Maggie Reade, 11, of Lebanon, reacts as Germany edges the ball toward the goal during the US vs. Germany World Cup Soccer Match at Salt Hill in Lebanon, N.H., on June 26, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Ken Reade of Lebanon, N.H., braces himself during a tense moment while watching the United States play Germany in the World Cup at Salt Hill in Lebanon, N.H., on June 26, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Sometimes a loss isn’t a loss, and sometimes a win isn’t necessarily a win, and sometimes a draw is good, and sometimes not scoring at all is a win. Or at least it’s not a loss. Well, not entirely.

Welcome to the world of FIFA (better known as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the governing body of international soccer), which makes up the byzantine rules for the World Cup, in which teams advance to the next round, or are eliminated, through a complex points system.

Watching the United States team make its haphazard way through the tournament’s opening round, with its odd system of tie-breakers, stirred up an equally complex set of emotions in fans gathered at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon. A win over Ghana, followed by a heartbreaking draw against Portugal, set the stage for Thursday’s matchup with Germany, a world footballing power.

As the U.S. was losing to Germany in Recife, Brazil by the score of 1-0, it also was winning a spot in the tournament’s second round, thanks to Portugal’s simultaneous defeat of Ghana.

Let Jim “Deuce” Murray explain it. “We survived the Group of Death!” he exulted. (The death was expected to be the U.S.’s, as Germany and Portugal are among the world’s top national teams and Ghana had eliminated the U.S. from the past two World Cups.)

Murray was the super fan in a Cat-in-the-Hat-like hat with the Stars and Stripes on it sitting in a side room at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon, which had all six of its flat screens tuned to the U.S.-Germany match. As the game progressed, and it became obvious that the match was going to be a defensive slog, rather than an offensive shoot-out, the crowd mood changed from eager anticipation to a tense keeping track of the Portugal-Ghana game.

Murray, who lives in Hartford, went to Brazil earlier this month to see some of the early World Cup matches. A soccer player himself, he was at Salt Hill with some of his soccer-playing buddies who, he said, with tongue not entirely in cheek, had used vacation or sick time to watch the game, or called in the Jurgen Klinsmann Get out of Work card.

Klinsmann, the German coach of the American team, had tweeted a note that read “Please excuse ______ from work on Thursday, June 26. I understand that this absence may reduce the productivity of your workplace but I can assure you that it is for an important cause. The #USMNT has a critical World Cup game vs. Germany and we will need the full support of the nation if we are to advance to the next round.”

The entire nation wasn’t at Salt hill but, judging by the large crowd, there were plenty of long lunch breaks being taken. A man at the bar wore an American flag headband, others on their laptops or phones toggled between the U.S.-Germany game, and the Portugal-Ghana game, the outcome of which would determine whether the Americans would go ahead into the next round. The crowd stared as intently at the TV screens as if they were watching presidential election returns.

Germany dominated the game from the beginning, setting the pace and establishing possession of the ball. “Ominously we’ve already seen the quality of Germany,” intoned Ian Darke, one of the ESPN commentators calling the game.

There was applause when the American goalkeeper Tim Howard stopped potential German goals, and groans of frustration when the Americans missed opportunities, slipping on the pitch wet from rain or just missing getting their feet on the ball.

“BEASLEY! Seriously! Come on!” yelled one man after defender DaMarcus Beasley muffed a shot.

“Nice control; position; easy,” urged another man later in the game.

“I try to watch as much as I can,” said Lebanon resident Kevin Lozeau at halftime. “It seems like we’re doing all right. I’ve got my phone out, checking on the other game.”

Pat Halpin, of White River Junction, was sitting facing the bar, exchanging photos on his phone with his daughter in St. Louis, who was watching the match in a bar that looked as if it were packed to the ceiling with fans.

Jay Boeri, from Hartland, was sitting at a long table with his children and grandchildren. “We have a slight preference for the Italians, but they exited,” Boeri said. He took his grandchildren to Boston’s North End to watch the Italian team play before they were eliminated. If Thursday’s game had featured the Italians versus the Americans, he said, “it would be a tough call.”

It’s not called the World Cup for nothing. “I really did feel how it blends the world together,” Murray said of the experience of watching Brazil play Mexico in the Brazilian city Fortaleza. He feels the same way about watching games in a bar, rather than at home. “It’s the camaraderie,” he said.

As the game ticked down to its last minutes, with the Americans looking as if they were slogging through molasses, and the Germans exhibiting the control and poise for which they’re famous, the crowd was quieter, cheering only when it became clear that Portugal was pulling ahead of Ghana, which, using the FIFA calculus, would mean that the Americans wouldn’t be eliminated.

“Are you crunching the numbers?” a man said.

“We’re fine right now if everything holds as is,” another man replied, who’d been doing the math on a laptop.

As the Americans threatened in the last minute of the game, the crowd noise swelled. A woman in the front of the room clenched her fists. There was another exhalation of disappointment as the Americans failed to score. But technically, it didn’t matter. The Americans were in.

“The numbers game paid off for us,” Murray said. “To get past Ghana, then tie Portugal and lose by just one goal to Germany is pretty good.”

On the television Jurgen Klinsmann was giving his post-game analysis, and the people still there in the bar listened as if he were the Delphic oracle.

“Back to work?” said one man to another. “Yeah, dude,” the other man said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.