Ryan O'Hanlon will file dispatches from Honduras, where he is covering the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's opening World Cup qualifying match, all week.
The stadium was about two-thirds full when we arrived, and slowly filled up from there, the lower seats last. (There’s a barbed wire fence circling the inside of the stands, so if you sit too close, your view is actually pretty terrible.) There were four of those inflatable people with long arms and legs on each corner of the field. (Sponsored by Claro, obviously.) And behind both of the goals were a bunch of other giant inflatable things, including: a Salva Vida beer bottle, a Coke bottle, a fat cowboy in a Honduras jersey, a superhero guy with spiked-back hair, and an orange ball labeled “Lotto.”
Other pre-game entertainment: a man slowly riding around the track on a mountain bike, wearing a helmet with a Honduran flag. Another man flying a blimp (you know the sponsor) with a string, running across the field. A third man in a cowboy hat singing and playing guitar at midfield, flanked by four Honduran women who were dancing, I guess, but basically just stepping forward and backward. (At one point, the mountain biker got off his bike—but kept his helmet on—and started grinding with the air in front of them.) Then there was a 60-piece high school marching band, all in Honduras jerseys, who were, honestly, kind of terrible, but did a reasonable-enough imitation of the standard high-school-marching-band-fight-song. Some women in traditional dresses danced to one side of the band, while a bunch of young boys in these feather wigs and these outfits that made it look like they were only wearing cloth diapers, just kind of stood on the other side and really limply shook these sticks they were holding.
Vendors sold whatever the hell they wanted. Unofficial Honduras gear—hats, scarves, jerseys, whatever—was everywhere, it seemed, and their weren’t any real official stadium refreshment stands. Rather, just a bunch of people with multiple-liter bottles of soda, their own grills, and their own coolers, who found some counter space out in the hallway. There were a few guys walking around with Little Caesar’s boxes and not yelling “pizza, pizza,” so I ate Church’s chicken, instead—some guy was selling boxes of around 11 fries, a drumstick, and a breast for $4—for the first time in my life. (Little known fact: fried chicken was invented in Honduras. Also: that is a lie.) They were selling carne asada at another makeshift stand, but the bathroom was just sort of vaguely a place for you to privately do your business and more of just a communal room where you did whatever you had to do—I saw a guy peeing on a shelf that was also a urinal—so that wasn’t an option. I also bought a bag of water, but never drank it because it was a bag of water.
I sat back down 15 minutes before kickoff and a hoard of riot police walked onto the field in masks, carrying shields, guns, and wearing neon-vests. Oh, yeah. The soccer game.
HONDURAS WON BECAUSE THEY scored more goals. That’s, um, how sports work, but it’s generally just how soccer games between two somewhat-similarly-talented teams are. Two teams play, and if they played the same exact way 10 more times, you’d get 10 different results. But at the same time, what happens is what happens, and it can’t just be dismissed because there are only 10 games in this tournament.
Clint Dempsey, the American who didn’t talk to anyone, scored the first goal. A long ball from Jermaine Jones (born in Germany, but a naturalized American) came in over Dempsey’s shoulder, and, before it hit the ground, he caught it about as well as he could with his right foot, sending it into the far corner, side netting. It was suddenly shocking because it looked so easy, even though it’s not. (Willie Mays caught a ball with a glove over his shoulder, and people think it’s the greatest moment in the history of Western Civilization. Dempsey kicked a ball with his foot, people.) So, it was kind of like, “Oh, wow, I guess that just happened?” and then the stadium was silent for the first time all day. The Americans celebrated, but it felt like we were watching it at some crappy bar because there was no sound, and it was 90 degrees.
Maybe because it was in the afternoon, and it was so damn hot and so many of these guys play in countries where it’s winter now, but the game was just kind of sluggish up to that point. Even after Dempsey’s goal, the stadium was sort of muted. All the same noise—offbeat drums, random horns, stray yelling—just a few levels lower on the volume scale.
Then Honduras scored: Juan Garcia on a one-in-100 bicycle kick from 12 yards out, and the entire stadium shrieked at once. It wasn’t that growl you hear at American sporting events, but this high-pitched yelp, something like relief, coming from 30,000-plus people. The goal really was great—Klinsmann called it “probably the goal of the century here” post-game—and the father of that kid with the Uncle Sam sign—he also of the side-part—looked back at me, shaking his head, basically saying “Ohhhhh, yeahhhhh, motherfucker,” and then flipped his wrists up and down to imitate the bicycle kick in the least athletic way possible.