I’m going off the grid a little this week with one of my greatest games. Every matchup until this point has involved the Auburn Tigers and every one after this week will do same.
However, I could not in good conscience put a list together of the greatest games I have ever attended and not include this incredibly unique experience.
On a hot summer day in late July of 1996, I loaded up with my family to take in a ballgame at Legion Field in Birmingham. That’s right, we went to the Old Gray Lady, which is no doubt a venue of great significance in the state of Alabama, but this wasn’t a football game.
Well, not exactly.
It was a soccer (or futbol) match between the United States and Argentina in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
It was particularly special to me for two reasons. I’ve already mentioned my love for the sport growing up and playing in high school, but it was also an opportunity to cheer for my country and witness an Olympic game. There was definitely a different vibe in the stadium that day than I had ever felt before and waving the American flag instead of an orange and blue shaker is altogether different.
To me, it was an experience of a lifetime.
Just in case you are unaware, Argentina is really, really good at soccer. It’s the country’s national sport. They take it just as serious as we do the NFL and college football. It has won two World Cups — in 1978 and 1986 — and two Olympic gold medals — in 2004 and 2008.
To say the USA was an underdog, would be a bit of an understatement. Do the words David and Goliath mean anything to you?
No one had any delusions going into the game. The Americans were determined to give it their all, but knew the odds were not in their favor. Then, it happened.
Less than a minute into the match, the US made a charge into Argentine territory. The ball was crossed from left to right but misplayed into the corner. The US tracked it down and centered it ricocheting off a defender right to midfielder Claudio Reyna, who put it in the back of the net with his left foot.
The United States was up 1-0 and the crowd went nuts! It was a moment of pure jubilation. People that knew absolutely nothing about soccer were cheering like they had been rabid fans their whole lives. Strangers were hugging and the inevitable U-S-A chant began to echo throughout the stadium.
Unfortunately, there were still 89 minutes left to play in the match. The US did manage to take a 1-1 tie into the half playing truly inspired for the first 45 minutes. Argentina grabbed the lead pretty quickly in the second half and also stuck one in late for good measure to win, 3-1.
The scoreboard may have been tilted in the wrong favor, but I certainly left that day proud to be an American.
There’s one more thing I remember rather vividly about that day. We took a shuttle to the stadium and were going to do the same when we left. It was an absolute madhouse trying to get on a bus and stay with the group we were in.
There was seemingly no organization — just chaos.
It was hot, the lines were seemingly miles long and tempers were beginning to flare. I felt like I was sitting on a powder keg and everybody around me was playing with matches. I have rarely, if ever, felt uneasy in a large crowd, but that day I was getting anxious.
We eventually got on a bus and got the heck out of there. The shuttle reeked of body odor and I didn’t care in the least.
I was just thrilled to be alive.