Commentary

The imperfectly beautiful Copa America Centenario

For Californians, In-N-Out is a religion.

As a transplant, I can confirm it’s pretty good stuff, a delicious Double-Double (order it “animal style” — trust me) easily the best hamburger you can get for under four dollars and under four minutes. Nothing at In-N-Out compares favorably to a Philly cheesesteak, but hey — when you move across the country, a few things inevitably get lost in translation.

After covering the opening game of the Copa America on Friday night, I staggered out of the stadium over two hours after the match ended, the final revisions to the match report bouncing in my mind and the promise of an hour-long drive back to my home in Berkeley looming unpleasantly before me. A quick trip to In-N-Out, about five miles from the stadium, would keep me awake long enough to get back to my bed, eighteen hours after I left it early Friday morning.

What greeted me was the longest fast-food line I’ve ever seen.

The line spilled out the door, a ten minute wait just to reach the counter. Every red plastic chair inside was taken, folks waiting nearly half an hour for their long-awaited red meat.

And more than two hours after the match had ended every single person was either wearing Colombian yellow or some combination of red, white, and blue.

I relay this anecdote because, as you all know, the Copa America Centenario hasn’t even come to Philadelphia yet, and if you believe what people are saying you should probably just set your tickets on fire right now.

At least, if you read certain reports on the Copa. According to Deadspin, the “scandal soaked tournament” has been a “disaster” with “sparse crowds” and “uninteresting play.”

It’s the sort of thermonuclear sentence you write when you have a keyboard that only produces three different scorching hot takes: “whichever team lost last night’s basketball game is literally the worst basketball team ever assembled,” “please click on this video of a guy hitting a home run,” and “any involvement of the United States in international soccer is doomed and subject to ridicule.”

Now, obviously it’s bad form to play the wrong national anthem. And the crowds have not been full to bursting in every venue. But the two matches played so far in Santa Clara — USA-Colombia on Friday and Monday night’s heavyweight bout between Argentina and Chile — have shown me a tournament miles from what that take would suggest.

Far from crowds so small they are almost played behind closed doors, Levi’s Stadium played host to a pair of sellouts in its first two matches. Both matches featured loud, raucous crowds, spilling out all around the stadium and even up the 101 Highway — American, Argentinian, Colombian, and Chilean flags billowing out windows as car after car slowly plowed its way down to Santa Clara.

Though the divided crowds may have denied the United States home-field advantage, they did bring a tremendous vibrancy to the match. Every goal scored — five in total over two games — carried with it a thunderous roar of celebration from the triumphant supporters, matched in every case by an correspondingly subtle groan of anguish from their opponents. The wave, so often pathetically attempted at a half-full baseball stadium, broke out multiple times, spinning around the stadium with a roar of cheers, picking up speed with each pass.

The soccer hasn’t been bad, either. The first matches of international soccer tournaments are often cagey affairs, two teams feeling each other out and trying to form a cohesive side. Certainly the first match for the Americans will not linger for long in the memory.

But Argentina and Chile put on a tremendous display of athleticism, intensity, and pure skill last night. The tackles, flying fast and frequent, could be felt even behind the plexiglass wall of the Levi’s Stadium press box. Sharp passes fizzed around the field. And Argentina scored a pair of brilliant counter-attacking goals, both low to Claudio Bravo’s right foot, that brought the crowd to their feet.

(It also brought tears to the eyes of many, as Angel Di Maria celebrated his 51st minute goal by commemorating his grandmother, who passed away just hours before the match.)

The Chileans, holders of the 2015 Copa America title, might come to regret their wastefulness from last night. Too much hesitancy in the box, too many critical lapses on the counter, a set-piece goal that came twenty minutes too late to do any good. But that’s the beauty of international tournaments — no matter where you stand when you come in, you’re always just one or two tough performances from elimination.

Look, this tournament isn’t perfect. My Copa America experience last night included paying fifty bucks to park on a golf course nearly a mile from the stadium after sitting in traffic for an hour to go about five miles. Some of these games have, indeed, been real stinkers. (Which is par for the course for every sporting event — not everything can be a classic.) And there are genuine questions about the weirdness of the United States hosting this tournament at all. It’s not perfect. 

But nothing about modern sports is quite perfect. Not when we sit in billion dollar stadiums too often built for billionaires on the backs of people who, once the towers of concrete and steel are erected, suddenly can’t afford tickets to see their favorite team. Not when those stadiums feature gleaming corporate logos plastered on every available square inch of surface, their lights glowing benevolently over 70,000 spectators. Not when our leagues and our tournaments all feature some degree of corruption and money trumping all else, when money trumps all else in our modern world.

What is perfect, though, is the moment the ball ripples the back of the net. When a press box sworn to stony silence breaks out into oohs and aahs at an audacious spin move. And when a fast food restaurant is working triple time, cranking out greasy burger after greasy burger, to appease a peaceful crowd of hundreds of people, brought to the same strange spot by the beautiful game.

Don’t burn those tickets.

7 Comments

  1. it is chilling to think any random 0.1 percenter can obliterate a media site as large as Gawker but on the other hand I have removed all my bookmarks already and will not shed a tear when GM is gone, litigated out of existence
    I love that PSP is basically the exact opposite of hot takes, just stay below the radar guys and you will be fine

  2. Brilliant; great article! Enjoy your long drives and traffic hassles. Good to hear how life is on the West Coast!

  3. Peter, on Saturday night I had the distinct pleasure of taking in the Brazil/Ecuador game. Better yet I had an opportunity to take my young sons to their first international. Sure it is a shame the tournament is not home in South America where it belongs, and it is true we do not have the same number of supporters here that they do I South America, but we Americans are reaping the benefits. Even though Brazil and Ecuador could not find the back of the net the game was still exciting and passionate. It still left an impression on my kids, and it gave me an opportunity to witness one of the greatest soccer tournaments in the world. No mix up with anthems, corporate greed, or confederation corruption could take away from the beautiful game. I have no interest at all in Brazil or Ecuador, we were there to see the game, to live in the atmosphere, and bask in the splendor of the world’s greatest game. Don’t burn those tickets!

  4. anyone else taking in the 3 matches at the Linc?
    i bought cheap because i don’t expect it to be full, especially if the US get bounced out. Last year’s 3rd place gold cup match with the US was the saddest match i’ve attended, on many levels.
    looking forward to the other two, regardless. will just move down.

    and last night’s Argentina-Chile match was a blast. can only hope to have something that exciting here.

    • I bought the Philly Pass, and would have made an effort to get to the two non-US games, but I was able to sell the tix to a Columbian guy. Regardless, having a tournament of this magnitude in our country is really an awesome thing and to shit on it (Deadspin) is really unnecessary. Just enjoy. I’ll be there Saturday! Hope the US wins tonight cause Saturday will be a great environment if they do.

  5. I’m a Philly transplant living in San Jose and rode the street train up to Levi’s Stadium from downtown for the opening match. While the soccer from the US wasn’t the greatest, the overall experience was something very passionate. On the train there, the Colombians were definitely the more boisterous, but the fans were split 50/50 and we did get a couple USA chants going. The train home was all Colombian songs and while I was very disappointed in the result, it was really incredible the number of songs they had and the fact that so many people knew them. I’ve been on trains to matches in Europe that were similar, but this was really something cool to see in the US (even though it wasn’t for the team I supported).
    .
    At the game, I sat with the AO and we were loud, but the number of Colombian fans spread throughout the stadium was next level. The must’ve outnumbered US fans 2 or 3 to 1. I’ll never forget Colombia scoring and scanning the stadium/hearing those fans. It really was a spectacle and while there have been disappointing matches and attendances that have been sparse, this tournament has been really cool to see. My experience at the game was something I’ll hold with me forever even if it was in a losing effort. I hope this event becomes a regular thing on the international calendar, even if it isn’t always held in the US.

  6. Zizouisgod says:

    You got to see three of the top five ranked teams and the matches were very good. That’s a huge bonus as it doesn’t always work at that way.

    If the US is somehow able to win tonight (and Paraguay gets another draw), that will make Sat’s match here meaningful which is great because the URU-VEN and PAN-CHILE both mean something to all sides involved. That’s great for fans here in Philly.

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