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Epiphany of passion: twenty-five years on from the “Hand of God” goal

During times of reflection I am often reminded of special moments in my life and how sometimes the most innocuous events later leave a lasting impression. In the sporting world, experiences from my childhood like innocently getting to throw a football around with neighbor and Los Angeles Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood — who I reverently referred to as Mr. Youngblood — and attending a California Angels game at the Big “A” fully decked out in my little league uniform and greeting Rod Carew before the game served to connect me to the players on the field.

These players were heroes, and at the same time they were still human, like me, but with a whole lot more athletic ability. Those meetings with exceptional athletes impressed me greatly, not so much into adulation, rather into striving to do the best at whatever I set out to do. Witnessing and participating with the best sows the seeds of commitment necessary to reach great accomplishments. Remembering those interactions also serves to carry me through times when I am not afforded that luxury, providing the lessons that can help see things through to a successful end even when others try to tell you otherwise.

Through circumstance twenty-five years ago from today, another event took place that remains instrumental in the way I think and feel about sports and their connection to my well-being. On June 22, 1986 during a summer holiday in England, my family arrived at my grandmother’s home in Gosport for a reunion that featured a gathering of extended family from around the country. My cousins, aunties, and uncles played a spirited game of rounders that afternoon — my baseball skills helped me take quickly to the activity — before we all settled into the cramped confines of the backyard for an eclectic pot-luck meal that I only remember for the beer I was served behind my parents’ backs.

The topic of the pleasant Sunday for most of the family was, of course, football and the World Cup. The preamble of rounders, and dining, and idle chatter was awash with anticipation at that evening’s quarterfinal match between England and Argentina. I happened to also be in England in 1982, not too long after the Falklands War had ended, and witnessed some of the celebratory returns of warships and seamen to Portsmouth following their victorious return home. Four years on, and the undercurrent of facing the enemy again — with the battlefield this time being the Azteca Stadium pitch — crept to the fore at my grandmother’s house that evening as nearly everyone set about organizing the room so all would get a view of the telly.

I always thought I understood the passion of sports, from being near tears when the Rams lost the 1980 Super Bowl at the hands of the Steelers, to celebrating a string of championship performances from the Los Angeles Lakers during the “Showtime” era. The emotions born from watching my favorite teams both in person and on television were profound and meaningful in the way they connected me with my friends in the neighborhood. Still, nothing prepared me for the gravitational singularity of fandom that coalesced that evening in my grandmother’s small and cramped Gosport living room.

Until that day, I could be counted among the numerous Americans who had little concept of how important the World Cup was to the rest of the soccer-loving world. The family gathering I was a part of happily coincided with my visit to England, but would have been held regardless of where I was located. They were there that day for one reason — to watch their beloved national team take one more step toward another elusive World Cup title.

I happily stationed myself off to one side as the match began, content to watch the small screen transmit the goings on from Mexico. I was not brought up in any way English, but I appreciated the culture of my family’s homeland and fancied myself a bit of an anglophile. My understanding of the sport came more from a short and rather unsuccessful career as an AYSO defender, as well from attending a smattering of California Surf and Los Angeles Aztecs games back in the waning years of the NASL. It was eye-opening to witness my family anguish over every kick of the ball, to see how their obvious superior grip on the game made their viewing experience transcendental to anything I was watching.

I quickly adapted to this elevated level of participation, and remember cheering and jeering along with uncles and cousins — albeit a split second behind their initiation. The English defense seemed to fill the screen for most of the first half, as the blue-clad Argentines had the ball at their feet for the majority of the time, but I only heard the plaintive shouts to hold that line. The halftime break, instead of consisting of a regimented attack on the water closet, saw the room break out into a cacophony of analysis for what England needed to do to nick a score that went well beyond my simple comprehension of the game.

As the proverbial lights flicked on and off to signal the start of the second half, I sensed what I later recognized as my first squeaky-bum moment in soccer as family reconvened throughout the living room to see whether England had it in them to beat Argentina. This wasn’t that fleeting moment in a baseball game when the pitcher is preparing to throw a 3-2 pitch, or in basketball when a foul shooter is attempted to put his team ahead with a free throw. Instead, this was a sustained period of time that would stretch uncomfortably for many minutes. When the most infamous goal in World Cup history was scored courtesy of the hand of Diego Maradona, the tension in the living room was released in a way that I have not experienced in twenty-five years since.

Calling the reaction to the referee allowing the goal incredulous would be akin to describing the Grand Canyon as just another Arizonan gorge. So much so was the anguish and consternation in the room that I don’t even recall seeing the beautiful goal Maradona scored a few minutes later. In fact, all that second goal did was cast a heavy silence over my family that was only broken by an occasional indeterminate sentence fragment that loosely connected to what was being witnessed on the television.

The match ended without England showing much in the way of recovery for the events earlier in the second half, and family members slowly dispersed from the room at the final whistle. The kitchen had long been cleaned up from the day’s drinks and food, and the hour was getting late for those that had traveled far to be there, so methodically everyone assembled their effects and embarked on a litany of goodbyes before heading out the front door. That English fascination with keeping up appearances was on full display as I received hugs and handshakes from all my extended family, but their distraught emotions showed on their distant eyes.

I probably learned some new and inappropriate English slang that evening, but none for my parents’ sake that stuck with me. More importantly, I experienced for the first time in my life the emotive power of sporting passion. The ability of two teams of eleven men a hemisphere away to lay emotional waste to a living room packed with my family had a profound effect on how I understood the importance of a game in their psyche. As the years went by and the U.S. soccer program improved its standing, I related more and more to what my relatives went through that day. Also, I was prepared myself for the physiological change that comes from being an ardent fan of your country and the responsibility that comes with that identity.

In the present day, I never miss watching a U.S. national team game, and I sweat, fret, and follow the red, white, and blue with the fervor my family displayed that Sunday evening near the shores of Solent Sound. Maybe another such epiphany of sporting passion would have taken place in my life, but without the “Hand of God” goal from twenty-five years ago, I am not sure I would be the soccer fan I am today.