Bob Sparks: U.S. World Cup team brings our fractured nation together

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When times are bad, the United States has a proud history of coming together to confront enemies both foreign and domestic. The word preceding “States” in our country’s name is significant.

The first half of the 20th century brought us two World Wars and a depression and we responded in unison like no other country can. Unfortunately, we have become fractured as a nation, especially in our politics, over the last 50 years.

Members of Congress are openly hostile to one another. Over the last 20 years, the President is a regular target of the party outside of power. Both parties criticize the Supreme Court, depending on the decision rendered.

In Florida, the current and former governors regularly face strong criticism. Some of the social media rants are off the charts.

This little essay is not about any of that. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is about a great unifier: sports.

Between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sunday, Republicans, Democrats and independents were cheering the United States men’s soccer (football, if you will) team against Portugal in the 2014 World Cup. That same unity occurred during the same time period last Tuesday when the Americans edged Ghana, 2-1.

Many watching may know little or next to nothing about the sport other than the USA was playing. That is good enough. My knowledge falls into the “average” category.

Why is the World Cup such a welcome respite? Because no one gives a tinker’s damn whether Jermaine Jones, who tied Sunday’s game 1-1, is for or against Obamacare. All we care about was his right-to-left bending shot that found the back of the net.

Does Clint Dempsey, who chested in the go-ahead goal in the 81st minute, think the Washington Redskins should change their name? He’ll get back to us on that.

Every one of the many polarizing domestic issues and dangerous world issues were forgotten as Sunday’s game drew to a close. We were trying to clinch a spot in the round of 16.

Dempsey’s goal brought us to our feet. The excitement was as real as it was bipartisan.

Perhaps if Rick Scott and Charlie Crist were in the same room, they would have chest-bumped each other. OK, OK, let’s think that one through a little longer.

The bubble temporarily burst with mere seconds remaining, when Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo hooked a perfect lob toward the dome of Silvestre Varela, who head-butted the ball past U.S. goalie Tim Howard. Never has a tie felt so much like a loss.

This is not the first time sports united the country. The 1980 Winter Olympics was the first opportunity to confront the Soviets since their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

Further dampening our mood was the storming of our embassy in Tehran by Iranian hoodlums just three months before the Olympics. They also captured 53 American diplomats.

No one expected our hockey team to have a chance against the seasoned players of the USSR. Because of arcane Olympic rules in those days, capitalist countries were forced to field college and amateur players while those representing socialist countries did little else than play their sport.

On a Friday night in Lake Placid, the unimaginable happened. The mighty Russians fell in the semi-finals to a group of college kids coached by Herb Brooks.

As Al Michaels shouted “Do you believe in miracles….yes!!!” into the microphone, Americans had found their rallying point. The rally was somewhat delayed because the game was only available on late night tape delay. The U.S. won the gold medal two days later.

In 1999, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives, but acquitted by the Senate. During that divisive year, soccer again captured the attention of the United States.

This time it was the women, who won the World Cup over China on Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick. Americans clearly united behind this team, and Chastain’s shedding of her jersey is remembered as fondly as any on-field event.

Sports still unite Americans in ways armed conflicts overseas and domestic strife are no longer able to achieve. Let’s enjoy this year’s World Cup ride.

Unfortunately, the American story at the World Cup will end one way or another. Had they won on Sunday, at least another week of unifying distraction awaited.

Another chance to extend their stay in Brazil awaits on Thursday when the U.S. plays world power Germany at noon. Productivity throughout American businesses is likely to suffer.

Despite the tie, Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya of Weston, Fla. says it all in a tweet: “We keep our heads up and move on to the next game. It’s in our hands! We stand united!”

As long as you guys are playing, we stand united as well, Alejandro.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.