Gold Cup 2011 – 'Handicapped Soccer'
Dr. Joel Rookwood
The beautiful game known globally as 'football' has a patchy history in America, barely permeating the sporting world so often dominated by baseball, basketball and American football. 'Soccer' (allegedly taken from asSOCiation football) has become a reference to a lesser sport, distancing language employed in USA and in other countries with a more dominant national variant. The performance and prestige of the men's game in America is in stark contrast to that of the women's, further substantiating a common view that it is neither a male nor a masculine sport.
The CONCOCAF Gold Cup provides the latest example of soccer's obscurity, an international competition currently being hosted by the USA. The thirteen venues each play host to a single day's play, meaning the tournament is stretched across nine states. Spreading the game may be a FIFA agenda, but this event is spread a little thin. In any one place it has been and gone before anyone notices. Results receive a bare passing mention in the press, and peripheral commentary is almost entirely absent. Compare this to a European Championships, where journalists present competing claims about how David Beckham files his nails, or how Wayne Rooney waxes his head.
Of the five regularly staged confederation events, the Gold Cup certainly brings up the rear. For some unknown reason however I was eager to explore this for myself, so I planned a week's trip to three cities – Miami, Tampa and Harrison - for a trio of group stage double-headers involving football powerhouses such as Guadeloupe, Grenada and Guatemala.
Within hours of my arrival in south Florida however, I was hospitalised. The chest pains were misdiagnosed a few times, before medics 'settled' on pneumonia / pleurisy as a prognosis. By the time I was discharged, all three match days had passed. Football aside, by God's grace I departed the Spanish speaking world and eventually arrived in New York, where I was rescued by my incredible girlfriend and her amazing extended family.
My incapacitated lungs forced a reliance on a wheelchair, the manoeuvring of which was to test more than the lungs of my girlfriend. With football confined to the back seat, it seemed the Gold Cup would defeat me. However, my final day in America saw nearby East Rutherford host the first two quarterfinal matches. I successfully defended my case to attend, only to arrive at the New Meadowlands stadium five hours before kick off to find the event sold out.
Yet where there is demand, there is supply. I may not have been in a strong bargaining position with the 'scalpers' (that's 'touts' to you and me) yet I still managed to secure a couple of overpriced tickets. The intense heat was matched by the aroma of the car park barbeques and beers and the excited Spanish chatter, as fans of the four Central American teams involved mixed happily. Observing this I considered an equivalent scene in Europe, with fans from England, Poland, Germany and Belgium 'mingling' before a double-header. Confined to a wheelchair, I was grateful to be amongst fans with a traditional use for chairs of the plastic variety.
Our tickets for the sell-out games were for the top tier of the 82,000 seater stadium. After negotiating a couple of steps by the 'handicapped' ramp, a lift took us to the seventh floor, and a central view of the pitch. It was an interesting insight into disabled fandom. I was grateful to have exchanged a bed for a chair, and the noise and excitement felt a million miles from the Miami hospital.
The first contest saw Costa Rica face Honduras in a game that seemed to matter more to the excited Hondurans who filled the stands. The goals exchanged early in the second half provided the only notable statistics in the first two hours of play. This was the first football game my girlfriend had ever seen, and it had gone to penalties. Borges and Saborio both hit the bar for Costa Rica, with Honduras successfully converting all four of their penalty kicks. Bengston’s decisive strike earned them a place in the semi-finals for the fourth time.
Playing for the right to face Honduras, five-time champions Mexico then played a feisty Guatemala team who have never progressed to the last four in this competition. Although the Guatemalans took an early lead and held it until the interval, the vastly superior Mexican side ensured a continuation of form against their neighbours. Manchester United's Hernandez scored the second and ultimately decisive goal, which saw Mexico progress to the semi-finals, as they have done in ten out of the eleven Gold Cups.
The following day, USA defeated Jamaica and El Salvador lost on penalties to Panama, setting up the other semi-final. America have already suffered defeat to the Panamanians in this year's event, but today’s penultimate round is likely to see victories for USA and Mexico, with a fifth final between the two teams to take place on Saturday.
This piece is dedicated to Ruth, Barney and Ciaran Finnegan – who will always have my gratitude.