As you probably know by now, Paste Soccer is closing down at the end of the week. This is my last Throwback Thursday column.
As ridiculous as it may sound, this column was one of my first thoughts when I was told about the end of Paste Soccer. First there was the intense sadness that this platform for smart and heartfelt soccer writing was going away. Then the very particular anxiety that comes with being a freelance writer, ramped up to XI with the loss of a stable gig. And then, in the midst of all that: “What am I going to do for the last TBT?”
There are a lot of games that I wanted to write about for this column that I won’t be able to now. The 1988 FA Cup Final, which is special to me as both a Wimbledon fan and a Liverpool fan. The 1972 European Cup Final, that titanic clash between Ajax’s Irresistible Force and Inter Milan’s Immovable Object. The USMNT vs Colombia at the 1994 World Cup, and the fateful own goal by Andrés Escobar. I could go on.
But all that aside, I knew almost immediately what I wanted to write about to bring this column to a close.
I’ve tried to approach all of these Throwback Thursday columns as if I’m telling a bedtime story. Which I realize isn’t everyone’s cuppa. I end up painting in perhaps overly-broad strokes and leaving out key details. Of maybe focusing too much on aesthetics and feelings.
But that’s basically what we all do. When you tell your kids— or your grandkids— about the first match you ever saw, you don’t write up a gamer for them. You don’t name the referee or show them a heat map. You tell them a story. A story only you can ever tell. Because it was you in the stands that day, or you on your living room rug in front of the TV, or nervously checking your phone because you were couldn’t get out of whatever social obligation you had committed to. Football is always as much about how your heart as it is about the scoreline.
So, this week, I’m going to tell you one last story. It’s a story of how I fell in love.
It was the spring of 2013 and my life was in tatters. I was coming out of the worst depressive episode of my adult life. I had watched helplessly as my academic career burned down. I lost my home. I lost most of my friends. I had just turned 30 years old and here I was, dead broke and couchsurfing with a friend. Things were grim.
The year before, on those days when I just couldn’t get out of bed, I desperately looked for something to distract myself. For a while, it was Euro 2012. I had been interested in soccer since I was a kid— I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, and for a solid year there were banners all over the city promoting the 1994 World Cup and the handful of group stage fixtures, not to mention that opening ceremony that ultimately proved hilariously awful. But I was mostly one of those filthy casuals that only tuned in for the World Cup. (Plus the occasional MLS game on ABC.) I didn’t know that the Euros were a thing, much less a thing I could watch on my laptop without getting out of bed. So I followed the Euros that summer, until my laptop died right in the middle of England vs Italy. So it goes.
Then the following spring, while couchsurfing at a friend’s house, I would spend the afternoons when he was at work frantically looking for jobs. He had a cable subscription, and I discovered while flipping channels one day that his TV package included Fox Soccer Channel. So I would put that on in the background while I sent my resume to just basically every hiring manager for every job I could track down.
So one spring day, I spent the morning job-searching and then took a nap. When I woke up again I got my laptop out once more and turned on Fox Soccer Channel. I didn’t really pay attention to the game until the very end. Stoppage time.
The game was a Champions League quarterfinal. Borussia Dortmund vs Malaga.
Like I said, I came in late, but really everything that I needed to tell you happened in stoppage time anyway. The first leg in Spain played out to a 0-0 draw. In the second leg, Joaquín put Malaga ahead early in the first half, Robert Lewandowski equalized right before the break, and Eliseu restored the visitors’ lead in the 82nd minute.
The English language feed that Fox Soccer ran with had Gary Weaver and Alan Smith on commentary. They’re not the ones heard on the video above, which is a shame, because the play-by-play is important to the story. So, bear with me here.
The clocked ticked over to 90 minutes and the scorebug flashed the amount of extra time— four minutes. Borussia Dortmund had to score two goals in four minutes or, as Weaver said, “their dreams are shattered.” As Dortmund won the ball back and started to build an attack from the center of the park, Alan Smith intoned how much of a shame it is to see a Dortmund team this good go out. Jürgen Klopp yelled from the touchline, as usual. Relative newb that I was, even I knew things were probably hopeless for Dortmund.
And before I could look back down at my screen, the home side got one back. Marco Reus collected a rebound from eight, maybe ten yards away, and slammed it home. As Reus fished the ball out of the net to rush it back to the center spot, Weaver’s voice rose.
It’s not done yet! It’s Reus! Dortmund-born! Dortmund-bred! And he may just, JUST, have given Borussia Dortmund a fighting chance!
Everyone tried to catch their breaths. (I mean, I was, obviously.) Is this real? Is this actually happening?
Before we could recover, before we could even process what was happening, the moment came. A long free kick from Marcel Schmelzer into the box. A scramble in the six. Several Dortmund players offside. Felipe Santana, clearly also in an offside position, bundling it in over the line. Felipe Santana, obviously in an offside position, grabbing Neven Subotic in a sort of running bear hug and dragging him over to the corner flag, with Wily Caballero running after them and wagging his finger. It was a scene out of a cartoon.
And they did it. Two goals in two minutes. Completely turned it around.
Malaga tried their damndest to come back. One goal would’ve leveled the aggregate score and handed the semifinal place to them on away goals. They could do it. There was still time.
But as the clock ticked over to 94 minutes, Schmelzer cleared the ball out of his own box and into touch. The referee blew the whistle. The Westfalenstadion erupted. And after a moment, Weaver came back on the call.
This… field of grass… in the heart of Germany… THIS is the place where dreams come true! ANYTHING is possible!
Like I said earlier, I had been into soccer since I was a kid, and my passing interest became more active within that past year.
But that moment? That was the moment when I fell in love with football.
Do you remember when you fell in love with football? Or with anything? Or with anyone? It’s always different. I remember one night with a former girlfriend, the night we stopped beating around the bush and got together. It was a late October night in the early aughts, we were sitting on the back porch of her parents’ house in Oak Park, Illinois, and it started raining. I knew I was never going to have a better moment than this. So I kissed her. And then she kissed me. Later, while we were warming up with tea from the cold rain, she looked at me and said, “you know, I can’t promise you that it’ll get better than this.”
I’ve thought about what she said a lot, since then. We broke up two or three years later, and I was sad in the kind of deep and inexplicable way that we only reserve for the stuff that really matters. But I was determined to not let that diminish that night, or all the good moments that came in the years following.
But it’s hard, though, isn’t it? Falling in love is a promise you make. And also an expectation that they, or it, will do the same. We fall in love and we expect it to last forever, and it doesn’t, not always. And certainly, a football team or a sport can never love us back, but we fall anyway, because of course we do. We can’t help it.
I don’t know why this was when I fell in love. Maybe in that moment I just needed to believe that it was never too late. That no matter how hopeless things looked, you can find a way back.
Dortmund went on to body Real Madrid in the semifinals, to everyone’s shock and delight. They made it to the Final, at Wembley, where they met their eternal Bundesliga foes Bayern Munich, and lost in the dying minutes thanks to a tricky play by Arjen Robben. (Of course it was Robben.) But they cemented their place as a beloved cinderella team, and later tagged as a “hipster team.”
I kept surfing couches that year until I ultimately reconciled with my parents and moved back home. The following spring I started writing and got my first big break at The Toast. In the summer I got another big break when I was invited to pitch to Paste’s new soccer section, opening just weeks before the 2014 World Cup. And now, here I am, saying goodbye to Paste Soccer.
But not to the sport. I’m not done with football yet. And I don’t know if things will get better than they were that warm spring day four years ago. But things have already come close— Liverpool nearly won the Premier League, AFC Wimbledon won promotion to League One, John Brooks scored a fantastic goal against Ghana, the USWNT became world champions (again). Who knows what the rest of this year will bring. And there’s another World Cup next year, too.
There’s still a few weeks left in the European club season, leading up to the titanic clash in the Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Juventus. Then comes summer— World Cup qualifiers, the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup, the MLS All-Star Game, transfers, rumors, gossip, anger, sadness, wailing, gnashing of teeth, all that. That’s all coming sooner than we think.
But for now, as the season winds down, I want you to just take a few moments and enjoy what May’s crescendo of football has to offer. Enjoy what your club managed to accomplish. Take in some football as a neutral. Look into the eyes of a team captain who gets to lift some silverware. Think about what this all means to them. There’s plenty of time for summer and all the uncertainty and change it brings. For now, enjoy what this sport has for you as it comes to the end of some stories.
And who knows. Maybe this month you’ll fall in love.