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When soccer players shoot on the run from an oblique angle, they levitate. As a player puts all of his energy into that one shot, the centrifugal force of the shooting leg pulls his other leg from underneath him, and the entire body is left airborne. The ball travels toward the goal faster than 60 mph while the player travels laterally through the air, his legs splayed. More often than not, he finds his legs, twists around and recovers his equilibrium in time to land on his feet.
On Saturday, while watching the USA play Ghana with a couple hundred others in a Durham sports bar that devoted its several dozen screens to the game, I looked carefully at Asamoah “Baby Jet” Gyan, the striker for the Black Stars of Ghana. His body was coiled potential energy; his eyes were focused and cold. I thought he looked like a killer, and I hoped the United States defense would keep him away from the goal.
The amount of attention the American soccer team received during its run through the group stage was inspiring. Suddenly, people seemed to know the names of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. The optimism of the American squad was a marked contrast to the sourness, cynicism and disarray in other camps. Despite our country’s modest record in the sport, many of us allowed ourselves to peek ahead at the seemingly easy path we had to the semifinals for the first time since 1930.
Ghana is a small country. Its GDP is 1/ 1,128 the size of America’s. There are 300 million Americans and only 22 million Ghanaians. Compared to the U.S., Ghana has little except soccer. Fortunately for them, in soccer you are allowed to put only 11 young men on the field at once.
In extra time on Saturday, with the score knotted 1-1, a Ghanaian defender booted an unthreatening ball toward the American end. Baby Jet saw his opportunity and moved in for the kill. He trapped the ball over his shoulder with his chest despite a jarring (but legal) body check from an American defender, retained his balance, put his weaker left leg behind the bouncing ball and hooked it over Tim Howard’s head. The rest of Baby Jet’s body followed his leg through the ball. His body continued through the air, twisting 180 degrees as he watched his shot sail into the goal.
“Something out of nothing,” lamented crestfallen American announcer John Harkes.
Minutes after the final whistle, the bartenders in Durham swiftly changed the channels on the TV screens. The walls returned to a comforting potpourri of baseball games and NASCAR events. Our summer fling with an exotic foreign mistress was over. We have our horn of plenty at home, and there was no need to lose ourselves over a single international competition in a sport we don’t own.
But the nation of Ghana had little choice but to put its meager power through a single ball, in an effort to create something from nothing. And on Saturday, an entire nation levitated.