There’s Nothing Better on the Fourth of July Than World Cup Soccer (Take That, Ann Coulter!)

The most American of holidays has also been a day of some of international soccer’s greatest moments

Of all the American holidays—Presidents’, Memorial, Labor, Thanksgiving—none is more American than the Fourth of July. Call me odd (please do), but my best memories from the 4th of July are not of backyard barbecues (I grew up on the 22nd floor of a concrete tower) or flags hoisted on the front yard (we didn’t have one, needless to say), or of fireworks, which, growing up in the Bronx, were more a source of menace than fun. No, my best memories of the Fourth were of World Cup games, and epic dramatic games that, except in one case, had nothing to do with America or Americana.

Being the World Cup starts in June, the later, dramatic rounds usually coincide on or near the Fourth. In1990, West Germany played England in the semifinal. The World Cup was dreary and disappointing, and both my teams were out, Italy by way of excruciating penalty kicks the day before, and the U.S., less than two weeks into the tournament (the knockout stages were beyond the American Dream back then). So it was England or nothing. This was before the Premier League was broadcast in the U.S., but I had my World Soccer subscription, and much of England’s 1986 team was intact, only this time armed with Steve Bull! What could go wrong. England, of course, only teased us. It had bad luck (Andreas Bremhe’s goal deflected off Paul Parker), good luck (when it equalized late through Gary Lineker, who had the swashbuckling glamor of one Fletcher Christian’s mutineers), and bad luck again (when, of course, Chris Waddle missed his penalty). It inspired the famous Lineker quote: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Gazza cried. So did I. Some friggin’ holiday.

In 1994, few thought the upstart Americans would advance to the second round. But a tie with Switzerland in the first World Cup match help indoors (in the Pontiac Silverdome) and a shock win over Colombia, got the U.S., in its garish stone-washed denim jersey, to the knockout stage. Unfortunately, the Americans drew Brazil, who were perfect 3–0 in the first round. It could’ve been ugly; the Seleção had two of the best strikers in the tournament, Bebeto and Romario. But the U.S., in a more appropriate red-and-white striped shirt, hung tough. They were never likely to score, but only let in a single goal. That combined with a vicious Leonardo elbow to Tab Ramos’s head, and the U.S., for a change, had the world’s sympathy and admiration. It was a loss, but a win. A good fourth.

In the final of Euro 1988, Holland’s Marco van Basten scored on a volley against the USSR that was known as “the goal of goals.” Leave it to a fellow Dutchman to top him. Dennis Bergkamp’s 89th minute winner vs. Argentina in the July 4 quarterfinal is remembered as one of World Cup’s finest goals ever. He seamlessly brought down a 60-yard pass on the right, cut left inside the defender, Roberto Ayala, and then calmly, gracefully caressed a shot—with the outside of his right foot—past Carlos Roa. Better than any fireworks.

The 2002 World Cup wrapped on June 30, but in 2006, July 4 was the game of the tournament, the semifinal between Italy and host Germany in Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, where Germany was undefeated. Before the game, the highly-regarded German magazine Der Spiegel actually called the Italians “oily,” “greasy,” “slimy,” “parasitic,” “mamma’s boys,” and “cheats.” Good bulletin board stuff. Revenge would be dolce. When the match entered extra-time, Marcello Lippi poured on the attackers, Italy pinged the woodwork twice, and a bamboozled German coach Jurgen Klinsmann was left hoping for penalties. They never came. In one of the greatest passes in the World Cup, the pensive, unsmiling Andrea Pirlo, sent a no-look pass into a crevice of space for full back Fabio Grosso, a previous unknown at Palermo, to curl in a left-footed shot into the top corner. There was still a minute left and probably a minute of stoppage time and Germany were famous for comebacks. But as if to pre-empt any talk of a lucky win, Alessandro Del Piero, a 104th minute sub and one of four strikers on the field for Italy, scored a second beauty in as many minutes. Not bad for mamma’s boys. Happy Fourth of July.