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Sunday, June 20, 2010
Of Moss and men -- hugging

By Chris Jones
Special to

NELSPRUIT, South Africa -- Toward the end of the game, most of the New Zealand fans had taken off their shirts. The small pockets of them at Mbombela Stadium in hard-luck Nelspruit stood out from the tens of thousands of miserable, bundled-up Italians. It seemed as though only one Kiwi supporter remained fully dressed. He was on his knees in the press box but still in his suit, his eyes filling with tears in the moments before the final whistle blew.

I've never been hugged in a press box before. There are rules of decorum in that sacred place, the first of which is no cheering, no celebrating, no emotion. But Glen Moss, New Zealand's first-string keeper, found himself there this evening, serving the last game of a four-game FIFA suspension for dissent dating from a qualifier against Fiji last year. He spent nearly the entire game on his feet, dying a thousand small deaths, before he ended up on his knees, and then, in the end, in my arms.

His team, the 78th-ranked in the world, had tied the defending champions 1-1 -- the greatest result in his country's history.

But he had to watch it in a suit, and watching it nearly killed him. After, Moss would have hugged anyone to keep from collapsing. I just happened to be standing there, unable to stay in my own chair. So we hugged, and if I'm being honest, I got choked up myself, to hell with press-box decorum and the rest. It's the World Cup, and it was an amazing game, and just then, Glen Moss wasn't a player and I wasn't a reporter. We were just two men who somehow ended up standing next to each other in a press box in South Africa, watching history, watching a small country nearly beat a big one, watching one of those games that feels like the most important thing in the world. Hugging seemed like the perfectly right thing to do.

"Hard, mate. Very hard," was all Moss could manage when I asked him what the previous 90 minutes -- plus four endless minutes of stoppage time -- had been like. Then he hid his face in his shoulder and disappeared down the flights of stairs, running to join his teammates, who were parading around the field, shirtless now like their fans.

He had cheered like a man possessed when Shane Smeltz had dramatically put the All Whites ahead in the seventh minute, having crept behind the Italian defense on a free kick and put home the loose ball. Moss had punched the air along with his teammates, separated by stadium tiers and a long-ago curse word to a referee. He was oblivious to the stares from the rest of press row. He was immune.

He watched for 22 minutes, as New Zealand held the lead in a World Cup game for the first time. For 22 minutes, tiny New Zealand was better than Italy, the defending champion. For 22 minutes, Mbombela Stadium hummed as though it might be the site of one of the biggest upsets in soccer history. For 22 minutes, Moss had allowed himself to believe in the impossible.

Then he said terrible things when Tommy Smith was called for a foul in the box against Daniele De Rossi in the 29th minute, Smith having grabbed De Rossi's jersey but the Italian going down well after.

And after Vincenzo Iaquinta put home the penalty shot, Moss swore some more. Now it was a different kind of waiting for him to endure. Moss was no longer hoping for a win, no longer anything as giant as that. Now he was hoping against hope that his team could just hold on.

The All Whites were finally outshot 23-3, wave after wave of Italian strikes each parried by the New Zealand defense, or the New Zealand post, or formerly reserve goalkeeper Mark Paston. Moss clapped every time Paston made one of his stops, clapped again with every minute that ticked down. He complained after every perceived injustice -- after every call seemingly went Italy's way -- and he shouted during the few New Zealand attempts on goal, falling to his knees for the first time when striker Chris Wood nearly put the Kiwis ahead late in the second half, his shot bouncing just past the far post.

Moss stayed on his knees then, for those agonizing, terrible minutes that separated his team from history. The last four minutes, those extra minutes, were the worst. The Kiwis did everything to run down the clock -- calling on a substitute, feigning mysterious cramps, kicking the ball out of play. But it still took forever. That's when Moss began struggling to rein in his emotions, so close and yet so far, the weight of his absence and what was unfolding on the field below him, without him, finally taking hold. He was a believer again, and he was dreaming again, and he was filled with wonder about what might have been and what now was.

Before the opening whistle, the game looked to be a hopeless mismatch, a four-time winner against a team that has played in only one previous World Cup, in 1982, when New Zealand lost its three group-stage matches by a combined score of 12-2.

But this is a different New Zealand, and this is a different World Cup.

For 22 minutes, the All Whites might have imagined the ranks they could have joined: the U.S. beating England in 1950; North Korea beating Italy in 1966; Senegal beating France in 2002; Switzerland beating Spain here last week.

Instead, for 61 more minutes plus four, they hung on, barely, and they're somehow still alive, still in with a chance to advance. They have one game left against Paraguay to prove they can do more than survive -- a game for which Moss will have a better seat, will be allowed once again to pull on a jersey and feel the grass under his feet. He will be down there again.

"That was the longest night of my life," Moss said after he had emerged from the dressing room, nearly an hour after the final whistle had set him off. "I didn't know which god to pray to." He was wrung dry by then, and he apologized for his emotions in the press box, said sorry for having broken the rules. I said sorry to him for having ruined the moment. I shouldn't have asked him a stupid question. I should have just shut up and hugged him. He wasn't a player then, and I wasn't a reporter. We were just two men who somehow ended up standing next to each other in a press box in South Africa, watching history, watching a small country nearly beat a big one, watching one of those games that feels like the most important thing in the world.

Hugging was the perfectly right thing to do.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.