|espnW.com: News & Opinion|
At first, the World Cup is simply a date on the calendar, far off in the future. There are plenty of immediate and more pressing obstacles to overcome first -- such as just making the final roster. But now, finally, the tournament is here.
If you surveyed most players, I guarantee the majority would choose to play their first match on the opening day. They're tired of sitting in the hotel room, shuttling back and forth to the practice field, sitting down for three scheduled meals a day and going to the countless meetings that their coaches schedule because they, too, have way too much time on their hands. You just want to play!
Sooner or later, the day finally arrives. Game day usually allows you to sleep in a bit, which helps shorten the day. Most players already have begun their mental prep the night before, but game day puts into motion all those routines that help you deal with the anxiety. When I was playing, I always tried to have a similar breakfast and pregame meal because I knew how my body would react to those foods. I would spend most of the day staying off my feet to save as much energy as I could. Players spend their idle time reading, listening to music or watching a movie.
Two hours before kickoff, the team will board the bus and be guided to the stadium by a police escort to ensure that there are no delays and that the team arrives there safely. FIFA protocol requires both teams to be at the stadium at least 90 minutes before the match, which means more waiting for the players. FIFA is very strict with its protocols and regulates how much time the teams have access to the pitch for pregame warm-ups. Goalkeepers are released five minutes before field players. Finally, you are allowed to release some of that nervous energy with your first several runs across the field.
The last 10 minutes before the game may be the hardest. The starters file out into the tunnel and stand just inches from their opponents as everyone waits to be led onto the field by the referees. You could feel the tension, and we'd try to break the anxious silence with shouts of "Here we go U.S.!" The referees get the word, and the procession begins. You enter the stadium, and the crowd erupts as it begins its own noisy competition with the opposing fans. The last item of business before kickoff is the playing of the national anthems and the coin toss. You try not to get too emotional while they play your anthem, but it's hard not to get caught up in it. You've dreamed your entire life about a moment like this -- and now it's here!
Kickoff! There's nothing to do now other than play hard and play for one another. The game begins, and players are running around with the energy of 30 people. You try to catch your breath, and you try to stay calm, but you start asking yourself, "Why am I breathing so hard? I thought I was in the best shape of my life."
Of course, it's all the nerves and anxiety escaping your body and taking a bit of your energy as they go. The anticipation is finally over, and after the first few minutes pass, the game slows down and your body and mind settle into the roles that they've been trained for the past three years. It's 90-plus minutes, and whatever happens on that field will be etched in your memory forever.