(1) You may only mention ONE sporting event. You have to pick the absolutely greatest one you ever saw
(2) You must TELL A STORY. Don’t just say “the 1996 Stanley cup game 4” and assume we will know what you’re talking about
(3) You don’t have to have watched the sporting event in person, on TV is fine.
I’ll start. The greatest sporting event I have ever watched is… USA vs. Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Women’s (soccer) World Cup.
Background: The USA has always been one of the powerhouses of women’s soccer. We won the world cup in 1999 (when Brandi Chastaine famously ripped off her shirt). But we’re far from guaranteed to win. In 2003 we lost to eventual winners Germany in the semifinals. In 2007 we faced Brazil in the semifinals, and they destroyed us 4-0, in a very bitter game full of taunting, a preposterous red call on one of our players, and complaints about excessive celebration. That was probably the most embarrassing loss we have ever suffered. Brazil, a team that had at that point never won a major tournament, and was quite full of itself, lost to Germany in the finals.
In 2008, we met Brazil again in the gold medal game of the Beijing Olympics (in Women’s soccer, unlike Men’s soccer, the Olympics are played by the full international squads, and are nearly as prestigious as the World Cup). Brazil had just beaten two time reigning WWC champion Germany 4-1 in their semifinal, and were presumably feeling pretty good about themselves, the rising power ready to knock off the fading old guard and take their deserved place at the top of the world. (We beat them for the gold medal back in 2004). But things didn’t turn out the way Brazil wanted, and the US won 1-0 in overtime. You can be sure that very few friends were made that day.
So, the stage was set for the 2011 WWC.
USA is in Group C, and Brazil is in Group D. Both are expected to win their pods, with a potential showdown in the finals if both keep winning. But the USA embarrassingly loses to Sweden in their final group game, falling to second place in their pod, meaning that in the quarterfinals they will face their nemesis, Brazil.
July 10, 2011, Dresden Germany
Things started out great for the USA. Less than two minutes in, here we come attacking, applying a lot of pressure, and we force in an own-goal off a Brazilian defender. So we’re up 1-0.
But Brazil has arguably the greatest player in the world (Marta). 68 minutes in, she was attacking the US penalty area, got into some contact with US defender Rachel Buehler, and went down hard. I’ve watched this a bunch of times, and it’s really hard to definitely say what happened. But what the ref called was (a) a penalty kick for Brazil, and (b) a straight red card on Buehler. (You can see it here.) I still think that’s a pretty ridiculous red card. Maybe there’s some rule I’m unaware of which says that obstruction in the penalty area is not just an automatic PK (and thus, a nearly-automatic goal), but a red card. But straight red cards are pretty rare, and usually reserved for things like deliberate injury-risking cheap shots, which I’ve never been able to see in that clip at all.
So, Marta to take the PK, facing down American goalkeeper Hope Solo (probably the best in the world). She steps up, kicks it, and… SOLO SAVES IT! Joy!
But wait, the referee is blowing her whistle, and calling, well, SOMETHING. Either Hope Solo left her line early, or maybe a US player ran into the box a moment before the PK was kicked, and the result is invalidated, Marta gets to re-kick it. This is an INCREDIBLY unusual call, and whatever the US actually did, it was far from blatant. The fact that the knowledgeable announcers couldn’t even figure out what precisely had happened tells you what an oddball call it was.
But the call is the call, Marta steps up to re-take it, and calmly scores. 1-1, and the US is down to 10 players.
However, all of this hubbub and controversy seems to just energize the US, and while we were down to 10, you wouldn’t have known it from the energy we suddenly had, and we certainly held our own on both ends of the field for the rest of regulation. But, at the full 90 minutes, the score remained 1-1.
That means 30 minutes of extra time, plus potential stoppage time, and then the dreaded penalty kicks.
So overtime begins. And just two minutes in, Marta again proves why she’s the best player in the world, scoring a ridiculous one-touch goal to go up 2-1. It’s almost certain that the Brazilian player who fed her was offsides, which probably distracted the US defense, but missed offsides calls happen all the time.
And now, Brazil is up 2-1, and all of a sudden everything goes REALLY slow. Wow the Brazilian players are getting injured and having to sit down on the field a lot. Geez, that’s sure eating up a lot of time. The US, still down a man, keeps attacking, and now the German crowd, presumably neutral, is clearly on their side. Whenever the US gets near the Brazilian goal the crowd starts to road and chant. But time ticks, ticks, ticks away. The first 15 minutes overtime period ends. The second one draws to a close. 4 minutes of extra time are added. Oh, look, another Brazilian player is cynically lying down on the field horribly “injured”, the poor dear, and then suddenly she’s OK once she’s carted off the field, having eaten several more minutes off the clock. Two minutes into extra time of overtime, it’s now or never, the US gains possession deep in their territory, feed it up to Megan Rapinhoe down the left sideline, who crosses it deep towards the middle, and… ABBY WAMBACH SCORES!!! A beautiful header past the goalie, and it’s 2-2.
So we go to penalty kicks.
First up to the line for the USA is Shannon Boxx, SAVED!
But no, the ref, who forced the retake of the PK back in regulation, says that the Brazilian keeper was off her line, and Boxx gets to retake it.
For the USA, Shannon Boxx, SHE SCORES! 1-0
For Brazil, Cristiane, SHE SCORES! 1-1
For the USA, Carli Lloyd, SHE SCORES! 2-1
For Brazil, Marta, SHE SCORES! 2-2
For the USA, Abby Wambach, SHE SCORES! 3-2
For Brazil, Daiane, SAVED! 3-2
For the USA, Megan Rapinoe, SHE SCORES! 4-2
For Brazil, Francielle. If she misses this, the USA wins… SHE SCORES! 4-3
For the USA, Ali Krieger, for the win… SHE SCORES! USA win, 2-2 in regulation, 5-3 in PKs.
Aftermath: The USA end up losing on PKs in the final to team-of-destiny Japan (this was shortly after Fukushima). The next year is the 2012 Olympics, with the possibility of yet another USA vs Brazil match looming, but Brazil lose to Japan (who are now clearly a serious player) in the quarterfinals, USA beat Canada in the semifinals in an absolute classic 4-3 overtime thriller, and then get their revenge, beating Japan in the finals. Brazil has still never won a major tournament.
Game highlights can be seen here.
My enduring memory of that game is reading threads of a bunch of different mainly-US-oriented online forums and seeing so many people say words to the effect of “I can’t believe I’m this excited about a a women’s soccer game”. It was so gripping, so exciting, and so cathartic, and the greatest sporting event I’ve ever watched.