Every World Cup, America feels the need to pause and ask itself, “Do we care about this yet?”
This debate has long since gone beyond a red herring. It’s become an inside-out effort at self-congratulation by a certain kind of sports aesthete, because the answer has been “Yes” for ages.
Anyone who’s been to a World Cup can tell you that. The problem isn’t U.S. interest. It’s the U.S. team. This will go as far they’re able to take it.
They’ve been a riveting mixed bag here. They were 30 seconds from qualifying out of one of three Groups of Death on Sunday evening. They unforgivably pooched it, allowing Silvestre Varela to sneak in behind three defenders and head home the tying goal in the 95th minute. It finished 2-2.
They’ll go into Thursday’s meeting with Germany in search of the biscotto – if it ends in a draw, both countries are through. But, hey, America doesn’t do fixes.
(Pause for a long, searching look.)
As a Canadian, the World Cup is the only time you allow yourself to root for the U.S. Since we’ll never be here again, it seems like the neighbourly thing to do.
There’s also the fact that this remarkable sub-species of the American Sports Fan – the International Soccer Gadabout – deserves encouraging.
Aside from the natives, Americans are now routinely the most ubiquitous fan presence at this tournament. There were hordes of them at South Africa 2010, after everyone else was scared off. They bought 150,000 tickets to Brazil 2014 – more than any other country save the host nation.
They are everywhere here, like a pleasant tropical fungus. It isn’t a hipster crowd, as much as a ‘MURIKA!’ sort.
Loud talking. Confident. Perpetually astonished by foreigners and their foreignness.
We sat alongside a prosperous Midwestern family at a crowded workingman’s canteen the other night. They’d hired a translator, who did the ordering. Ma, pa, grandma and the college-aged kids greeted the arrival of each local dish as if they were discovering fire.
“PICANTE!” ma screamed after sampling a beef platter. The table roared delightedly. Our mutual waiter looked over and shook his head sadly: “Nao e picante.”
It was hard not to be charmed.
American soccer supporters on tour carry themselves with an unselfconscious guilelessness. They are novices at this, and they know it. But they’d like very badly to be invested in the holy rituals.
They still insist on that grinding ‘U-S-A’ chant, but they’re freed of the air of exceptionalism that American excursionists at every other big sporting event wear like a hosing of cologne.
They are meeker and more fun. They want to make friends. Though they know a great deal, they’re still willing to be taught.
The same is true of the pros on the field. America produces a unique sort of player – athletic, brutish, not prone to the mid-game ennui that often cripples more artistic European and South American sides. They’re the English without a white flag.
They are also rough, uncultured players. If every team at the World Cup played this way, it’d be unwatchable. But there’s room for one choppy, irrepressible side.
They’re having a real moment back home. Sixteen million Americans watched the U.S. beat Ghana – a record for the men’s team. Many more will have watched Sunday night’s more crucial game against a sexier opponent.
For those few who still don’t know that much about the game or their team, this game was bookended by a pair of ‘How not to’s.
In the fifth minute, defender Geoff Cameron shanked an easily playable ball across the face of his own goal, where it landed at the feet of Nani. There was no one marking the Portuguese. U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was inexplicably down on his butt as Nani took his shot. It was farcical.
But, like their supporters, this is the charm of the American team. They don’t know when they’re out of their depth. They play soccer the way brothers fight – the more certain one is to lose, the more vicious he gets.
America has one player with real international class – striker Clint Dempsey. He is the best sort of tough guy – one that doesn’t need to appear tough. Dempsey had his nose broken by a flying leg in excruciating slo-mo high-def in the first game. He played on.
In the second half on Sunday, he came together in a great tangle of legs with Ricardo Costa. The Portuguese ended up catching it in the nethers. Costa was writhing pathetically on the grass.
The camera panned to Dempsey walking away. He looked over his shoulder and sneered disappointedly at the fuss. You felt for Costa – oh boy, did you feel for him – but it was a laugh-out-loud moment. Dempsey really is a man without peer here.
Of course, he would score the go-ahead goal. And, of course, it all went pear shaped once he was subbed off late with an ankle injury.
It’s still nowhere close to clear what America is capable of at this World Cup. They have tenacity and organization, but they are technically spotty. Teams like Germany should be able to fold them open like a pop-top.
But they’ve already muscled through two classy sides in Ghana and Portugal. They lack the one thing that undoes decent teams – fear.
It’s all coming together here – a team and its fans, both too new to this to know they should worry. They needn’t worry. We’ll do that for them.