The U.S. spoiled some soccer newbies with its late winning goal over Ghana and the epic draw-that-should-have-been-a-win against Portugal. What happened Thursday was, at least on the pitch, routine stuff. Germany was much the better side. The U.S. lost, but not by so much that it mattered.
In defeat, the Americans advanced to the World Cup’s Round of 16. They’ll play Belgium on Tuesday. If — apologies in advance — they make the Belgians waffle, they’ll face Argentina or Switzerland on July 5. The team representing a nation that hasn’t much cared for soccer is making a lot of folks care about soccer, and that’s one of the nicest developments this jaded correspondent has seen in, oh, the past 50 years.
This World Cup has resonated with Americans in a way no other has, and we can make a few guesses as to why. The U.S. played host to the event in 1994 and even advanced to the knockout stage — losing 1-nil to Brazil, the eventual winner — but the sport was, if you’ll pardon the expression, too foreign to us for it to grab us by the lapels. The best-ever U.S. team reached the quarterfinals in 2002, but that was the Korea/Japan World Cup and matches commenced by dawn’s early light in our Eastern Time Zone. The 2010 team made the final 16 without losing, but draws against Slovenia and a substandard England plus a victory over Algeria didn’t really stir the senses.
This tournament is being staged in the Western Hemisphere, which means games are played at a reasonable hour for our purposes. The U.S. was drawn into this quadrennial’s Group of Death and regarded as the minnow of the four, so any favorable result has had shock value. And — this above all — our country isn’t the same as it was in 1994. We’re more multicultural, and people from other nations have transplanted their passion for the World Cup. With the proliferation of cable TV, world soccer has become easier to follow. (I say this as someone who spent the late ’90s tuning into the BBC World Service on Saturday mornings to hear — hear, mind you — English Premier League matches.)
Having been exposed to soccer at a higher level (meaning not just MLS games, though the MLS has greatly improved) on a more regular basis (meaning not just every four years) has familiarized a goodly portion of the American audience with a sport that once belonged to Europeans and South Americans. Such familiarity hasn’t bred contempt. The younger set — teens and 20-somethings — has gravitated toward The Other Football in a way that Baby Boomers once sought out the latest 45’s released by bands spearheading The British Invasion.
Jam all that together — convenient kickoff times; a good U.S. team surprising us and not just us; an audience primed to roar its approval — and we’re seeing Americans bond over a sport that doesn’t let 10 of its 11 players use their hands. Both my wife’s office and my older daughter’s workplace — two rather dissimilar entities — planned lunch-ordered-in work stoppages to view the U.S.-Germany match. My younger daughter has watched more of this World Cup than I have, and she and her friends are in constant text-message communication over the latest developments. Granted, that’s a sample size of one American family, but I find it remarkable.
I think back to 2002, when I rose when it was still dark on a Sunday to watch the Brazil-Germany final. I kept the sound down so as not to rouse anyone else in the house. When Ronaldo slammed home the rebound of a shot Oliver Kahn couldn’t hold to make it 1-nil, I had a strange thought: Wild displays of emotion were surely ongoing all across the world, but in one house in one American subdivision only one creature was stirring. I knew I’d just watched something momentous. I also wondered how many other Americans had sacrificed sleep for soccer. (I knew I wasn’t the only one who had, but alone in the dark it felt that way.)
Twelve years later, Americans are rallying around an American team playing a game that few believed America would ever embrace. More of us are watching, which has led to even more among us watching, if for no other reason than to see what the fuss is about. And that’s the point.
For the first time, we’re making a fuss over soccer. A sport that hadn’t been even lukewarm in these United States has somehow become cool. And there’s more of it to come. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, Belgium awaits.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.