Curmudgeons will tell you that what happened today in South Africa is a mere footnote to history.
But let me tell you a story.
In 1950, England was the lion of international soccer. From Wikipedia:
At the time, the English considered themselves the “Kings of Football”, with a post-war record of 23 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws. Conversely, the Americans had lost their last seven international matches (including the 1934 World Cup and 1948 Summer Olympics) by the combined score of 45–2. The odds were 3–1 the English would win the Cup, and 500–1 for the U.S.
For the U.S. team that went to Brazil for the 1950 World Cup, the first Cup since 1938, those were the towering circumstances that presaged failure. And those were the circumstances that reality scoffed at during what transpired in the group stage of that tournament.
England and the United States met at Belo Horizonte that day, and the U.S. national team played probably the finest game in its history. Joe Gaetjens punched in a goal in the 37th minute, and the team held on for a 1-0 victory so unfathomable that some newspapers in Britain, upon receiving the news, deemed it a misprint and reported a 10-0 triumph for their home side. It’s now known as the “Miracle on Grass,” and has been turned into a book and a movie.
But that British team was off-form enough to lose again, to Spain, and exit the tournament disgracefully.
And our team dipped from that singular moment of brilliance to dark ages of soccer irrelevance. We lost to most teams that weren’t from Caribbean islands or China. We saw a domestic soccer league fail. We failed to qualify for the 1986 World Cup. We conceded eight goals while scoring only two as the host nation in the ’94 Cup. We came in dead last in the 1998 World Cup in France.
Golden days were few and far between (the U.S. upset an off-brand Brazil team in the 1998 Gold Cup, but did not win the tournament), and seemed like cruel glimmers of hope before another crushing defeat.
Along yet, the way, the team and its fans started to justify my use of “we”: Soccer became a grassroots phenomenon in the U.S., youth leagues sprouting almost as fast as the suburban fields bloomed. Fathers, like mine, who played soccer in their youth, taught the game to their daughters and sons; “soccer mom” entered the lexicon as the sobriquet of choice for the involved mother shuttling her children from practices to pitches.
Soccer gained a measure of gender equality in the country when the U.S. women’s team, led by talents like Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, stormed to victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the most-attended exclusively women’s sporting event in human history, electrifying the nation for a summer. Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt in exuberance, just as most male players had always done before, became, absurdly, a touchstone in the culture wars.
And then the men’s team decided it should share some spotlight. In 2002’s World Cup, the Americans beat Portugal and tied host South Korea, then downed bitter rival Mexico, as spectators flocked to bars in the mid-morning to catch games live. There are soccer fans in this country still embittered by the U.S.’s quarterfinal loss to Germany for a questionable non-call on the goal line; that says something about how soccer fandom has caught on here.
What followed, though, seemed to confirm the American reputation for maddening underachievement. They rose to the top ten of the (largely useless) FIFA rankings just prior to the 2006 World Cup. They followed that by losing to the Czech Republic and Ghana, notching the only point of their tournament by tying eventual champion Italy in the only game of the World Cup that saw the Azzurri concede a regulation goal.
They won two Gold Cups, in 2005 and 2007, and established themselves as the lords of CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America, and the Caribbean. They reinforced a perception as a poor traveling team with losses to lightly-regarded CONCACAF foes on the road.
The Under 20 portion of the squad made magic happen at the 2007 U20 World Cup. Those same players failed to make substantive impacts on the full national team.
So when the U.S. dropped the first two matches of the 2009 Confederations Cup, looking valiantly outclassed against Italy and inept against Brazil, the roller-coaster was assumed to have a downward trajectory. Few expected the U.S. to put up even a win against an Egypt side that played Brazil to its limits and edged the world champion Azzurri.
Then last Sunday happened, with the Americans shocking the Pharaohs 3-0 as the Brazilians dispatched Italy by the same tally, and the U.S. improbably advanced to the semi-finals of the Confed Cup.
With Spain, the world’s top team according to FIFA rankings, 2008 Euro champions, and possessors of an unbeaten streak in international play dating to November 2006, looming, it was only natural to assume that the U.S. had spent its good fortune for the year. The Spaniards, a highly technical and potent group, would cut a shaky American midfield and defense to ribbons, and the U.S.’s attack had neither the creativity nor the talent to keep pace.
Today proved that sometimes everything we know can be wrong.
First, the U.S. weathered the early going that has been their downfall of late, seizing control of the pace. Then, Jozy Altidore, the sometimes-brilliant striker for the U.S., netted a 27th minute goal on a move that befuddled Spain’s excellent goalie, Iker Casillas, giving the Spaniards their first deficit of the tournament.
Then, the U.S. added another goal, a bit of cleaning up in the box from the beleaguered Clint Dempsey, in the second half, and keeper Tim Howard did everything but engineer a forcefield in front of the U.S. goal, turning away a barrage of shots from the Spaniards. Landon Donovan, often the scapegoat for America’s troubles, was indefatigable and smothering. Michael Bradley’s 87th minute red card inspired some to pessimism, but, when the whistle shrilled against the dull thrum of the vuvuzelas, the Americans had beaten the Spanish giant.
I tweeted: “I cannot remember being this stunned by a sporting event in my lifetime.”
And I can’t. I wasn’t alive for the Miracle on Ice, and rarely considered two teams so unevenly matched as I did today’s. I though Spain winning by two goals would be a good result for our boys; before the game began, I would have bet any sum on Spain advancing.
This moment is for rejoicing, for celebrating a great game (both teams were offensively proficient, and the Americans’ backline did a remarkable imitation of granite) and reveling in the magic of sports delivering the unexpected.
But, fairly, it also time to respect soccer’s place in America.
That curmudgeon I linked to would have you believe that America’s soccer players don’t dream of advancing to Confederations Cup finals. I would counter that, before today, he would have been right, as they could not envision U.S. success on the world’s stage.
Today changes that.
This team has beaten two good teams, and soundly, in the country where next year’s World Cup will take place, and played admirably against a third team that will be expected to advance in the tournament. There’s an air of legitimacy to today’s result, with a team performing at levels hinted at for years, and a level of support for the team in both mainstream and outsider media that will be touted in the days leading up to Sunday’s final.
This team is coming of age as an international soccer power, to the delight of the young generations of Americans, raised around fields, rather than diamonds (it’s telling that President Obama’s daughters play soccer), and savvy enough to understand that American fans aren’t “soccer snobs,” but smart, interested observers who understand the game and our team’s place in the world.
Those fans would tell you that the American team is still definitely the underdog in a final that will include the winner of the Brazil-South Africa semi-final tomorrow and should be a rematch of the 3-0 debacle in the group stage.
But those fans, and others, will now tell you that they have hope, hope that our team will not just avoid embarrassment but claim victory. Perhaps that’s the legacy of this victory: Hope.
That’s what this feels like to me, anyway.