Heads Held High: The USA’s Triumphant World Cup
Early on the morning of June 21, 2002, just two hours after watching England lose 2-1 to Brazil in the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup, and on just about no sleep, I set off to a bar in my then-native Brooklyn to watch the USA take on Germany in my adopted nation’s first ever World Cup Quarter-Finals appearance. The USA’s run, which had included a surprise win over Portugal in its opening match, effectively condemning the group favorites to an early exit, and a convincing victory over Mexico in the round of 16, ensuring that the Central American nations would again go home before the Quarters (does any of this sound familiar?) had been widely trumpeted in the sports media, and there was no doubt that there was a sense of national pride, a feeling that the USA had “arrived” on the World stage.
But the kick-off times of that South Korea/Japan World Cup were brutal for those of us in the Western Hemisphere, a month-long battle to stay awake for mid-night and dawn matches. New York City truly did its best to accommodate its multicultural reputation with a few select 24-hour licenses, and I have a wonderful memory of showing up to Nevada Smiths, NYC’s British football base that had been granted an unprecedented 24-hour license for the tournament, for an England dawn kick-off that followed a middle-of-the-night Ireland game. A British bulldog, who had clearly been on the razz all night, wobbled as the English team sung the national anthem, only to collapse on the floor, in a drunken stupor, just as the team kicked off.
Not going the all-night drinking route myself, and not having time to hop into Manhattan and Nevada Smiths, I should perhaps not have been surprised that the bar I stopped in at near the Brooklyn Bridge, one of just a handful in the area that had opened early for the match, was doing but mild business at 7am that summer morning. The occasional suit stopped in on his way to the office, and a few parents had set off early for school with their soccer-mad kids in tow (the World Cup ran earlier in June that year, and so school in NYC was still in session), and it has to be said that the USA put up a noble fight in going down just 1-0 to the eventual runners-up, and the sports media again duly reported this wonderful achievement. But still. It felt like an improvement. It didn’t feel quite like a moment.
Fast forward twelve years and something, clearly, has changed, for there has never been a World Cup like this one in the USA. Never. Such has been the interest that the sports media has largely handed over the explanation for the doubling and trebling of TV audiences, for the surge in World Cup viewing parties, for the genuinely passionate support for a USA team that is, frankly, no better than that of 2002, to the cultural media and the Op-Ed columnists. The right-wing race-baiting egomaniacs have offered their own revolting (and of course, hopelessly inaccurate) opinions, and though I would sooner ignore these people, they have provoked some intelligent analytic responses, probably none better than a column that ran in the left-leaning Salon.
The most simple explanation for the increased interest is that the sport has been growing in the States for decades, and that the older fans are joined every four years by a younger generation, and so it flows and grows. I watched the USA-Germany match with a 45-year old friend, Catskills born and bred, who co-coaches our local kids, and who was better informed about the USA Team than I could ever be; he represents the old guard. But a few days earlier, I’d gone to a local restaurant, not even a sports bar, to watch the USA-Portugal game, and found myself sitting next to a late 20-something who had recently moved to the area from the Lake Tahoe area. Not only did he know more about the USA team than I ever would, able to cite every single player’s qualities and weaknesses, but he knew more about the English team than I do. I could safely say he represents that new generation, which had been waiting for a World Cup like this one for, well, the last 12 years.
Another explanation is the shifting demographics of the USA, though the fact that the nation is increasingly Hispanic would surely suggest an increase in support for those immigrants’ native countries, not for the USA. And it wouldn’t explain the parties and viewing figures in what have long been considered soccer-adverse, conservative parts of the American landscape. It could be said that a nation willing to elect, twice, a black President of half-African descent is more likely to embrace a global tournament, a truly World Series, and I do think it speaks to the changing America, but it certainly doesn’t explain everything. The fact that the CIA, newly on Twitter, revealed both a sense of humor and an understanding of the USA’s strengths (on the football field, at least), is also encouraging, but not an explanation in and of itself.
The increasing awareness of the risks of concussion in American football should NOT be under-stated. Our local high school (American) football team has just been folded into another District’s team due to lack of enrollment, but there is no such problem with “soccer,” for either the girls or the boys. And the fact that the sport has always been so popular with girls here should also not be under-estimated; I remember when the USA won the Womens World Cup in 1999 and no shortage of British friends and media laughed at the very notion of football as a “girls” sport. I see no such sexism now; rather, I see an increase in female participation, attendance and analysis that has always existed in the States. And on this side of the Atlantic, it certainly can’t have harmed public interest any that NBC bought the rights to the English Premier League, arguably the finest in the world, last season – and show ever every single match live, with the Saturday evening game making its way onto the broadcaster’s main network (i.e. non-cable) channel.
Finally, if it is true that the kick-off times for this World Cup have been more palatable for the Western Hemisphere than in 2002, or four years ago in South Africa, it has still been a challenge. The USA’s final group match against Germany kicked off, on a week-day, at mid-day on the East Coast, 9am on the West. That’s not exactly party time – which is why US coach Jurgen Klinsmann ended up writing a cheeky “excuse” letter for the American nation, and the fact that he sent one to President Obama may have influenced Barack’s decision to watch the second half of the USA-Belgium game and be filmed giving his best Outlaws impression of the “I believe that we can win” chant (which was started, interestingly, by an African-American cheerleader at a Navy vs. Army American football match back in 1999).
All of this matters, but what really matters is that following this World Cup has felt, in America, more like a communal experience than ever before. I went down to New York City on a Saturday to watch the Brazil-Chile and Colombia-Uruguay games, and walking down 42nd Street beforehand, it seemed as if 1 out of 3 people was wearing a football shirt. Down in my old Brooklyn hood, Park Slope, the Black Horse, a large football bar run by Tottenham fans, was filled to overflowing for the mid-day Brazil-Chile kick-off, at least 150 people hailing from all nations, but especially from the States. (My viewing partner, who supports Arsenal as do too many Americans, had taken two weeks’ precious vacation to stay home and watch and blog about the World Cup group stages; he had also been to see the Red Bulls the previous night, whose team welcomed back Tim Cahill to the MLS just days after he scored that magnificent goal for Australia.) Comically, the Black Horse, which receives its matches by satellite, lost the connection mid-way through the second half, and had no access to the regular network station ABC; there followed a true 21st Century moment as dozens of patrons brought out their phones, propped them on the bar or the table, accessed their ESPN app, and continued drinking and cheering while fixated on 3-inch screens as opposed to 64-inch screens. For extra time, my friend and I walked two doors down to a small German bar that had no such problems, though it did struggle to contain the overflow. I then watched the first half of the Uruguay-Colombia game in a new, lower Park Slope German bier hall that had especially erected one large screen at the far end of the vast bar; by the time I left, I would say at least 200 people were watching, perhaps none of them actual natives of the competing nations.
Thankfully, it’s been much the same story back home in the Catskills. The owner of the restaurant at which I viewed USA-Portugal game said she had never known her “tavern,” with its lone TV hung at the corner of the bar, to be noisier – even as one dining family had to ask which team had scored when the bar otherwise went silent three minutes into the match, and even as the owner asked me afterwards why soccer games should be allowed to end in a tie. If Phoenicia’s “sports bar,” where I watched USA-Germany, has ever been busier on a Thursday lunchtime, I’d be surprised. And it wasn’t even standing-room-only there as the USA-Belgium match moved on into after-work drinking time; it was truly a mob scene. There is definite room for increased knowledge among some American fans: a lot of people in the bar didn’t seem to register that Tim Howard was having the game of his life against Belgium, that his saves deserved applause every bit as much as any of the USA’s limited attacks, and the bar only really came alive in extra time. But still: there was a true feeling that the whole nation was watching, and rooting, in a way that wasn’t evident back in 2002 during that Quarter-Final match. And there was an additional feeling of pride – that, despite the defeat, the USA came out of this tournament with its head held high.
Thankfully, this American team does not represent the isolationist imperial nation of which some of us are often embarrassed. It exudes a more attractive and equally true American spirit, one where grit and determination and community spirit, fitness and strength and intelligence, can compensate for a lack of individual brilliance, and can thereby overcome the odds. Before the World Cup, the immigrant American coach Klinsmann was asked to sum up the team’s national identity, and he talked of his adopted country as “not a people who like to be dictated to.” This is certainly true, but I would like to flip it and suggest it’s more about one that doesn’t admit defeat. The USA has proven that in almost every game of the tournament, and while it may have taken a brace of extra-time Belgium goals to wake up the USA team in the Round of 16 knock-out game, it made for the most thrilling of finales to an already exhilarating World Cup. The Guardian’s minute-by-minute journalist called it “one of the greatest football matches I’ve ever seen.” Considering that this is almost undoubtedly the greatest World Cup we’ve ever seen, could we ask for any better testament to the USA’s contribution?