Land of Hope and Glory
In May, 1994, I convinced the British TV show I was working for, Passengers, a production of Rapido TV, to send me to California and profile the USA World Cup “squad.” Specifically, I sold them on the idea of a red-headed, be-goatee’d, all-American by the name of Alexei Lalas, who looked like a grunge musician, played in a band and who was, at that moment, entirely uncertain which of those two directions his future would take. For, although the USA was set to host the World Cup in a few weeks, and though tickets to every game had sold on almost immediately upon release, the players themselves were complete unknowns (with the possible exception of the three or four who had grown up around Kearny, NJ, and formed the core of the side). Specifically, coach “Bora” Milutinovi? had still not named his final squad and Lalas had no idea if he would be on it. He could, then, all too easily be viewed as a comic item – and though I didn’t think of him that way, it was obvious that the TV producers back home did. Why else would they have agreed to the story?
That day in San Luis Obispo, we had more or less free reign of the training fields. We watched the squad train, chatted with them on the side, interviewed the odd player or two, had lunch together. We went back after training to interview Alexei. A few of the players lived in the area, but most were hanging out in dorms, two to a room. Alexei and his room-mate lived like college students; their room was all unmade beds and strewn CDs and guitars. During the interview, Alexei was most cautious about his football future. Though the squad had been narrowed to about 30 or so, he genuinely did not know whether his immediate future would involved playing to an audience of potential billions in the World Cup or finding gainful employment in another profession. After all, there was no Major Soccer League for him to play for, no real way of earning a decent living at the sport, especially if they didn’t get a chance to prove themselves at the World Cup. Of the eventual US Team, I think only John Harkes had a career in Europe at the time.
Later that evening, we joined the near-squad at a local bar, where they were under orders to watch the Arsenal-Parma European Cup Winners Cup Final on TV, presumably to see how the game was played by the masters and also because it was rare to have European games on American TV. But the bar we attended was buried in a valley and none of us could make out the action for all the “snow” on the TV screen. The players knew that Bora would be testing them on the match the following morning, and made it through to half-time, before one of the few who lived locally announced that he had cable at home and they should all come back to his place and watch. Everyone did so, for fear of Bora’s wrath if they didn’t. We said goodbye at that point… but I was back in LA shortly afterwards and attended one of the pre-tournament friendlies. After the game, the players hung around the touchlines, chatting with the handful of the “Sam’s Army” fans that were intent on building a European/South American style following around the team. We caught up with Alexei there; he remembered us well. He’d been named for the squad, after all.
Alexei became famous that summer of 1994, and though his subsequent professional career in Italy revealed his limitations as a footballer, he returned to the nascent MSL, where He’s served as President or General Manager of the San Jose Earthquakes, New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy. This summer, sans goatee and in the suit and tie required of all sports broadcasters in the States, he can be found on ABC and ESPN TV, as the station’s prime World Cup analyst. Lalas knows the game, and it’s reassuring to have him analyze it. But more than that, he loves the game, especially his country, his Team USA, and he makes no bones about showing it. Football is not meant to be an impartial sport; you’re supposed to show some passion. Watching Alexei’s excited commentary about the American team’s progress through its opening 2010 games has become part of my post-match ritual.
It wasn’t enough for me to know yesterday that one out of my two home nations, England and USA, would qualify for the last 16 – I wanted them both to do so, and I knew which one deserved it more. Since 1994, Team USA has somehow remained under-rated underdogs, despite reaching the Quarter-Finals in style in 2002, despite reaching the Final of the Confederations Cup last year. On the Guardian’s World Cup daily Podcast, on the eve of the World Cup, one of the paper’s presumably well-paid columnists ridiculed Landon Donovan for engaging in pre-match trash talk against Wayne Rooney. “He looks like a chartered accountant,” said the Guardian expert disdainfully, stating in the process that Donovan was no less physical, either. This morning, with Donovan’s 91st minute goal plastered over every American newspaper with sense, we can have no doubt as to which of those two players has had a better World Cup so far.
My good friend Matt promised to text me from a Manhattan bar every time there was a goal yesterday. When the texts went silent, I got worried; a 1-0 win would get England through, but in that case a 0-0 draw would be no good for the Americans. During the graduation ceremony, I kept flipping open the phone, willing it to text. My wife got angry. “Would you sooner be watching the game?” she asked. I think it was intended to be rhetorical.
Patience wore out at 11:50 EST. (And in case you’re wondering – nobody else at the ceremony appeared to be following the game. I admit that’s depressing. I spent the rest of the day in New Paltz, as I had a trail race in the evening, and am glad to say that people did appear to be talking about it in Starbucks and McGillicuddys. But not half as much as I would have liked.) Matt didn’t pick up the phone when I called; I phoned an English Woodstock dad instead. He told me that the USA had just scored. We stayed on until the USA-Algeria game finished. Matt texted me during our conversation, having come down from cloud nine. Both my countries had gone now through. I could resume my day with a smile on my face.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|World Cup 2010: Into Africa – US Beats Algeria|
I’m happy that England beat Slovenia, because they were such a shambles in the opening games that to go home early would have been pathetically embarrassing. (Though not as pathetically embarrassing as France.) But I’m ecstatic for the US. Throughout their three games, they’ve played like they’ve meant it. Time and again, they’ve demonstrated one of the fundamentals of football – that teamwork, grit, determination, stamina, and commitment are always worthy substitutes for a lack of individual star power. The goal against England was a fluke, perhaps, except that Clint Dempsey knew that if you trouble a goal-keeper often enough he might just make a mistake (and playing in the EPL, Dempsey knew Robert Green better than most). The comeback against Slovenia was phenomenal – and everyone knows they were denied a genuine victory with the referee’s bizarre disallowing of their late match goal.
As for the 91st minute goal against Algeria, having seen it 50 or more times since getting home late last night after a grueling one-hour race on the trails of Minnewaska State Park in high heat and humidity, it was evidence that the USA have moved their game up a notch. After all, what separates very good teams – those who finish third or fourth in a league, or runners up in a cup – from those who take home the silver? Usually, the ability to keep composed, stay organized, and score a goal so late in the game that the opponents have no comeback. It’s what Manchester United have always been so good at. It’s what the USA did yesterday. I know they should have scored several times earlier in the match (well, they did, and again it was disallowed), and Jozy Altidore has missed too many sitters both for Hull and the USA to have my full confidence as yet (though he’s young), but the goal in stoppage time, with the Americans were just 200 seconds away from an early exit, was a remarkably composed one. Tim Howard saw Landon Donovan in space, threw the ball right to his feet; Donovan made the run, saw Altidore on the outside, made the pass, Altidore’s cross was inch-perfect, Clint Dempsey’s point-blank shot could only be parried by the keeper, and Landon Donovan did what every footballer is meant to do when faced with an open goal – put the ball in the back of the net – because he’d already done what every footballer is meant to do in the meantime: he’d carried on running towards goal after relinquishing the ball. Any number of other teams at the World Cup could have learn something from watching the replay.
So, the USA win their group. And rightly so. On the evidence of the three games so far, only a boneheaded Bulldog would deny that Team USA is better than England. (England’s tally of two goals in three games must be the lowest of any to make it to the last 16.) That sense of community that I encountered in 1994 appears to still be present and intact here in 2010. It’s one of the main reasons to love the US Team. I’m hoping England have put their troubles behind them and raise their game against Germany. The USA will certainly need to do so against a Ghana side that will have the whole of Africa rooting for it. As Alexei Lalas noted last night, punch-drunk though he still was from the last-minute victory, the USA will once again go into the game as underdogs. Just how they like it. Congratulations.
The USA World Cup Team of 1994: Where are They Now? ESPN has the answers.
Land of Hope and Glory… isn’t that a British anthem? Yes, but it’s popular at American graduation ceremonies too. It was played yesterday at Noel’s graduation while England and the USA were both making their way into the last 16.