Hear that faint distant humming sound, like a billion buzzing bees? That's the sound of millions of soccer fanatics ratcheting their vuvuzela noisemakers as they gear up for what is predicted to be biggest sporting event on the planet: World Cup 2010 in South Africa. For the uninitiated, it's like the Stanley Cup, NBA championship, Super Bowl, US Opens (golf and tennis) and the World Series all rolled into one. World Series? What world is that? No, in soccer, World Cup means everyone in the whole wide world has a chance to win. And because it's the first time the tournament has been held on the African continent, this World Cup promises to be a Nelson Mandela, Euro-samba oriental blowout of global proportion.
Which brings us to South Africa, June, 2009, where poor, pitiful, ragtag Team USA was scheduled to compete in the last major tournament before next summer's World Cup. Going up against a galaxy of Goliaths: 2006 champions Italy; world numero uno Spain; and mighty mighty Brazil. Armed without even a slingshot, based on their recent mauling at the hands of Costa Rica where they played like a bunch of soccer moms.
It's been hard to be American lately. When you go into a bar basically anywhere in the world and say you're American, people often look at you like you just tried to kill their dog. Bombing civilians, raping the landscape, setting up puppet governments and trading blood for oil. These are just some of the answers to the question that I've heard so many bewildered, innocent looking Americans ask: Why do they hate us? But if you are a member of the American national soccer team, you have felt hated for decades. You've had foreign fans throw coins, batteries, even baggies full of warm urine/hot p*ss at you all over the world. Worse, you've been the object of pity. The butt of jokes. Because so often you have just plain sucked. Sure, every once in awhile Team America would make a little splash. And they have come to dominate what is a very weak region of the soccer world. But time and time again, when they come up against the big boys, they have turned from men into mice.
So, as America opened up against Italy, they seemed nervous, shaky, and insecure, like a homeowner six months behind on the mortgage who's expecting a foreclosure notice any second. For one brief shining moment there was a ray of hope, as the penalty machine himself, former golden boy Landon Donovan, slotted home a penalty kick. Shockingly America had a lead. Before you could say badda bing badda boom, they were drowning in wave after wave of pressure from men with vowels at the ends of their names. Suddenly Italy was up 3-1. But it wasn't just the fact that Team America was bitch-slapped so badly. It was the fact that they looked like a mediocre college team trying to play against the Yankees. The salt in the wound came courtesy of two brilliantly taken goals scored by a guy from New Jersey. Because his parents happen to be Italian, he got to choose which country to play for. He chose Italy over us. Bastard.
That's when the nightmare really began. Because next up were the kings of soccer, the team that puts the beautiful in the beautiful game, Brazil. Sure enough, the samba masters toyed with the red white and blue like an alpha cat with three blind mice. The low point was when Brazil scored on an American corner kick. In football terms, that's like being on your opponent's goal line, handing them the ball, and watching them run 99 yards for a touchdown. The final score, 3-0, in no way reflected the utter degrading humiliation that Brazil laid on America in this righteous smack down. If not for T-Ho, the indomitable goalkeeper Tim Howard, the score could have been 10-0.
A great cry was heard on the World Wide Web: Fire Coach Bradley! He is home grown, not a fancy foreign import, but he is untested on the world stage. Plus, his son plays almost every minute of every game. And recently his son had been "skinned" as they say, turned inside out by an attacker, made to look like a rank pansy amateur. The heat was on. America had one game left, against Egypt. Who, miraculously, had beaten Italy. Which made America's dismal loss to the Italians seem even worse. And Egypt had scored three goals against Brazil. Although they had allowed four. Still, Brazil had whipped America like a dominatrix at a submissiveness convention. So a stake was poised over the heart of Team America. Well, there was a tiny, slim, infinitesimal chance. But judging by how badly they had sucked, the fat lady was warming up to sing. By all accounts the Americans should have just pack their bags, and slunk away in shame, tails between their legs, licking their wounds.
Then something strange happened. America started being, well...America. Whatever America has had success on the world soccer stage, it's because they worked harder, ran more, through their bodies around with mad abandon, left their hearts, guts, and nuts out on the field. Suddenly, against Egypt, the Americans were playing balls out. Flying around the field like this might be the last game I ever played. Not just in this tournament, but in their whole lives. Lo and behold, they got a lucky break. Funny how that works right? You bust your ass, you play with crazy passion, and all of a sudden you get a lucky break. How lucky? In this case, new boy Ricky Davies actually scored off the Egyptian goalkeepers face. Not how they draw it up on the instructional video. Abut a goal is a goal. The news came in from the Brazil-Italy game. Brazil was running roughshod over the suddenly hapless Italians. If Brazil could get three goals ahead, and America could win by three goals, the miracle would be manifest, and the USA would be through to the next round. Nose to grindstone, pedal to metal, fingers to bone, America scrapped and clawed, and there was Michael Bradley, son of the coach, stroking the ball home like an old pro. Scoring a goal for his old man on Fathers Day. Word came in that Brazil had spanked the haughty Italians sufficiently. America needed one more goal. They needed a hero. That's when Clint Eastwood Dempsey made America's day, streaking into the Egyptian goalmouth, muscling a header past the traumatized goalkeeper. Miraculously, America was through to the next round.
Now all they have to do was go up against Spain, the number one soccer team in the world, a bunch of it pretty, pampered, delicate genius multimillionaires who recently won the European Championship. To put it in perspective, the American striker Jozy the Pussycat Altidor can't even crack the lineup of the second division Spanish team. But the USA came out guns blazing against the Spanish Armada: chins thrust forward, Devil may care glint in the eye, a jaunty red white and blue spring in the step. While the Spaniards looked like they sincerely believed all they have to do was throw their jockstraps out onto the field, and the uncultured, uncouth, uncool Americans would bow down before them. The Spaniards were in for a rude awakening. From the get-go the Spaniards were full of brilliance. And arrogance. While the Americans had a fire in their belly, and threw themselves relentlessly in front of everything the Spanish could muster. They chased and harried like hungry pack animals looking to feed. Their naked aggression seemed to offend delicate geniuses of Spain. Time and again, one day were tackled and stripped nude of the ball, they stood and counted like sulking children.
And then there was Jozy the Pussycat Altidor, being fed the ball at the top of the penalty box. In every contact sport there is that mano y mano moment where it becomes one man's strength against another. It's caveman primal. Can I beat you down? Or will you beat me down? Jozy Altidor proved to be the better man, kicking sand in the face of the feeble Spaniard like he was a 98 pound weakling. Having bested his foe, the Pussycat took its sweet time; set his sights, locked and loaded, and pulled the trigger like that's what he was born to do. 1-0. The world bugged its eyes, palms outstretched as if to say, "OH MY GOD!"
Wave after wave of the Spanish Armada tried to land on American shores. But each time, led by Oguchi Double O Onyewu, they were thwarted by another proud American giving up his body for his country. Once again, T-Ho was a God, repelling attacks with a fierce animal agility combined with a mind of a brilliant tactician.
There's an old rule of love and war. When you attack him from the front, you leave your back door open. And the increasingly frantic Spaniards did just that, committing forces willy-nilly upfront, while their unprotected ass was sticking right up in the air. And there was Landon Donovan, restoring some of the golden boy luster, driving with the ball at his feet, making things happen, putting in nasty little cross. Still, the Spaniards had the situation well in hand. Except for two things. Their arrogance. And good old American never-say-quit. Clint Eastwood Dempsey, this time like a sneak thief in the night, nipped behind a multimillionaire Spanish defender, who had casually, thinking he had all the time in the world because he was so rich, talented, and dashingly handsome, trapped the ball right in front of his own goal. With some serious foot-is-quicker-than-the-eye action, Clint had the ball in the Spanish net before the Spaniards could say OLE OLE. On the replay there was a fantastic shot of the Spanish defender, beautiful as a supermodel, and just as confused and vacant, with a look on his face that clearly showed his brain trying to understand, "How did that just happened?"
America, that's how that happened. Say adios, Spain! Team America had, against all odds, and with a horrifying start it seemed to confirm their own patheticality, made it to their first final of any FIFA championship. Now all they have to do was put away mighty mighty Brazil.
But the strut was still in the stride of Team USA. They were bright, confident almost cocky. Stroking the ball around, defending with calm assurance, attacking intelligently and economically. America was playing like, well...Brazil. Even more shockingly, Brazil was playing like America at her worst. Giving the ball away sloppy, passing the ball to no one in particular, crying like little bitches when they get hit. Then in the blink of an eye, very was again, Clint Eastwood Dempsey. With a silky delicate world-class touch, he massaged the ball into the Brazilian net like tantric master. USA 1. Brazil 0. Not by some crazy fluke. This is the real shock. USA deserved to be beating Brazil.
Naturally Brazil brought it hard and heavy. But the USA stood strong. At one point Carlos Bocanegra was riding Brazilian superstar Kaka like a pony. And once again, when you attack from the front, you leave the back door open. From Brazil pressure, America made a defensive stop, in three quick passes later, Landon Donovan evolved from golden boy into golden man. He made a monkey out of the Brazilian defense, and like a lion ripping the jugular of the throat of an antelope he slammed the ball home, triggering a wild red white and blue celebration. If you had offered a betting man $100 that the US would be going into the final of the Confederation Cup leading Brazil 2-0, you would've gotten looks suggesting your insanity, and 1000-1 odds.
But as soon as the second half started, Brazil demonstrated why they're Brazil. Out of nowhere, out of nothing, a quick Brazilian pirouette followed by a slashing shot from Fabiano, and America was digging the ball out of their own net. USA 2. Brazil 1.
This is where USA teams of yore would have folded like a house of crooked cards. But not this team. They didn't panic. They didn't freak out. They kept defending. They kept attacking. And all the while, T-Ho the Magnificent was a true tower of power, near post, far post, and everywhere in between. He even showed some excellent acting skills, convincing everyone he had saved a Brazilian header which clearly crossed the goal line. Although he didn't win an Oscar, he was named Goalkeeper of the Tournament.
But Brazil is, after all, Brazil. And they kept knock knock knocking on the door. Finally America cracked, just a little. A defender missed a clearance, the ball bounced kindly off a post, and suddenly the score was tied. As an American, with each second that ticked by, you hoped for the best, but you just had a feeling that somehow Brazil was going to find a way. That's what they do, these world champions. They find a way.
America made it all the way to the 85th minute. 17/18ths of the way through the game. Then it happened. A big booming back post header. Brazil 3. USA 2. Even so, in the 88th minute, the USA had a free header right in front of goal. All they had to do was put away. But they didn't. Brazil wins the Confederation Cup. Again. Ho-hum.
America didn't win their first international soccer tournament. But sometimes winning isn't the only thing. Sometimes getting to the finals is the next step toward winning the finals. We saw it with the Lakers this year. We saw it when Michael Jordan kept getting beaten up by the Detroit Bad Boys before he became the King of the World. Team USA showed that they can play with the big boys. They turned from mice into men right before our eyes. They hope that they can continue to be the Cinderella who ends up with the glass slippers back here in South Africa at World Cup 2010.
And just for today anyway, it really doesn't suck at all to be an American.