Thursday, 24 June 2010

watershed moment for U.S. soccer

Last night was a unique concurrence of events that will never be repeated. I watched USA-Algeria at ACE, a heavily English drinking club in Cairo's southern suburb Ma'adi. Rarely has there been such a conjunction of feel-good elements in a situation.

Though it was still fairly miserable outside, England fans were exiled there, in their own club, simply because their numbers required the huge garden with its large-screen TV. There must have been 200 England fans in total. The 100 or so USA fans were put inside: with the advantage of air conditioning, but the disadvantage of a smaller screen and absurdly crowded conditions. I arrived with my friends early enough to snag one of the few actual seats in the place.

In any case, conditions and outcomes were ideal. The night ended with two large happy groups of fans. And not only that... All the Egyptians outside the club were happy too, simply because Algeria lost. It was bizarre to hear Egyptians saying "Kill them!" all day long-- the first and perhaps only time one will ever hear Egyptians encourage Americans to success in violent acts, especially against an Arab team.

And yes, it was an unexpected thrill to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" last night (my first time in years) with a hundred or so American friends and strangers. And I hardly need to comment on Donovan's goal. But whenever I cheer for the U.S. team in a World Cup, I am also cheering for the sport itself: every time our team breaks fresh ground in international play like last night, there is more hope for soccer in our country.

I joined my local team in Iowa in the late 1970's, and it was still a fairly exotic thing to do. I was 11 years old, and on my first day of practice I didn't even understand the rules of the sport: in fact, I still clearly remember the day when "offsides" was explained to us. Later, we were practically laughed out of the room when we requested status as an official team representing our high school, though a little over 20 years later it finally happened. (On a side note, the sport almost cost me my right eye a few days before my 16th birthday. While playing midfield for Mt. Vernon, I and a Coralville defender were charging for the same loose ball. Mr. Coralville got there first, and kicked the ball straight into my right eye; I was blinded outright for half an hour or so, then had cloudy vision, and ended up with the only hospital stay of my life so far. My right eye still has worse vision than my left, and is especially sensitive to sunlight.)

But back to the topic at hand... soccer was already considered the "sport of the future" in the USA back in 1978 or 1979, even though it began as the province of upscale East Coast preppie kids. Elsewhere, it has been a grindingly slow process. I've mentioned that several of my homegrown American friends have dropped all U.S. sports for exclusive attention to the English Premier League (after this Cup, and given the irreversible decline in my American sports knowledge, perhaps I'll do the same; last night I was toying aloud with various English teams as my possible favorite; Werder Bremen has already been my favorite Bundesliga club for more than 20 years, since my first summer in Europe was spent in Bremen, and I attended two of their games).

It is no longer a fringe affectation when Americans name their favorite Italian, Spanish, or Bundesliga clubs. And I've mentioned my shock at seeing FC Barcelona duffel bags in a sort of low-rent retail store in Iowa a few weeks ago. No doubt some of the momentum has come from the increasing Latino population in the U.S.A., but much of it simply reflects a more sophisticated attention to the sport among the American populace. Satellite TV and the web certainly add a lot of momentum, since information is no longer hard to come by-- if I had wanted to know the Bundesliga standings in 1990, I would have had to check actual German newspapers in a library. Now I can do it on my iPhone in a couple of seconds while on the sidewalk in Cairo.

But what the U.S. has always needed to give the sport a big push domestically is a defining World Cup moment. Donovan's late goal last night was a dramatic instant with quasi-iconic potential. But better yet, the USA now has a golden opportunity to advance to ... (gulp)... the World Cup Semifinals.

Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea are certainly good teams. But are any of them out of the USA's league? Hardly. None of them are remotely as intimidating as England was for the past 6 months of waiting. I'm not saying we'll succeed, I'm just saying an opportunity this good will not come again for a long time. (Of course, we had a similar opportunity in 2002 if not for Ballack's undetected handball in a quarterfinal with Germany that we dominated and should have won. And we would have faced South Korea in the semi, a team with which we had already earned a draw in group play.)

When I cheer the USA against Ghana in a few days, I will also be cheering for the sport itself to capture the imagination of a previously indifferent population. We're close to the proverbial tipping point, I think. And Landon Donovan, a man who was just 8 years old at the time of our 1990 return to the World Cup following decades of absence, is leading us there.

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