In the United States, the television networks have marked the beginning of summer by freeing us; we'll have to wait until the fall to see new episodes of Lost, ER, and 24, and we've said final farewell to Everwood. The NBA playoffs are down to 2 teams, the first week of the French Open has come and gone. My small summer television pleasures are usually limited to watching the U.S. Open golf tournament in June, the British Open in July, and the PGA Championship in August, but in 2006 I've been given something precious. The World Cup has arrived. It is a joyous summer.
My decision to love international football, to really love it, happened in early 1998. I had started my own business, of which I was the sole employee, and that year too the World Cup was going to be in France. I made plans to go. The matches themselves were brilliant and the US performance in them was equally pathetic. Our second game was against Iran in Lyon. I had arranged — over the internet no less — to meet up with a Brit to watch the game live in return for my support for England when they played. We would meet at the gare in Lyon. Unbeknownst to me (and to him apparently) there are two places a person can disembark when arriving by train to Lyon from Paris. I chose the main station, while my English pal waited for hours one station up the line. We never met. This was a poor beginning, but soon added to this was worse news. An hour before the Iran match was to begin both my tickets were lifted from my pants pocket and I had to fork out an extra $75 for a ticket. I arrived at the stadium midway through the first half to stand amongst a crowd of soccer-mad Iranians. We fell 2-1 in a match that wasn't really ever close, and preceeded to finish last in the tournament, picking up another loss along the way to Yugoslavia.
It was the Scots and the Moroccans that saved me. In the little town of St. Etienne, in a stadium that held no more that 34,000 fans, these two teams met for a game that mattered in the way that all contests in the World Cup matter, but it also mattered more that day because Morocco had a chance to go through to the second round. All they had to do was win, and all Brazil had to do was defeat or tie the Norwegians. The Moroccan crowd went into a frenzy when the final whistle blew, hugging each other and the few Scottish supporters in their midst. Morocco 3, Scotland 0. Suddenly, an old man with a transistor radio held up his hand. The Brazil-Norway score was coming in. Norway had scored two goals in the final minutes. Norway 2, Brazil 1. It was unimaginable. In the span of 5 seconds, I went from seeing utter exultation to watching men weep and asking the gods how life could be so cruel. What theater. I was hooked.
In 2002, the ridiculously unthinkable (at least to those who aren't US soccer fans) happened in S. Korea and Japan: the United States team stunned Portugal's Golden Generation in their opening game, stunned the entire Mexican nation a week and a half later to reach the quarter-finals, and were it not for the unconscious play of Germany's goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, would have stunned Germany and arrived at the semis. In a two-week stretch, these 23 players had transformed the headlines from the post 9-11 "We are all Americans" to "Can this be the Americans?"
In the years since then, we've become bogged down in a war in Iraq and have had one of our cities destroyed by a force of nature. The U.S. has done a lot of hand-wringing and some soul searching, asking ridiculously naive and self-indulgent questions such as "Why do they hate us?" The World Cup won't make much difference in addressing those failures of the American administration. After all, you can't just dress up a pig and expect it to win a beauty contest.
This year the U.S has drawn a difficult grouping (Italy, the Czech Republic, and Ghana), and chances are that by the end of the first round we will in fact find ourselves searching for positives on a return trip across the Atlantic. But the beauty of a game like soccer when it is played on the international stage is found in the hints of possibility that tease us. Sometimes these teases are based on physical limitation, as in: Could it be possible that the Czech team's leading player is hobbled by injury?" Other times it's psychological: "You just know that the Italians are going to reeling from the scandal questioning the very existence of the Serie A." Even Ghana can tease. Couldn't Ghana just be the ones to drop-kick a distracted Italian squad in their first match?
Even if we win, even if we march on towards Berlin, we'll annoy people. Our players will give interviews without any real character, speaking in the unschooled idiom of public relations cliche rather than of humanity, saying things like, "This is a great win for us. It was a great team effort, but we've got a long way to go." How utterly boring. (Compare to Ronaldo back in 2002 telling us that yes, he was going to be having sex soon, but was going to really bask in the victory, at least for a little while.) Too, our victories will be explained away not as products of our players' skills, but instead couched in the tautology of the European football nations saying that really, it was the failure of the team that should have won to do what they were supposed to do, namely, win.
And who exactly is the team that represents the United States? Aussies play for Australia, Swedes play for Sweden, etc., but these days most nations are engaging in some introspection as immigration challenges us all to re-think our national identities (okay, Togo probably won't have that problem any time soon.) America has an advantage here: we're used to thinking of ourselves as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society. We generally welcome the characterization, though we complain about it when jobs get outsourced, when 7-11 corners are full of Central American immigrants looking for work, and when someone on a student visa crashes a plane into our buildings. But really, no other nation has yet come close to our mix. France had a taste of it in 1998, but the facade of national unity came tumbling down just last year when immigrant youth set fire to cars and buildings in Paris and cities all over France. No more Zidane and Thuram and Lizerazu being held up as Benetton-esque poster boys for France's multi-racial identity.
America will have increasing success in the World Cup because of our dogged determination, based on the belief that the individual, and by extension, the team, can win through sheer force of will, perserverance, and hard work. Americans can do anything once they put their minds to it, so the thinking goes. Yet superior technology, high-level conditioning, and strategic thinking have not proven sufficient in conflicts overseas. What then, will it take to win? It will take something Americans have trouble believing in: magic. It will take an individual or an entire team recognizing that hard work can only get one so far — to win in soccer, and in war, requires something of the divine, something outside of ourselves that we can grasp only for a moment. Soccer matches and wars turn on such moments, be they the "Hand of God," or a freak storm in the English Channel. What soccer allows, what soccer is, is the gradual build-up to that kind of moment, as formations are tested, broken, and re-invented, as left backs make improbable runs through the midfield.
The moment will be easy to recognize. It will be that goal scored by a combination of passing, creativity, and finishing that approaches the sublime, and it will define U.S. soccer for the next 100 years and have even the Italians applauding us. The United States doesn't have a player, or a team, capable of delivering such moments…yet. Hopefully by the time we do, more than a handful of us will be watching.