Giant steps in the small hours
The US saw their maserplan for World Cup domination fall into place. Rich Zahradnik offers an insight on their tournament
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! The sound inside my head when the alarm clock goes off at 1.20am for Argentina v Nigeria. One -twenty in the morning. I am not meant to be awake now. I am old. My living room is dark, quiet, empty. I don’t even bother to turn the light on. Daytime from the TV is strange at this hour, filling the room with Asian sunshine. I can’t have a cup of coffee because I need to go back to bed in a couple of hours for another couple of hours, so that I can wake up and watch England v Sweden then drive for an hour and a half to play for my Sunday league side and then talk intelligently with my team-mates about these games I’m probably not even going to remember.
Matches at 2.30am, 5am and 7.30am. I don’t know what weird spot in the world they’d have to put the tournament so that Europe got similar kick-off times (probably some Pacific atoll) but you need to try it. Here, ESPN’s ratings broke records. Thousands showed up to watch at Columbus Crew Stadium, RFK Stadium in Washington and in bars and restaurants that opened specially for the games. It was a true test of football commitment, foisted on the fans that always have to prove themselves.
Maybe I’m crabby from lack of sleep, but it’s getting so I hate the World Cup. Every four years we have to prove ourselves. We can never love it, glory in it, obsess on it enough for the Europeans. It’s the sport that will never happen here, say the old-line sports writers in our papers, who roll out the creaky soccer-bashing columns they wrote four years ago and 40. Will you all just watch us watch? Will you all just watch us play?
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! It’s 2.20am for the US v South Korea. Thoughts are fleeting furry little things running through shadows in my brain. I’ve never been this calm, actually comatose, for a US game. It takes a full half-hour for classic match anxiety to set in. By the second half, the anxiety is there. US v Poland: breakfast with the World Cup, at the decent hour of 7:30, and we get squashed like little bugs in the first ten minutes. I’m having bad France 98 flashbacks. For four years, the US was The Team that Finished Last at The World Cup. It’s the only tournament I can recall where last place honours were conferred. A special effort at statistical analysis by FIFA and the world press, or am I just being paranoid? We can’t go out like that again. We don’t, saved by the Koreans and a post on another pitch.
I am hazy on the past three weeks. It wasn’t too much football, it was too little sleep. Korea rescued us. We beat Mexico. We beat Germany, except they won. Players like DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan flew home within 30 hours to appear on TV and in Major League Soccer club matches to promote the game, the team, the league, the sport. Magazine covers and talk shows follow for team members and Bruce Arena.
A flash in the pan or another step forward for the sport in the US? The US Soccer Federation’s Project 40 – an effort to get high school-aged kids to skip college and play in a professional environment – produced Beasley, Donovan and others. The goal for the project when announced after the 1994 World Cup was to get the US to the final in 2010. Cue laughter. The goal for the 2002 tournament? A quarter-final appearance. Stifle laughter.
Awareness of our proper role in the world of football filters into the oddest places. The New York Times leader writers suggest – tongues not in cheek – doing better would have been bad, since the world hates us enough already. Losing in this sport is good for America. William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and noted political pundit (but not, to my knowledge, like Henry Kissenger of that same administration, a football fan), takes the pass from the Times and streaks to goal: “Here we are, the locomotive of the world economy, the unipolar bear, a hyperbolic hyperpower bestriding the world like a Colossus – do we have to win every hand, rake in every pot, block every competitor’s goal? Let some other nation’s screaming populace get a kick out of the kicking game. Because we lost honorably, doing better than expected, the US won by losing.”
My waking nightmare (or am I asleep? I can’t tell) is that out at CIA headquarters they’re dreaming up Project Gridiron to destabilise Project 40. Germany 2006 beckons, the Cold War’s field of dreams, losing for world peace. Geopolitics as our excuse for going out? Beats blaming the referees.
From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month
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