23 June ~ "We was robbed!" The line credited to Max Schmeling's manager after the heavyweight boxer lost a title bout in 1932, has for almost 80 years been the New York fans' cry against sporting injustice. You heard it after Maurice Edu's goal was disallowed in the USA-Slovenia match. The front page of the Daily News – a tabloid much better known for providing Mets, Yankees, Jets and Giants coverage to a NY blue-collar audience – used one word: Outrage. The New York Times featured a huge photo at the top of page one of the goal that would never be. If football now has America's attention, controversy is no bad thing, right? Be careful what you wish for.
Yesterday, the Times – America's only newspaper of record – had another page one story, alongside the oil spill, Israel-Gaza and Chinese labour unrest. The picture: Kaká walks off while Abdul Kader Keita grips his face, oddly looking like he's crying at the Brazilian midfielder's dismissal. The headline: In Soccer, When A Star Falls, It May Be A Great Acting Job. The key paragraph: "The forward… was not hit with the ball or slapped across the face or punched, just bumped by the Brazilian star Kaká, who did little more than shrug, sticking his right elbow into Keita's chest. That was all it took for Keita to fall to the turf as if he had been doused with pepper spray."
Now Americans do not hate soccer because of ridiculous playacting, but they will hate it for just that if, as you all like to say, that's "what's in the shop window". A little introduction to our sports culture. In the NFL, you know a player's hurt when he doesn't move at all, lying totally still, or with maybe a single boot twitching. I can cite examples from other sports, but as that might sound like American sporting exceptionalism, I will leave it at this – the USA is paying attention, and most of my countryman will not wave off the rolling, diving, face-gripping as simply part of their game because it is not, as yet, their game.
ESPN/ABC's coverage has been excellent. The replacement of baseball and MLS announcers with Martin Tyler and three other Brits this time around has been for the best – it sounds to Americans like a football match – and the commitment in time and resources impressive. TV ratings are at a 16-year high. There's nothing better than studio host Bob Ley, a bemused look on his face, reporting the crazy stuff the British tabloids and French players and big European teams are getting up to. The papers have also been quite good, devoting pages to coverage, and for the first time in my life, not feeling the need to trot out wizened soccer-bashers to rant the same old clichés about the sport.
History rarely repeats and that is probably the biggest concern about today's USA match against Algeria. In last year's Confed Cup, we needed a strong finish against a North African team in the final group game to get through. We have to do the very same thing today. Lightning never strikes twice in football. Unless you're Brazil with the trophy or England with penalties. And I doubt very much that Bob Bradley has found a backline in the past five days.
The conventional wisdom says that, as goes the US team, so goes US soccer. That is, we must have a good showing in the World Cup for football to continue to prosper. I have a very different concern. ESPN has a nice little earner in the tournament. The papers, and perhaps many of my countrymen, now see it as an Olympics, an every four-year event where you can care deeply about synchronised swimming and the modern pentathlon and other oddly adorable sports and move on when it's over. The week before the tournament, the New York Red Bulls merited a single paragraph of wire service copy in the Times after a home win. Will it get more after? Whether the US does well or not today, the tournament may have given my country a big event to watch but, still, not a sport to love. Rich Zahradnik