26 June ~ The World Cup has felt like a real Cup competition this past week. Three minutes of injury-time and a second Serbian goal were all that separated the United States and Ghana respectively from elimination on Wednesday. Now both teams are staring at their quarter of the knock-out bracket with an incredulous wide eye on a possible place in the semi-final. There's no Brazil or Argentina or Holland or Germany blocking the way. And although no coach or player on either side would ever publicly admit to looking beyond the next game, they must be secretly thinking that this is a prime opportunity for a lesser ranked nation to make it into the final four.
Ghana have yet to score from open play, and both countries have won just a single game each, by one goal to nil. But that kind of dry statistical analysis is irrelevant at the World Cup. More importantly, Ghana are Africa's last representative, while the US are uniquely representing a comparatively emergent football nation constantly striving to battle erroneous stereotypes.
So far, they have smashed the biggest concern of all about US football – that it's dour. The team's two games against Slovenia and Algeria were among the most thrilling of the tournament's group stages. Even notoriously poker-faced US coach Bob Bradley wore an unbridled, Texas-sized grin after the final whistle against Algeria. Yes, professional football can even be fun.
Landon Donovan's candy-sweet 91st-minute winner against Algeria is not just a Pivotal Moment In US Soccer History (copyright, all US sports media), but it has given the team just the right momentum entering the second round. Confidence is soaring thanks to Tim Howard's impeccable form, a steadier defence that has finally managed a clean sheet and excellent teamwork in attack, where the colossal Jozy Altidore has so troubled opposing defences that Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have enjoyed and exploited extra space in the danger areas around him.
Ghana, possibly with one eye on the Serbia v Australia scoreboard, looked tentative against Germany, and frustratingly failed to finish off ten-man Australia. Although they played well against Serbia, their goal and their victory came thanks to a fortuitous handball. There's something of the old Portugal about them – lots of nice approach play, but an absence of penetration or conviction to their finishing, with both Asamoah Gyan and Prince Tagoe looking ponderous in front of goal.
Ghana must attack the US early, when the American defence has looked slow and sleepy in all its games so far. If the Ghanaians allow the US to set the pace, they could miss their best chance to score and then dictate the match, with the Americans more likely to be effective on their swift counter-attacks the later the game goes on.
Four years ago in Germany the US had to beat Ghana to advance from the group stage, but fell well short in a lacklustre 2-1 loss in Nuremberg. In that game German referee Markus Merk awarded Ghana a penalty for a phantom foul by Oguchi Onyewu, and US fans have duly moaned about it ever since. In 2006, though, the US knew they'd been too poor over three games to justify progressing, and that knowledge has always undermined the complaints about Merk's awful decision. Clearly today's game will be a measure of how far both countries have come in the intervening time.
For once, the burbling platitudes of ESPN's summer import Ian Darke hit just the right note against Algeria. "The USA's World Cup hopes are hanging by a thread!" he squeaked as Howard threw the ball out to Landon Donovan in the build-up to what has surely already become the most replayed goal on US television ever. The two disallowed goals against Slovenia and Algeria would have been an explanation for an early US exit, but no more of a salve than the scapegoated Dr Merk.
Those marginal calls do however illustrate the paper-thin line between lying prostrate on the grass alone and in tears, and being in the same position smothered by yelping team-mates. One raised Serbian hand or one raised linesman's flag can be the difference between going home or giddily contemplating a semi-final spot. It will be tight and nervy and probably less than beautiful. But it will also be compelling Cup football, just the way it should be. Ian Plenderleith