How the USA became likeable once more at Brazil 2014

Greg Johnson ponders how the global superpower behind drone strikes and The War On Terror become one of the feel good football hits of the summer…

For all the shocks and surprises conjured up by the World Cup this summer, Brazil 2014 ultimately turned out to be a victory for the football establishment. The world’s best player won the award for being the best player and the competition’s most consistent team in recent years clinched the trophy for the fourth time in their history. In the end, the bold resistance against reputations and FIFA rankings appeared to have been futile, and yet a power shift of sorts may have taken place, if not on the field of play.

No one expected the USA to emerge as the popular choice for those seeking a second team to get behind in Brazil and yet, following the action in pubs and bars across the Atlantic, it was hard not to sense that they had become the adoptive nation of choice for (non-American) football fans.

Casting Algeria and Chile as likeable underdogs isn’t controversial but it will always seem odd to describe a nation boasting both the world’s biggest economy and largest stockpile of nuclear weapons as “plucky” in any setting. Given their population and resources, the ascendency of the USA has long lingered on the game’s horizon. They could dominate the sport if only they’d take it seriously. The mockery that greets their every misstep of incompetence in the game is in part due to fear of what they could become if they got their act together.

It long seemed as though football (soccer) was something America just didn’t “get” and most of the rest of the world was pretty much fine with that. After all, as the most popular pastime on Earth—bigger than any single religion or rival form of organised human activity—football is the one cultural phenomenon able to hold its own against the ubiquitous cultural output of the US of A and its films, music and fast food. Watching it be treated like the athletic equivalent of the metric system from afar smacked of sour grapes and insecurity over a sport in which American exceptionalism wasn’t a given.

That all seemed to change in Brazil. Their determined struggle to take on far more fancied opponents was utterly endearing, and the number of USMNT well-wishers seemed to grow with every passing game, won over by their never-say-die attitude.

Their defeat in the round of 16 against a talent-rich yet collectively dour Belgium was treated as one of the tragedies of the tournament, especially given how dull the over-hyped Europeans remained in the quarter-finals. Somehow, the USA—a country many thought was unable to cherish any sport that it couldn’t claim ownership of—had exited the World Cup as noble, fallen guardians of the game’s heart and soul. Tim Howard left the tournament as the embodiment of his team’s spirit and commitment, having broken the World Cup record for saves made in a single match with 16 as his final, defining act. Standing between Belgium and the back of the net, he was literally the last action hero.

Watching their World Cup campaign unfold in various pubs and bars on the other side of the Atlantic, it was clear that by the last 15 minutes of the match that would seal their fate, even the confirmed cynics amongst the assembled spectators were cheering them on.

It felt like a team built in the image of honest, resourceful, hard-working Americans. A footballing representation of the less complex nation that Bill Pullman rallied to save the world from aliens, sent Rocky off to solve the cold war in his star spangled pants, and that dedicated Rambo III to the “gallant people of Afghanistan”. Back then, their faulty, self-styled billing as leaders of the free world seemed earnest and well-meaning rather than terrifyingly underhand and insidious.

Had the ceaseless running of Michael Bradley & co. been set to “Born to Run” it would have been perfect. Nobody wins unless everybody wins! This was the blue-collar America of Bruce Springsteen, not the evil empire of Dick Cheney.

That may seem cheap for those who protest that politics has no place in the realms of sport or entertainment, but such objections are at best naïve. In an era of drone strikes, extraordinary rendition and Edward Snowden, it’s hard to talk about foreign perceptions without getting very heavy very quickly, but America itself has bonded these threads together. Sarah Palin was presented to the world as the quintessential “soccer mom” leading some to fear that the game had somehow been hijacked into becoming the recruiting grounds of the Tea Party over the pond. Thankfully, by the time Ann Coulter’s rants about soccer’s innate, effete socialism rolled around this summer, the true lay of the land had been made clear by the groundswell of support and the appearance of Teddy Goalsevelt and friends amongst the fans in Brazil.

Past sides under the likes of Bob Bradley never lacked for effort and industry either, but to foreign eyes, the numbers on the ground and populist momentum that heaved the national team into the mainstream this summer seemed unique.

With a reported 196,838 match day tickets sold, Americans made up the largest legion of travelling supporters at the World Cup. That’s more than the combined sales of the three countries below them in the list: the football obsessed, former world champions of neighbouring Argentina, eventual winners Germany and the vast, migrating hordes of sunburnt England fans.

Perhaps these numbers shouldn’t have been so surprising. USA ’94 still holds the record for being the best attended World Cup in the competition’s history. MLS teams such as Seattle Sounders can now draw match day crowds as large and as passionate as many of Europe’s established clubs.

But national stereotypes die hard, and international football tournaments have never been the most progressive arenas in which to slay them. Instead, like dank shower tiles, they can be the ideal environment for sloppy generalisations to mould up into erroneous or even bigoted caricatures, from “efficient” Germans to “powerful” Africans.

It may take time for other nations to replace the pieces in the mosaic that makes up their perception of America and its soccer team, but Brazil 2014 felt like a turning point, even if its importance won’t be fully recognised or proven for years to come.

Not only do the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Bayern Munich’s Julian Green offer hope for an extremely bright future, but from the point of view of an outsider living in a nation already devoted to football, it appears that the tide has turned. A growing number of US sports fans, previously addicted to the event heavy spectacles of their home-grown sports, have learned to love football for what it is rather than trying to compensate for what it’s not. Sure, there’ll be ties, and games may occasionally fall flat without goals and controversies, but the fluidity and fluency of the sport at its best is worth the time spent to appreciate it, even if major success isn’t a guarantee.

Yet given manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s role in helping to return Germany back to the very top of the sport, USA fans can be excused for hoping that prizes may follow progress sooner rather than later.

@gregianjohnson; @the_false_nine

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