By Paul Gardner
Cometh the hour, cometh the man ... and the man, as surely we all knew it would be, had to be, was Landon Donovan. The hour was, in fact, a moment, a crucial minute when all of the USA's World Cup hopes were disintegrating on a far-away field in Pretoria.
With the score at 0-0 and only a couple of minutes left in the game, the USA was on its way home, utterly thwarted by a defensively resilient and ever dangerous Algerian team.
Another agonizing moment for the USA -- probably Algeria should have scored, but Rafik Saifi’s feeble header went straight into the hands of goalkeeper Tim Howard. Very quickly, very smoothly, very accurately -- but very calmly, it seemed -- Howard flung the ball out to Donovan, the man who had to have the ball now.
What Howard had done so slickly with his hands, Donovan now continued with his feet ... and with something else, something so special to Donovan that no one else on this U.S. team -- and not many players on any other World Cup team -- could bring: superb innate skill and an ice-cool soccer brain. Not for a split second did Donovan hesitate or pause, off he went at full speed -- but at a full controlled speed.
There was no frantic rushing here, no overplaying of the ball, not a sign of desperation as he passed the ball smoothly to Jozy Altidore. Altidore and Clint Dempsey between them got the Algerian goalkeeper into trouble and the ball bounced loose -- and here was the moment when what had started as such a perfectly coordinated move between Howard and Donovan looked like collapsing into mere chaos.
It did not do that, because Donovan, who had never stopped running forward -- it seems more accurate to say gliding forward, such is the smooth elegance of his movement -- was there again to pounce on the loose ball and ... We’ll pause for a moment and think what might have happened at that moment, how Donovan might have done what we’ve seen so often in this tournament, how he might have slammed the ball straight into the scrambling goalkeeper, how he might have gone for power and blazed the ball over the bar, how he might have over-anxiously miskicked ...
But in less time than it takes to even think of the awful possibilities, Donovan had the ball in the net. It was all so simple, so natural, as the impeccable Donovan ran onto the loose ball and calmly side-footed it home, low and direct, a wonderfully precise and sharp finish to a few seconds of magic. Donovan inspired magic.
The goal was great for so many reasons -- for its dramatic timing and for its significance in allowing the USA to top its Group, this was a huge goal. It also had the almost theatrical thrill of a developing climax, 10 seconds of almost unbearably mounting excitement as the ball moved the length of the field.
Was USSF president Sunil Gulati right to call it “the most important goal in U.S. soccer history”? I think he was. Americans are no doubt more ready than at any time in the country’s history to pay attention to soccer. The massive ESPN coverage of the World Cup is unquestionably creating a much wider interest in the event than ever before. The USA’s 1950 win over England, or Paul Caligiuri’s 1989 goal against Trinidad & Tobago, the one that qualified the USA for its first World Cup in 40 years ... these were significant moments that simply failed to interest, or even to reach, the majority of Americans.
I suppose we can measure the new interest, to some extent, by the celebrity yardstick. Former President Bill Clinton is now into soccer, we are told. That will help, of course it will.
But Donovan will have helped more. One thing that Gulati didn’t mention is the fact that the USA is bidding to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. You have to know that the strength of the USA’s bid would not have been helped by a team that failed to qualify for the second round of this tournament.
So, politically and dramatically and publicity-wise this last-breath goal of Donovan’s will be remembered. So be it. But the goal -- and Donovan -- deserve more. They both merit being remembered for pure soccer reasons.
There will not be a better example of a counterattacking goal -- a breakaway goal - in this tournament. This was not the result of a long ball whacked hopefully downfield, it came about because of the quick thinking of Howard, and the superb ability of Donovan to stay unruffled and unhurried while creating and scoring a wonderful goal.
I am still hoping that this will be a World Cup in which individual players will be the stars. There are obvious candidates for the role -- Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben, Brazil’s Kaka, Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, England’s Wayne Rooney for starters. And now the USA’s Landon Donovan has forced his way into that list. And that is where he belongs, among the game’s top stars.