Well, that was a crazy five weeks, give or take a day or two.
The wildest ride in U.S. World Cup history ended Tuesday as millions of fans back home and around the globe agonized, suffered, rejoiced and ultimately nodded their heads in thanks and appreciation of the thrills and chills they’d felt and -- perhaps without realizing it – the threshold they had crossed.
Now a whole lot of Americans know what the world has known for many decades: Major international soccer matches are not only great events, they are made for mass sharing. Otherwise, why would about 25,000 otherwise sensible people gather at Soldier Field in Chicago to wince and whine and whoop as one rather than cozy up to a big-screen TV or gaze at their tablet on a park bench?
When the city of big shoulders goes bonkers for the World Cup, when the home of the Blackhawks and Cubs and Bulls and of course, da Bearz, soccer is no longer classified as a novelty or stuck in a niche. When TV ratings are generated that dwarf any sports programming other than an NFL game or a college football title bout, there’s more going on than passionate patriotism and seizing any reason to skip work and hang out with a few thousand newly found close friends.
The World Cup didn’t start on June 12, when Brazil hosted Croatia, nor when the USA opened its tournament four days later by beating Ghana. For America, the tournament kicked off in late May when word leaked out that U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had picked his 23-man World Cup squad and Landon Donovan wasn’t on it. The nation’s most renowned player and his largest stage had separated, not at all amicably. For Donovan, for Klinsmann, for America, soccer had changed forever.
America didn’t come to a standstill but it did take notice. Variations – some clever, a few offbeat, many aghast – of the “Donovan Dropped!” headline were everywhere. Donovan’s detractors, long fed up with an attitude they perceived as wimpy and stunned by a months-long hiatus of his own origin, went wild. His defenders lashed out at Klinsmann and cited a prickly, rocky, Germanic-driven history -- not performance or fitness -- as main motivation for the move. Klinsmann fueled the fire further by stating Donovan could be an emergency replacement if need be.
Reactions and opinions were solicited from anyone remotely connected to the game. Both were cast as hero and villain. Klinsmann the Idiot, Donovan the Diva, Klinsmann the Genius, Donovan the Martyr, Klinsmann the King, Donovan the Downtrodden … all were played out. When months-old comments from the coach that expectations of winning the World Cup were unrealistic re-circulated, outrage spewed from numerous outlets. No less a cultural and philosophical guru than Steven Colbert dubbed Herr Klinsmann “Field Marshall Buzzkill.”
This World Cup would not be about soccer, it would be about egos, politics, personality, controversy, and culture clashes, along with the human drama of athletic competition. Figure skating gave the world Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding; soccer gave America mellow, introspective Landon and tough, effervescent Jurgen.
The backlash persisted through the warm-up games, all of which the USA won, which was all well and good, but how could the Americans without their icon possibly survive the “Group of Death?” As it turned out, pretty damn well, and in unprecedented numbers people who reveled in double plays and slam dunks gathered and assembled to join those already converted, for whom breaking out the red, white, and blue when the ball rolls out is as natural as drawing breath. Those that did assemble in front of their TV sets did so in record numbers, and their ranks swelled as the competition unfolded. If soccer wasn’t quite the new thing it has supposedly been for decades, it’s no longer the dork sport, either.
Fortunately for ESPN, audiences were huge for non-U.S. games as well, and a tournament rife with upstarts and toppled powerhouses and upsets and late goals generated dramatic moments and incredible scenes every day of the first round. Filled, noisy stadiums gave each telecast a backdrop of color and undercurrent of electricity, and whether a viewer saw Brazilians celebrating a Costa Rican goal against Uruguay or vividly orange sections of Dutch fans saluting the demise of Spain, tuning in was a treat.
When fans defied a snowstorm in Colorado to watch the USA beat Costa Rica – now there’s a reference point! – at a packed Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in March of last year, the match featured more than a 1-0 USA win and midfielder Jermaine Jones’ “Snow-Fro.” As the snow deepened, the din increased. The Rapids seldom sell out, but that qualifier in their stadium did, and those fans endured wet and cold to back their team come what may.
That same spirit burns in those at the stadiums and on the beaches of Brazil, those gathered for the viewing parties in Chicago and Redondo Beach and Lebanon, Pa., and those wearing camouflage fatigues in Afghanistan. The U.S. players go hard, but to truly bleed the colors as do their counterparts around the world, they must play for something greater than themselves. Many of them said they were shocked to see the massive crowds in Brazil and back home cheering them on. There's something going on.
In 10 days the World Cup will be over. The images will fade, the headlines wiil be forgotten. America will turn its attention to pennant races, the NFL, immigration, and affordable health care. But all is not as it once was.
Since the 1994 tournament ignited American interest in the event and the national team, pundits have opined that for the game to flourish, the USA must at least be respectable and competitive.
The U.S. players now know that more of their people care more than they ever did before. For decades, the World Cup has forged teams intensely bonded to their culture and their heritage and their flag. Maybe, just maybe, America has started to catch up.