Thursday, December 08, 2005

ATH: On Modern American Soccer

My Taxicab Confession
It's rather embarrassing. But I used to hail taxis just so I could . . . can I just say how excited I am about tomorrow’s World Cup soccer draw in Germany?
WEB-EXCLUSIVE COMMENTARY By Mark Starr, Newsweek, Updated: 12:54 p.m. ET Dec. 8, 2005

Dec. 8, 2005 - OK, I’ll fess up. But don't go getting too overheated. My taxicab confession is not X-rated. Indeed there is a lot more pathos here than eros. Once upon a time—more than a decade ago—I would occasionally hail taxicabs just to find someone with whom I could talk soccer. I lacked that option with my sports buddies, who were every bit as interested in soccer as they were in cricket. But you could rely on cab drivers to hold passionate opinions on the world’s game.

"Where are you from?" I would inquire upon entering the taxi.

"Bolivia," replied one typical driver.

"Ah, 'El Diablo'," I would say with appropriate reverence, enjoying the stunned expression in the driver’s mirror as I rattled off his homeland’s reigning star. "You know El Diablo?" he marveled. And off we would go—at 20 cents per quarter mile—debating whether the aforementioned devil would ever rein in his temper, where Romario ranked as a scorer in the Brazilian firmament and whether a fat Maradona was better than no Maradona at all.

We never discussed American soccer. Foreigners knew nothing about it and, anyway, there wasn’t all that much to say. By international standards, the U.S. game was unworthy. It had produced some estimable goalkeepers, not surprising given how that position’s skills relate to baseball and football, and a few talents—often sons of immigrants like John Harkes and Tab Ramos—who could have been solid cogs on far better teams. But the ranks were thin. Desperate U.S. coaches wound up recruiting faux Yanks—players raised abroad that, while unable to speak English, qualified by dint of paternity. It didn’t add up to a winning formula. At the ‘98 World Cup in France, it added up to dead last among the 32 teams.

But what a difference a few years can make. Today there is pride in being a fan of American soccer and no problem finding kindred souls with whom to discuss it. And on Friday we’ll be one with the world, our eyes on Leipzig, Germany, where the critical draw will take place for the 2006 World Cup. (Another sign of great progress is that ESPN2 will carry the doings live at 3 p.m.)

The coming-out party for American soccer took place at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. In their opening game against Portugal, then the fifth-ranked team in the world, the Americans stormed to a 3-0 lead and held on for the upset. It was a stunning moment to discover that our boys could finally play with the world's best. And our youngest players, most notably Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, didn’t appear cowed by the pedigree of the opposition. When they thrashed archrival Mexico to reach the quarterfinals, putting the U.S. in the company of Brazil, Germany, England and Spain, I was delirious.

It was a stunning turnabout from France ‘98 when a well-placed German elbow in the opening minutes of America's opening game seemed to knock all the gumption out of the squad. In Korea, our proudest moment probably came in the quarterfinal rematch with Germany when we clearly outplayed one of the world’s great soccer empires, alas in a 1-0 defeat. (That’s not just the view through red-white-and-blue glasses; even German soccer icon Franz Beckenbauer conceded the U.S. deserved to win.)

Now American soccer fans can only hope that our current team—ranked a can-you-believe-it eighth in the world, just ahead of England—can reprise that successful World Cup act next June on German soil. Its successes over the past four years assure that it can no longer sneak up on anybody, as it may have done on Portugal. U.S. coach Bruce Arena calls the 32-team field the deepest in World Cup history. And while tradition dictates that one of the eight, four-team, brackets selected tomorrow will be labeled “the group of death,” Arena claims he see death everywhere he looks. “I don’t think any group is going to be easy,” he said. “The balance there is going to be tremendous”.

That marked a rare display of diplomacy by the oft-acerbic American coach, who is in his eighth year at the helm, an almost unprecedented run by international soccer standards. But while Arena refuses to say it, I can speak the truth: U.S. chances of surviving past the first round are at the mercy of what spills out of the hat, beer stein, pneumatic tube or whatever they use tomorrow in Leipzig. All draws are not remotely equal.

For starters, the U.S. is assured of playing in a group headed by one of the world's premier soccer powers. While there are no good options among the top seeds, there are better and worse ones. My gut says the U.S. should hope to avoid an early rematch with the host nation. And the Americans certainly want to steer clear of Brazil, even more of a favorite than usual. Better would be: Spain, which seems to disappoint every four years; France, which despite a surfeit of talent has been experiencing a prolonged scoring drought, or even England, whose top stars, including David Beckham, are capable of extraordinary acts of self-destruction.

In addition to a top seed, the United States will be grouped with a second-rank European team, some of which are decidedly first rank. We should pray to avoid the Dutch juggernaut as well as attacking teams like the Czech Republic or Serbia & Montenegro, which could prey on inexperience in the American defense. And I’m not sure I’d welcome a rematch with the Portuguese, whose second-rank status can be traced to our boys’ feet. The Swiss, the Poles, the Swedes, the Croats, the Ukes, all can be formidable, but all, to my mind, would be preferable.

Finally, there will be a fourth team added from a geographical mishmash and once again there are potential inequities. The United States would certainly rather land one of the four World Cup first-timers from Africa or even Australia, which hasn’t been to a Cup competition in 32 years, rather than a more experienced international competitor like Paraguay or Tunisia.

So, France, Switzerland and Togo—possible life. Germany, Holland and Paraguay—almost certain death. But of course all this is just speculative. When the actual games begin, you watch Senegal knock off the defending champ France, as occurred in the 2002 Cup opener. So the only thing I know for sure is that every American soccer fan will spend the next six months parsing all the implications of the draw. And I am just grateful that I no longer have to call a cab to find somebody to parse—or parley—with.

Let’s Not Forget the Ladies
On Sunday night, HBO Sports will present "Dare to Dream," an affectionate history of the U.S. women’s soccer team and a sentimental tribute to its pioneering Fab Five—Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett. It spans four World Cups—most memorably the ’99 Cup that ended with Chastain's famous bra turn—and three Olympics and is a superb entertainment in both victory and defeat. (My favorite moment is neither. It’s when Fawcett, who practically raised her children in training camps, tells how her daughter peed her pants, then explained to mom: “I lost my focus.”)

Those of us who covered the '99 World Cup came to view it as something of a privilege. The players embraced us or at least enlisted us as allies, a rather rare experience for sportswriters, in their mission to sell their game to this country. Still, I don't believe they ever envisioned the scope of their success—that they could put nearly 100,000 fans in the Rose Bowl for the final against China. Or that it would be recalled among the most memorable sporting events of the modern era.

Their legacy is now everywhere in this country. Little girls are booting soccer balls, little boys have been happily donning Mia Hamm jerseys. But it is, of course, a somewhat bittersweet legacy. All their collective fame couldn't sustain the WUSA, the pro league spawned by the World Cup success. And despite bold "we shall return" pronouncements, there is no indication that the league ever will. But HBO has assured that—for 77 delightful minutes—our girls of summer get their due one more time.


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