This is how the globalisation of team sports works from a US perspective. The big leagues, flush with cash from their astonishingly wealthy domestic market, act like a magnet, pulling in top talent from all over the world. International matches? Hey, they’re an afterthought. At best. “Soccer” has long been a chimp among the 600lb gorillas that this world view has spawned.
Germany 2006 has pointed the way to an escape-route from this predicament. Why not exploit the global appeal of football in a different way, by basing the US international team more of the time in Europe, the sport’s only superpower?
If Australia and Jamaica can respond to the export of their best players by staging international matches at Loftus Road in west London, then why not the USA?
It would be practical: half of the USA squad are based nearby in England, Germany or Holland. It would be lucrative: the USA team, even the old-stagers, have been visibly astonished by the fervour and depth of support that has followed them across Germany. “I have never seen American support like that,” said one of the team after last week’s eventful 1-1 draw with Italy. “Who would have thought you would come to Europe and have more fans?”
Most of all, though, it would be profoundly beneficial on the field of play: full immersion in football’s dominant European culture would improve the USA’s chances of one day joining the top-rank of world soccer powers by opening it up to new ideas and eradicating the tactical naiveté to which it is still prone.
Having seen Italy reduced to 10 men after Daniele De Rossi’s elbow left blood pouring from Brian McBride’s much-battered face, it was the height of folly to hand the advantage back to Marcello Lippi’s wily old campaigners by getting two of their own men sent off – even if the red cards shown in quick succession to Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope were harsh. “We do train a bit 11 versus 10, but I have never come up with 10 versus nine,” said coach Bruce Arena drily after the match. “And I don’t plan on doing it again either.”
Some United States players have become full-
fledged citizens of planet football, but there are times when team USA still
seem to inhabit a world a little apart from the sport’s mainstream.
“How can they come down looking like this?” exclaimed a horrified German reporter after the Italy match, as the USA squad trickled into the media zone looking like 24-handicap golfers in sports shirts and grey suit trousers. Their vocabulary is shot through with Americanisms – “one-zero”, “locker room”, “second balls” (a particularly baffling favourite of Arena’s) – that jar on the European ear. And not even the players themselves take their number five Fifa ranking (equal with Spain) seriously. “Maybe we are not fifth in the world, but we are at least a top 15 team,” said Kasey Keller, the team’s chatty and ultra-experienced goalkeeper.
We will probably lose them from this World Cup today. To stand a good chance of qualifying, they have to beat Ghana well, after giving themselves a mountain to climb with their inept display against the Czech Republic in their opening match. Even if they do battle their way through – and any sort of win would be enough if Italy see off the Czechs – Brazil would almost certainly await in the second round.
So their World Cup looks set to end in frustration – an emotion with which Arena has become all too well acquainted in the past 10 days if his touchline gestures are a reliable guide.
We can be grateful to them for one thing: their battling performance in Kaiserslautern to stay alive in the competition exposed the myth that Lippi had by some alchemy transformed Italy into the real deal.
When Luca Toni fails to locate the net, as he has so far in this World Cup, Lippi’s men look as one-dimensional as any Italian side of the past eight years. Furthermore, in Cristian Zaccardo, they seem to have unearthed a right-back fit to don Christian Panucci’s mantle of utter hopelessness. They still know better than anyone how to inveigle results from football matches. But Italians had better hope that Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, their peerless centre-back pairing, keep playing for
a long time. The future
without them could be
Meanwhile, do not expect the USA to ditch their habitual counter-attacking style for today’s encounter with the powerful but profligate west Africans. Arena thought carefully when asked if he planned a change of tack. “You don’t change style,” he replied eventually. “You do what your team do best.”
His goalkeeper Keller is singing from the same song-sheet. “The last thing you have to do is go out and find yourself 2-0 down because you have thrown caution to the wind,” he said. “You have the last 15 or 20 minutes for that.”