Party-poopers or the night of the underdogs? Your take on that could be determined by whether you refer to the world’s most popular ball game as football or soccer.
As India slept early on Thursday, the USA stunned Spain, European champions and the world’s No. 1 football team, 2-0 to enter the Confederations Cup final, a first for them. The result killed the prospect of a Brazil-Spain showdown on Sunday- a dream match between Europe and South America, between football’s traditional topdogs and a team which since November 2006 had forgotten how to lose.
But will the baseball, basketball and gridiron football country now awaken to the possibilities of football? “This win is huge for American soccer,” said Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, the semi-final’s Man of the Match and scorer of the second goal. Brazil still have South Africa to play in the semi-final but bring ‘em on is what the US players seem to be saying.
“We are not at all nervous going into the final,” said Jose Altidore who plays club football in Spain with Villarreal and whose 27th minute goal led to an unusual scoreline at half-time in Bloemfontein.
Going into the match on a world record 15 consecutive wins and having equalled Brazil’s feat of 35 unbeaten matches, Spain fielded players from Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Arsenal. The USA’s XI in comparison seemed like a rag-tag outfit with only Everton goalie Tim Howard, Dempsey and Altidore belonging to top clubs in Europe, the home of organised football. And while Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka are the latest stars the Spanish League can call its own, the biggest draw in the USA’s Major League Soccer is an absentee midfielder well past his sell-by date. What else can you call David Beckham?
But sometimes, only sometimes, technique and class are upended by doggedness and a team with nine shots on goal wins against opponents who fired 29. Thursday was one such night. It’s happened in football before with North Korea beating Italy in the 1966 World Cup finals, Cameroon shocking Argentina (1990 World Cup), France being upended by Senegal (2002) and South Korea marching to the semi-finals in 2002.
The USA too are on that list having beaten England in 1950, Colombia in 1994 and Portugal in 2002 but none of those upsets were in the knockout rounds of a major competition.
For all of football’s global appeal, top international tournaments have always been won by a handful of heavyweights. Between them Brazil and Italy have nine World Cup titles. Add Argentina and Germany to the mix and you get winners of 14 of the 18 World Cups held so far. Five of the seven Confederations Cup have been won by Brazil(2), France (2) and Argentina. Denmark (1995) and Mexico (1999) are the tournament’s only winners yet to win a World Cup.
To know whether the USA will be the third, you will have to stay up late on Sunday.