Monday, June 28, 2010

'Ghana' Send You Packing: A Look Back at the U.S. 2010 World Cup Run

It was a good run, boys...

As I sit here watching the Brasil/Chile game (0-0, 17th minute), I can't help but feel a little dejected at the U.S. exit from the World Cup, once again at the hands of the Ghana Black Stars ("La Estrellas Negras!" as the overexcited Univision announcer kept yelling)... in their off-brand ketchup jerseys, no less ("The McDonald's uni," my boy called it).

It wasn't long after the loss that sarcastic remarks like, "Yeah well, f&^! soccer, anyway" and "How can we not beat GHANA?" began to permeate the atmosphere. This is sort of a continuation of something I would call "Slovenia Syndrome."

Slovenia Syndrome is the baseless belief that the United States should beat other national teams based on population or military history. Tony Kornheiser, though he may have been half-joking, said on PTI, "America has 300 million people; Slovenia has 2 million." To which I would respond, "So the f&^! what?"

Ghana has 23 million people. That's L.A. and two New Yorks. They've sent us packing two Cups in a row now.

Now, I was going around earlier mistakenly blasting out what I thought was an insightful and simultaneously hilarious remark of my own, about people who fall victim to Slovenia Syndrome. I said that it's no wonder America invented baseball, basketball and its OWN football... because we totally sucked at the world's true No. 1 sport.

Well... turns out baseball and basketball were both invented before soccer, or at least around the same time. So there goes that part of my argument.

But let's take a quick look at sporting history from 1930 (the year of the first World Cup) onward. Between 1930 and 1950, the U.S. qualifies for three out of four World Cups ('30, '34, '50... no Cups held during World War II, for obvious reasons). From here on out, it is, literally, four decades before the U.S. qualifies again (1990). In the intervening period, soccer makes exponential leaps in international popularity to easily become the world's most popular sport.

The FIFA World Cup is one of the few competitions outside of the Olympics that truly crowns a world champion. Imagine the hubris it takes for the NBA to say its Finals' winners are "world champions," especially when the U.S., while winning gold a decade ago, hasn't performed nearly as well in international competition as of late. And of course the NFL crowns a "world champion," since almost every attempt at creating a competing league, domestic or international, has been an abject failure (although I am still lookin' for a Rod Smart 'He Hate Me' jersey, if you got one for sale).

But I'll even forgive U.S. sports fans and the leagues for that. By and large, Americans don't care about what's happening outside their country anyway. Oh sure, after 9/11, everyone wanted to know more about the Middle East, but really? Not so much.

What I don't understand, though, is this sense of entitlement; that somehow the U.S. should beat all these countries who send star footballers to pro leagues all over the globe. I mean, fifteen of the 23 players on the Ghana Black Stars national team play for the big Euro leagues (Premiership, Serie A, Bundesliga), compared to 12 or 13 of the U.S. players. Okay, Donovan was on loan to the Bundesliga for like three months. That's great.

Look, I'm not trying to put down the U.S. team. I just think that we U.S. fans need to take a look at the big picture when it comes to our expectations of the team... something I've learned very well during my ongoing tenure as a Pitt basketball fan. When the whole damn city of Pittsburgh is crowing about how this is the year the Panthers make the Final Four... I usually have 'em going out by the Sweet 16 in my bracket.

Consider the following:
• Soccer is unlike almost any other sport, in that you need virtually no equipment to practice and play. You need a ball. Granted, amateur leagues and the pros wear pads and what-not, but you don't NEED those to practice or play. This means anyone in the whole world with a wide, flat space can ball.
• The U.S. qualifies for World Cups through CONCACAF, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. And aside from Mexico, Costa Rica and few select others, we qualify against such august competition as... Anguilla, the Bahamas, Jamaica, French Guiana, Cuba, and other nations who are... shall we say... not exactly known for footballin'.

Let me put it this way: Not counting the U.S. and Costa Rica, Mexico has qualified for more World Cups (14) than ALL THE OTHER CONCACAF TEAMS COMBINED (12). So let's not pretend we're beating the best of the best to make it in every four years.

Once again, let me stress: I am not putting down the U.S. squidder or its efforts. The group stage was fantastic to watch, and I was almost as excited during the Algeria win as I was during my first Steelers' Super Bowl win. And I doubt this diatribe, which can essentially be boiled down to "U.S. soccer isn't as good as everyone thinks" is going to convert many people to the beautiful game.

Hey, at least we're not England.

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