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05 June 2006
Transcript of The Yanks are Coming: A U.S. World Cup Preview

Partha Mazumdar, Economic Officer at the U.S. Embassy in London

On June 29, 1950, in a group stage game of the fourth World Cup, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Joe Gaetjens marvelously dove headlong and headed the ball past English goalkeeper Bert Williams. It was the only goal of the game. The final score shocked the world: USA 1, England 0. The Italian referee of the game later said, "If I hadn't refereed the game myself, I would not have believed the result, no matter who had told me." English newspapers were so incredulous when they received the result by telegraph that they assumed there must have been a mistake in transmission and they published the score as England 10, USA 0.

Despite the gains made by US soccer over the past fifty-six years - especially over the past sixteen - if the United States records a victory in the upcoming World Cup over either group-mates Czech Republic or Italy or progresses through any of the knockout rounds, much of the world will respond with shock similar to that of the US's win over England in 1950. Unlike then, this time, the surprise is unwarranted. The United States plays soccer and plays it well.

Even though every American soccer fan is repeatedly forced to do it, there is no need to defend United States soccer. Those who seriously follow international soccer know how improved the United States is and eagerly engage Americans in substantial, meaningful discussions. These are the conversations that make being a sports fan fun. But too many others naively dismiss away the United States team, the United States's league, and the United States's fans.

Americans are brushed off with incisive statements like, how can we take you seriously? You don't even call it ‘football’ as the rest of the world does. This of course ignores that Hungarians and Italians do not call the sport football, and everybody takes the Italians seriously and everyone once took Hungarian soccer very seriously, especially England. Much of the non-British English-speaking world does not call the sport football. It is not called football in South Africa, and the Australian national team is not nicknamed the football-roos, they are the soccer-roos.

Soccer's etymology is not American but British. It comes from an abbreviation for Association Football, the official name of the sport (for those of you who have never heard the team "Association Football" before, it was named after the Football Association, which still governs English soccer, to differentiate itself from the other major type of football, Rugby Football, which was named after the Rugby School. FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, is French for the International Federation of Association Football… F-I-F-A). For obvious reasons, in the 1880s and 1890s, English newspapers couldn't use the first three letters of Association as an abbreviation in their pages, so they took the next syllable, S-O-C. With the British penchant for adding "-er" at the end of words: punter, footballer, copper, and, of course, nicknaming rugby, "rugger," the word "soccer" was soon born, over a hundred years ago, here in England, the home of soccer. We adopted it and kept using it because we have our own indigenous sport that we call football.

This year's United States's World Cup team should be familiar to English soccer fans. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller spent years with Millwall and recently played for Spurs. Back-up goalie Tim Howard has recently transferred to Everton after being with Manchester United. The third goalie, Marcus Hahnemann, backstops Reading. Midfielder Bobby Convey was also part of Reading's record breaking campaign in the Championship this year. Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride play for Fulham and Eddie Lewis with Leeds. Cory Gibbs, who was selected for the squad but unfortunately will not be able to participate due to injury has just signed with Charlton Athletic. The captain of the US team, Claudio Reyna, plays for Manchester City after distinguished stays at Sunderland and Rangers. The team also has players who play in Germany, Holland, and Belgium, as well as eleven players who play in the United States domestic league, Major League Soccer.

The team is headed by Bruce Arena who was named as US manager in 1998. In his eighth year as the manager, he has the longest tenure of any manager at this World Cup, and is second in the world next to San Marino's Giampoala Mazza. Arena has been a success where ever he has coached, from the University of Virginia, where he taught a young Claudio Reyna, and MLS's D.C. United, and for the national team where he has led two successful World Cup qualifying campaigns and oversaw victories against Portugal and Mexico at the 2002 World Cup final as well as a draw against South Korea, the only point the hosts dropped until their loss to Germany in the semi-finals. That Arena is a supremely talented coach there is no doubt and I think he would make a fine coach in the Premiership if he ever decides to leave the United States. There aren't that many managers around, whose native language is English, who have led teams into two World Cup finals and have beaten teams like Portugal and Mexico while there.

Arena understands, much like Herb Brooks did when preparing his U.S. hockey team for the 1980 Olympics, that a team can be more than simply the sum of its parts. Instead of simply identifying the 11 best players and throwing them out there with some tactical guidance, Arena works at building a team. So, how will the United States do at the World Cup? If I knew the answer to that, I'd be at a betting house in Piccadilly and not here recording this podcast. But, I do think they will play well. Play very well, in fact.

They are in a tough group. If you believe in the FIFA World Rankings, it is the toughest group at the World Cup. I don't put much stock in the FIFA rankings, but there is no doubt that it is a strong group, possibly tough enough to earn the "Group of Death" moniker. The first game is Monday the 12th against Pavel Nedved and the Czech Republic. Then the three time champion Azzuri of Italy the following Saturday. The United States finish with Ghana.

This is a group is so strong that the United States could play brilliantly and not earn a point. However, it could also play brilliantly, get 6 or 7 points and win the group. Whether they come home with zero or 1 point or whether they progress with 6 or 7 points, I don't know. But it should be fun to watch.

Something noteworthy about our group is how similar it is to the group we were in sixteen years ago. The 1990 World Cup was the first time the US had qualified for the World Cup finals for forty years. The US were placed in a group with Italy and Czechoslovakia. This year, we're in a group with Italy and the Czech Republic. The progress the United States has made in the past 16 years is incredible. Then, the US was not competitive in the games against Italy, Czechoslovakia or Austria. Now, the US will be, and, should be more than just competitive.

The way the draw works this year, the United States cannot face England until the semi-finals. In the unlikely event that both of our teams make it that far, that would be a remarkable game... two of history's best friends meeting on a soccer field. Who would win? Would another American step to the front and score like Gaetjen's did fifty-six years ago on that remarkable summer's day in Brazil? Again, I don't know. I don't know if football is coming home this year - I'm rooting for you all. I am confident that it's going to be a great World Cup for both of our sides. Like billions throughout the world, and millions in the United States, I can't wait for Friday.


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