56 games after the opening match on June 11th between host South Africa and Mexico there was finally an off-day at the 2010 World Cup. Two days, in fact, before play resumed today with Holland’s comeback win against Cup favorite Brazil and the upcoming match between Uruguay and Ghana.

After all the vuvuzela-ing, the officiating catastrophes and the disappointments of perennial big names England, France and Italy it still is the case that all but one of the group winners advanced to the final eight (the U.S. being the only exception), and that five of FIFA’s seven top-ranked teams were still in the competition, so order has more or less prevailed.

It would have been even more so had third-ranked Portugal not had the misfortune of playing Spain in the Round of 16, and perhaps the greater misfortune of having their galactic star Cristiano Ronaldo in a tournament-long ego preen and pout.

Happily, Africa still has a representative in Ghana, but it is still the South Americans who are dominant, with four of their five teams in the final eight and an opportunity to advance all of them to the semifinals before Brazil’s stunner.

It’s been six days since the United States bowed out to Ghana in a disappointing loss, sufficient mourning time to perhaps enjoy one last scene of happiness, a video of the penalty kick goal by Landon Donovan which tied the match in the second half.

Alas, that was the only score by the team. This time there were no officiating excuses, just enough mistakes on defense and failures on offense and no last-minute heroics to keep them in the hunt.

If you’ve watched the other teams in the Round of 16 play, you can tell – even if like me you only know a little about soccer – that the United States has a long way to go in the dribble-and-pass game which all the great teams can play, whatever their strengths may be. They’re also more resistant on defense and have at least one great goal-scorer up front, which the United States does not.

But perhaps that isn’t so clear. Apparently a poll taken after the Algerian victory found that 90% of Americans expected the U.S. team to win the tournament. This wouldn’t have happened if the rest of the teams were forced to play with two left boots.

Combine this poor vision with the response to the loss against Ghana – the anguish was so profound that it took two entire minutes for people to start talking about the Giants, in contrast to the liquid orgies of rage and despair in the English pubs the next day, after evisceration by the Germans. It’s likely this week’s love affair was about something other than soccer.

For the most part the fan interest was a fling, an excuse to demonstrate national pride. After a decade of boggy military incursions, the Katrina-BP bookend disasters in the Gulf and the recent financial collapse and shakedown it felt good to have a reason to chant “USA” and show some American muscle without feeling defensive or having to kill anyone to do it.

The fan interest also resulted from some highly unusual late-game heroics. It’s as if the United States lived up to its dual images of the Hollywood ending and the cavalry rescue, but the truth is that tournaments are won by teams which patiently build leads and hold on to them.

Or in some cases, play 120 minutes for a tie, which was the strategy employed by both Paraguay and Japan the other day. Witnessing this match was like watching an anaconda digest a feral pig on the Discovery Channel, without the benefit of time lapse photography. FIFA should destroy every tape and pull down all online video of this one. Even the soccer die-hards were in agony. A second ball rolled onto the pitch near the end of the regular time but nobody took the hint.

At one point in the stupefying delirium of overtime a mirage appeared of a split-screen TV, with the match on the left and on the right an episode of “24.” Both of them in real-time, on one side you are begging for some time compression and on the right your adrenals are suffering because of it.

Now that the show is over perhaps FIFA can hire Jack Bauer as a roving field agent, reinforcing FIFA’s utter control of the sport by having Bauer shoot a member of the team he determines is not taking enough risks. An American action movie version of a red card. That will manufacture interest in the U.S.

Successful soccer’s premium on defensive play makes it hard to imagine the professional game taking hold here. It will be too dull for fans accustomed to other sports, and the economics of no in-play commercials might work for a World Cup but wouldn’t for a season full of average-caliber contests.

There were certainly many households in America where young boys watched Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey and turned to Mom and said, “He’s cool, I want to play soccer.” Mom, relieved that the child is choosing something other than American football with its aggression and injuries, will ensure it happens.

But in order to vault beyond the second-level powers American soccer needs to extend the talent pool from the suburbs to the cities as well as take advantage of the increasing Latino population. Combine that with development in the European leagues after high school and it’s not hard to imagine the United States being a consistently elite team in 12 years or so, even if the country doesn’t care so much in between World Cup tournaments.

Anyway, one suspects the rest of the world has mixed feelings about the United States becoming a soccer power. American money will change the game and in some ways it feels as though the World Cup doesn’t really start until the U.S. leaves, sort of like the loud rich neighbor who takes over the party but goes home early because he doesn’t get it or have many friends.

Did anyone
else notice in the videos of Ghanian celebrations in the U.S. that there
were inevitably young white kids, protester-types somehow looking
privileged and
malnourished at the same time, cheering as if it were another way to
denounce American imperialism and corporate dominion? They couldn’t
afford the trip to Davos or the Toronto G20 so slumming a World Cup loss
would have to do.

Moments to remember:

– A bird perched contentedly on the Algerian net during the England game, certain not to be disturbed by a shot on goal.

– Donovan’s marine landing rush at the Slovenian goaltender, practically backing him into the net with the alternative of having his head taken off by the shot.

– Sepp Blatter being forced to come out of the FIFA tower to say something other than “Let them eat hand balls.”

– Coach Maradona having more touches than half the Nigerian side in Argentina’s first match. Letting go is hard.

– South Africa’s tournament-opening goal, a beautiful scorcher. Like the promise of early morning, there hadn’t yet been any officiating disasters, national meltdowns or 0-0 soporifics.

– Denmark’s Jon Dahl Tomasson looking positively embarrassed after he needed a rebound on a penalty kick to end his international scoring drought.

– U.S. goalie Tim Howard leaping for a ball — at the other end of the pitch. Desperate for the tying goal against Ghana he ran the full length of the field to create a man advantage. The replay showing both goalies jumping for the ball was amazing.

– The camera pan of the Portugese side heartily singing the national anthem before the first match, arms round each other, with the shot ending on Ronaldo at the end, self-contained, silent, head down. A nation of one.

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