The “Red Devils” bedevilled the devil. The country that hosts the NATO headquarters – at a time of economic hardship, NATO is constructing a huge new $1 billion headquarters in Brussels. The eight-floor structure contains enough blast-proof glass to cover 10 football fields – ousted the military bloc’s supreme commander in a World Cup match played in Salvador, Brazil on July 1st. The significance of the match was as much off the pitch, as on.
The American Dream
The thinly disguised shock and disappointment of the TV broadcasters and sports media, which clearly wanted the United States to go through to the final rounds for commercial and political reasons, at the victory and the disparity in play was all too apparent.
Even a FIFA release put it like this: “the Americans’ fairytale FIFA World Cup™ run came to an end.” The American side has been surrounded by hyperbole and escorted from match to match by tens of thousands of US tourists, who have taken over stadiums. Earlier reports touted how the USA made it through the so-called “Group of Death,” which included Germany, Portugal and Ghana; in fact, the USA backed in, only beating Ghana, whose players had not been paid, which raised suspicions of collusion.
World Cup 2014 may be Latin America’s tournament, but FIFA is trumpeting such statistics as:
- Over 20 per cent of the total audience on FIFA’s digital platform is made up of fans from the USA;
- The USA is the No. 1 country for the FIFA World Cup App; and
- Americans currently account for 10 per cent of FIFA’s total Facebook audience.
Then there is US imperialist chieftain Barack Obama, for whom winning is the only thing and who bragged after the match: “We’ll win it sooner than the world thinks.” The message of global supremacy and imperial hubris was reinforced by photos of Obama watching USA V Germany in the conference room on Air Force One.
Along with securing global domination, the American dream in large part is tied to the corporate investment in professional soccer, Major League Soccer.
“We proved to the world we are a soccer nation!” MLS Commissioner Don Garber boasted on Twitter minutes after the USA-Belgium clash. MLS stadiums hosted chauvinistic rallies. With 18,608 spectators on average per match, MLS now has the third-highest per-game attendance of any US league, ahead of the NBA and NHL hockey. A 2-2 draw against Portugal in Manaus led The New York Times to declare that football was now “Bigger than Baseball,” as angry right-wing columnists railed against this “foreign sport.”
Fuelled by monopoly investors such as Austrian energy drink Red Bull and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment of Toronto, the US cartel is striving to rival the European leagues as a destination centre and market for international talent. When Manchester United face Real Madrid in the Michigan outpost of Ann Arbor on Aug 2, it will be played in front of a 109,000 crowd which sold out inside the first day of sales in April.
But fairytale? Even with 2 minutes to go in extra time, the match’s announcer was stridently describing “the Belgian defence wearily moving back” as midfielder Michael “Bradley moves up with incredible energy.”
Belgians were younger, faster and more skilled on the ball
The English press was equally sycophantic in the heroization of the Americans. Surprised that a match is played to the last minute, the Telegraph heralded a “heroic performance.”
“They went for broke and almost snatched an equaliser,” gushed Henry Winter, “but while it was not to be, they proved they now belong at the highest level.” He was not referring to the Belgians.
Superlatives were reserved for the “heroic night” (Associated Press) of keeper Tim Howard, who made a record number of 16 saves.
Nevertheless, the hyperbole only served to keep in the shade the plain fact that Belgium outmatched the USA in attempts by a margin of three to one, 38 to 14 (on-target 27 to 9). Belgium’s edge in corners was 19 to 4. The Belgians were younger, faster and more skilled on the ball; their midfielders could hold onto and distribute the ball.
The number of American chances was paltry.
In 120 minutes, the USA registered but 4 shots that were actually on goal, or one every 30 minutes.
They could not finish. The United States missed striker Landon Donovan, left off the roster for obscure reasons by coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
Even after going 2-0 down in extra time, the USA pulled a goal back through teenager Julian Green, a substitute, to set up a nervy finale, which saw Clint Dempsey almost grab what would have been a sensational equaliser from a tricky free-kick routine. Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois rushed off his line and dropped on the ball.
The finale was closer than it looked: the Belgians seemed to be playing to lose. They made one poor decision after the other on defence, whether kicking the ball needlessly out of bounds or spontaneously passing the ball straight to an American. With 1 or 2 minutes to go, Lukaku won the ball a bit inside the USA half and tried to thread a through-ball through the defence instead of charging for the corner, where he could shield the ball and run down the clock. The USA charged up the field again, where Yedlin brought a save out of Courtois.
The teamwork and displays of sportsmanship of the Belgians were a revelation. Kevin De Bruyne, who scored the first goal three minutes into extra time, and then set up substitute Romelu Lukaku’s dazzler (he in turn had set up De Bruyne’s goal and ran riot among the knackered Americans, who simply couldn’t contain him in their fatigued state) with a lovely through-ball, stood out in this regard.
Eleven minutes into extra time he accidentally hoofed the ball into the face of Jermaine Jones, who went down like a sack of potatoes. De Bruyne immediately signalled to his team-mates to kick the ball, now in their possession, out of bounds, stopping play. The red head bent over and apologized, consoling the injured player, while signalling to the referee and the sidelines for the medics. After some treatment and a drink of water, Jones was fit to continue.
Tim Howard’s graciousness
Then there was Tim Howard, selected man of the match, who said that it was the substitution of Romelu Lukaku that proved decisive. “They brought big Rom on and he was a handful, he ran at us, scored a goal, created chances for other guys,” said Howard. “Big Rom changed the game.”
He acknowledged that United States had struggled to keep Belgium at bay for so long. “The levee’s going to break at some point if you continue like that,” he said.
“It’s heartbreaking, I don’t think we could have given any more,” said Howard. “We left it all out there. We got beaten by a really good team. They took their chances well. It’s heartache, it hurts. But hats off to Belgium, they were fantastic.
Howard and Lukaku embraced after the game and exchanged jerseys in mutual respect.
And the vicious Swiss hack-a-Messi
Belgium’s victory gives it a World Cup quarter-final match on Saturday against Argentina in Brasilia, who unbelievably needed extra time to defeat Switzerland in the 118th minute. The sole redeeming feature of the match was the failure of the vicious Swiss hack-a-Messi tactic devised by coach Ottmar Hitzfeld to deter Lionel Messi.
This Wold Cup is proving that soccer has degenerated into a cynical contact game, regardless of the laws of the game, the ethics of sport and bromides about “the beautiful game.”
Messi remarkably took the punishment, kept his cool and then found the moment to dish it back. Finally finding space with two minutes of extra time remaining, Messi drove forward and unselfishly teed up Angel Di Maria for a fine winning goal.
But in Salvador a thrilling match to be sure.
Any defeat of the USA is worth a national holiday in Canada.
France-Germany, 4 July 2014, 13.00, Maracana, Rio de Janeiro
Brazil-Colombia, 4 July 2014, 17.00, Estadio Castelao, Fortaleza
(All times local)
– Tony Seed, with files from news agencies