Before Monday night’s match between the U.S. and Ghana, I’d always found the World Cup just a little bit irritating. Especially when I was young, before I became the cultured citizen of the world that I am today, I didn’t see what was in it for me, an American, from the middle of America.
I mean, the World Cup was just so wonderfully, irrelevantly foreign. It was a different language: “Sides” wore “kits” and “boots,” played on the “pitch,” and held opponents to “nil” to the delight of “supporters.” “Ladies and Gentleman, Brazil have gone through.” Through what? To where? A game could end in a scoreless tie, as if it had never been played at all, and that was supposed to be thrilling?
I mean, don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends were soccer fans. Most of them had mullets, and they rooted for teams like Argentina and Italy. But I’ve always been a bit of a homer, and I couldn’t see what was so beautiful about the beautiful game, if it wasn’t mine.
Between 1950 and 1990, the United States simply wasn’t part of the World Cup. And when the U.S. finally started to qualify again, and then hosted the tournament, in 1994, it just felt like we were having someone else’s party at our place. They even let us win a game for our trouble. I figured soccer was just one of those few areas—you know, like affordable healthcare or math-and-science—where the U.S. just wasn’t among the world’s best. Besides, everyone knew the true football world champion is decided in the Super Bowl.
But for several years now, something has been coming, and Monday night, it may have arrived. For me, at least.
This World Cup has seemed like a particularly big deal, and not only because FIFA has been caught up in match-fixing scandals while host Brazil is facing protests against dubious cost overruns worthy of the Olympics. That just makes it more relatable.
When the draw placed Team U.S.A. in an opening round with top-five squads Germany and Portugal, as well as Ghana, the team that bounced the U.S. from the last two World Cups, it seemed right. Ranked 13th in the world, the Americans should hold their own in the foursome nicknamed “the group of death.” Ah, what’s more American than ridiculous sports hyperbole? And whoever thought you could hear the phrase “USA looks to vanquish nemesis Ghana” and get excited?
But most of all, the global affair has a local flavor. The U.S. squad features two Sporting KC stars: Matt Besler—an Overland Park native—is a mainstay of the U.S. team’s defense, while midfielder Graham Zusi arced a perfect corner kick against Ghana that produced the game-winning goal. Even one of the Cup’s unofficial anthems, a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” is by Kansas City’s own Janelle Monáe.
Team USA made a dramatic run through the first round four years ago, but Monday’s victory seemed to announce a new belonging. As commentator Alexi Lalas put it after the match, “something that had never happened, happened today, in the most American of ways.” Team USA has arrived.
Now it’s on to the next match, on Sunday afternoon—when football should be played—against a desperate Portuguese team. I’m a fan now—no, a supporter—and I believe that we will win.