Today’s World Cup knockout game against Belgium is the reward for years of suffering and patience.
FIFA likes to pitch the World Cup as a tournament for every team in the world. The qualifiers aren’t really qualifiers. They’re part of the tournament. The field of 32 is in the World Cup finals.
For a country like American Samoa, as chronicled in the must-see film Next Goal Wins, any game with “World Cup” in the name is a wonderful event. But for the United States, qualifiers are anything but festive. They’re painful experiences that fans watch between the fingers over their eyes. The relationship between fans and the team through the qualifying process is deep and yet fragile. “We love you,” fans will say, “but in the name of Joe Gaetjens and Earnie Stewart, do not lose this game!”
Nor are qualifiers routine. The fretting over England missing the group stage for the first time in eons left out one important historical note — England didn’t qualify for USA 1994 at all. And that was a team that had come within penalty kicks of making the final (the two-team final, not the 24-team final) in 1990.
That’ll happen to the USA one day. It nearly happened to Mexico this time around, and you saw in this tournament the kind of soccer Mexico is capable of playing.
At this moment, we’re well past all that. The roller-coaster of qualifying is forgotten for now. And the USA slogged its way through the Group of Death with one exhibition of resilience and spirit, one truly outstanding performance, and one weary last stand. This team has met every reasonable expectation anyone could have.
And now, this team is ideally placed. No burden of being the favorite. It’s the classic American underdog story with the added incentive of knowing that the upset is there for the taking. The USA may be the No. 2 team in this matchup with Belgium, but they’re No. 2 with a bullet. No one expects the USA to win this game (though I’m sure Michael Bradley would say otherwise), but everyone thinks it’s possible.
In so many U.S. games, both men’s and women’s, we have often feared that the team is playing for the future of the sport. Women’s soccer fans don’t want to think about where the sport would be if Megan Rapinoe hadn’t hit the perfect cross for Abby Wambach’s perfect finish three summers ago in a quarterfinal in Dresden, much less what would have happened without Alex Morgan and Amy Rodriguez’s goals to dispatch Italy in a last-ditch qualifier the year before. The men have had countless qualifying dramas through the years.
This year, soccer’s naysayers could hardly have faced a more emphatic rebuttal. The ratings are astronomical, and they don’t include the big public gatherings. Celebrity fans have emerged from every corner. The trolls are left with the argument that MLS doesn’t bring in all these fans, as if the people who spread out food for the Super Bowl watch every NFL game or the people who watch the World Series spend every weeknight riveted to a Diamondbacks-Marlins matchup. And they forget soccer’s diversity — MLS is part of a grand landscape that includes the Premier League, the Champions League, Mexican soccer, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, the NWSL and local teams all over the map.
Today, all those fans are gathering to watch and celebrate. They’re going without Belgian food and drink for a day with a little laugh. They’re cheering in public spaces both real and virtual. They’re defiantly chanting their belief, even if their brains tell them Belgium’s the favorite.
No one’s fearing a loss. The country is imagining what happens if the USA wins.
Just imagine …