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At exactly 3:30 a.m. on June 5th, I punched the “mute” button on my remote and listened to the sound of America sleeping. The U.S. had just beaten Portugal 3-2 in one of the World Cup’s biggest upsets, but there wasn‘t a shout of joy to be heard. In Portugal, where it was lunchtime, the silence must have been even more profound, fed by heartbreak, anger and shame. The State Department didn’t put out a travel advisory warning Americans off Lisbon for the next few days, but it might have done. The game meant so much to the Portuguese, and so little to most of us.

As Andres Martinez pointed out in The New York Times last year, soccer is the only form of global pop culture that doesn‘t bear an American imprint (although you can just discern the trace of an American sneer). In a way, this seems a good thing; the sport needs its naysayers, and the world needs its America-free zones. There is also the fear that if soccer ever does take off here in a big way, efforts will be made to transform it. Americans like to tinker with their sports (move a 3-point line here, add a time-out there), and they also need to break for commercials. But soccer is the most conservative game imaginable. The rules have barely changed in a century. And though fans bemoan low scores, they don’t seem to want to do anything about them. Not just at an official level, but at street-level too.

When I lived in New York, I used to play soccer in Tompkins Square Park, haven to the homeless and thin people with a fondness for needles. The games were bewilderingly multinational. Players would be referred to not by name but by country. “England” would pass to “Nigeria,” who would then dribble past “Italy,” and so on. We played on buckled concrete, in searing summer heat, observed by dozing junkies and unemployed mothers hunched over ramshackle prams. A few people smoked as they played, and everyone argued. Arabs (Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians) in particular would get into absolutely titanic rows, but we all did our share. And no wonder: The goal posts (two garbage cans, crammed with the stinking refuse of a hot summer‘s day) were placed so close together that it was extremely difficult to score. Attempts to do so almost always ended in frustration. Yet any suggestion that the garbage cans be separated by a few more inches was unanimously rejected. We wanted to suffer. Somehow, this attitude doesn’t seem very American.

Maybe not, but those guys tearing through the Portuguese defense, going up 3-0 after a mere 40 minutes, were definitely Yanks. Where do they fit in the global picture? The British journalist Simon Kuper wrote recently that soccer in America, with its bustling “soccer moms” and orthodontically perfect children, is a symbol of a happy suburban life. Immigrants aside, we‘ve turned the world’s premier working-class sport into a genteel, middle-class and often female pastime. So it‘s no wonder that the traditional soccer powers don’t take us seriously. But they may yet have to, as Portugal learned to its cost. America is so vast that a subculture here can still take on another country‘s national obsession.

Speaking of national obsessions, the most recent phase of the fierce rivalry between England and Argentina boils down to this: Argentina’s gripe is that England beat them in a war (the Falklands, 1982); England‘s is that Argentina knocked them out of the World Cup (Mexico, 1986) only because Diego Maradona cheated by scoring a goal with his hand. It says something about the importance people ascribe to soccer that these two grievances could be given almost equal weight. Yet they are.

England’s deserved 1-0 victory over Argentina wasn‘t a classic like some of their previous matches, but it was sweet revenge for David Beckham, who got sent off in their last encounter and scored the only goal from the penalty spot in this one. When some Englishmen started playing soccer in Argentina in 1891, the locals thought them crazy. “Ingleses locos,” they said, watching the pale Victorians chase a ball around the pampas. But over the years, the locals have outperformed the locos. They still use English terminology, however, with the center-forward referred to as “el centro-forward” and a “corner kick” as a “corner.” There is also a curious cultural attachment to England, breeding both admiration and resentment. Argentine soccer clubs bear such names as “Newell’s Old Boys” and “River Plate,” children are sent to private schools named “Northlands” and “Saint Andrews,” and the ceremony of “el five o‘clock tea” is upheld as solemnly in Buenos Aires as in any Kensington drawing room.

With Argentina’s economy in meltdown, this was a match the Argentineans needed to win for their beleaguered countrymen. But four years after Michael Owen‘s fantastic goal against them in the last World Cup, Argentina still had no answer for England’s fleet-footed wonder boy. “El centro-forward Inglese” had only to touch the ball for the defense to go into panic mode, as if suffering a collective flashback to France ‘98. And though he looks like the perfect English schoolboy, Owen has thoroughly mastered the dark and very Argentine art of conning the referee. He won England a dubious penalty in ’98, and fell to the ground as if he‘d been shot when he was tripped up in the penalty area this time. The truth is that the two sides have moved closer to each other. Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa admires the “nobility” (i.e., honesty) of the English game while the English take a more flexible approach to what they would have once condemned as acting. No wonder Diego Simeone, Argentina’s Machiavellian master of the flop and dive, spent the game looking confused.

England‘s victory strengthened the impression that being a favorite isn’t a good idea in this World Cup. Incredibly, France is going home without having scored a goal, Argentina is out and Italy is fighting for survival. Everything is running counter to form. The Brazilians, written off this time around, are playing with passion and flair. Senegal and South Africa, nominally the weakest of the African pool, have outshone glamorous Nigeria and Cameroon. Spain, dismissed as eternal also-rans, were the first team to make it to the knockout stage. Mexico won both its games, while critics‘ darlings Portugal got thumped by MLS upstarts and the Italians fell 2-1 to Croatia. And there have been tons of goals and a wealth of attacking play.

Could it be that attacking soccer is back in fashion? The fact that the English Premier League, a year-round goal festival compared to Italy’s miserly Serie A, is now the most esteemed in the world suggests this might be the case. Perhaps it‘s just that players have become so fit they no longer have to choose between defense and offense: They can dedicate themselves to both with equal enthusiasm. It’s been said of Brazil‘s attack-minded defender, Roberto Carlos, that he uses the left-back position only as “an address at which he can be reached in an emergency,” but those emergencies crop up 20 times a game. Blessed with enormous stamina, he can play two positions at once, and there are lots of players like him. The perfect example of defense turning into offense came in Salif Diao’s stunning breakaway goal for Senegal in its 1-1 tie with Denmark, the best strike of the competition so far. So good, in fact, it‘s hard to believe a better counterattack has ever been seen. Starting with a simple tackle and then a quick pass out by right-back Ferdinand Coly, the Senegalese swept down the field, spreading the ball among them with jaw-dropping precision and speed until Diao coolly slotted it past the Danish goal keeper. At that moment, it was hard to tell an attacker from a defender and Senegal looked like the best team in the tournament.

I’ve never seen a soccer match take place in the midst of a Maoist rally -- and I guess it‘s too late now -- but after watching the U.S. hold South Korea to a draw in front of 68,000 Korean fans, I have a pretty clear idea of what it might have looked like. Rabid nationalism is common to soccer stadiums the world over, but such utter uniformity of expression -- everyone in the place was wearing red and waving a Korean flag -- was new to me. Frankly, it was a relief when the Koreans finally equalized. If they hadn’t, the entire stadium might have committed suicide.

You have to hand it to the Americans: First they stunned a Portuguese side dripping with world-class talent, and then they kept their cool in conditions that might have rattled even the most experienced soccer players. This is shaping up to be the strangest, most exciting, least predictable World Cup in decades. Even if few people in America are paying attention, Americans are playing an important part in it -- which is more than can be said of the French. They were unlucky to lose to Senegal, they were unlucky to only draw with Uruguay, and they were almost laughably unlucky to lose to Denmark. Much the same could be said of Argentina. And they are both out of the tournament.#


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