Commentary: A victory today would erase years of heartbreak

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The New York Times called it a "Miracle on Grass."

Whatever it was, it was beautiful to watch.

In case you were not paying attention, the United States men's national soccer team beat Spain 2-0 in the semifinals of the FIFA Confederations Cup on Wednesday. Top-ranked Spain had tied the record of 35 unbeaten games set by Brazil from 1993 to 1996. The U.S. stopped it from reaching 36. Whether it was toughness, strategy or a matter of making its own luck, the U.S. won convincingly.

As I soaked up the glory radiating through the TV screen, I knew I was redeemed. I thought of all the times I wanted to give up on the U.S. team, and I was so grateful I never had.

Like a growing number of Americans, I have a history with the U.S. national team. I have been watching it since I was 10 years old. During the 1998 World Cup, the first one I can remember, I watched the U.S. team finish dead last. It lost to Germany first, which was easy to forgive, but then came losses to Iran and Yugoslavia. I was crushed.

On top of the humiliation of finishing last, I was forced to endure the unintentional insults of my grandmother as I dutifully watched the American team limp through the tournament. Each of her comments jabbed at my wounded ego.

"They're not very good, are they?" she said. "You know, they look like they just aren't as fast as the other team."

And the cherry on top of my suffering, "Well, just chalk it up to experience."

Oh, that one hurt the most.

It was a different story four years later in Korea and Japan. The U.S. clawed its way to a birth in the quarterfinals and lost a close game to Germany, the eventual runner-up. The 2002 World Cup was hailed as the turning point for U.S. soccer.

And yet, it was not.

The U.S. team made a brief appearance at World Cup 2006 in Germany and exited prematurely to drown its sorrows in the beer gardens. Three years later, with World Cup 2010 on the horizon, the U.S. has made its mark on the soccer world once again.

It does seem miraculous when you consider the facts. Against the elite teams of Italy and Brazil in the first two games of the tournament, the U.S. looked like a young team. Next came the absurd turn of events that gave the U.S. the chance to play Spain. It beat Egypt 3-0, and Brazil trounced Italy 3-0 -- the scenario required for the U.S. to advance to the semifinals.

Now the Americans face Brazil again in their first FIFA tournament final. Were it not for the exhilarating high of beating Spain, I would think the U.S. players still were feeling the 3-0 thumping Brazil put on them a little more than a week ago. But I am not worried.

The U.S. team demonstrated poise, confidence and determination against the Spaniards. These are qualities the Americans have lacked for a long time. They will need them to play with Brazil, a team with superior talent whose ability to create opportunities at a lightning pace is unrivaled. But if the U.S. demonstrates these qualities, it should be a good game.

And that is all I want.

I know the U.S. has not arrived as a force on the international stage. Everyone is cautious about making such claims after the disappointment following the success of the 2002 World Cup.

Still, the U.S. has shown glimpses of brilliance, which will give it confidence after this tournament. I am satisfied with that for now.

So if the U.S. loses today, let's just chalk it up to experience.

Alexander Stephens is a newsroom intern at the Southeast Missourian. You can e-mail him at:;

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