Son-in-law Mike Bryson was willing to give me 60-to-1 odds the U.S. would not beat the Brazilian soccer gods in Sunday’s final of the Confederations Cup. The Americans had pulled off a couple of stunning upsets in the tournament, but Brazil was Brazil, designers of “the beautiful game,” winners of five World Cups, not to mention the defending champions.
Actually Mike would have given me 100-to-1 odds, 1,000-to-1 – didn’t matter. No way, he said, would the U.S., which had already been embarrassed 3-0 by Brazil in group play, come up with another miracle. Brazil was too rich in football heritage, talent, instinct, flare – you name it – to lose.
Mike should know. He played four years in college and competed on a semi-pro circuit in Germany in the 1990s. He coaches the Under-14 Ouray County kids. His calf muscles look like small melons beneath the skin.
I finagled an invite to watch the game up at their house. ESPN was carrying it live from South Africa, where the quadrennial World Cup will be in 2010. It was cold there, 50 degrees at game time. Some of the Brazilians wore black turtlenecks under their yellow jerseys. Some, including the brilliant midfielder Kaka, even wore little black gloves. I said the gloves looked funny on him. I pronounced his name Ká ka, with the accent on the first syllable.
“That’s Ka ká,” Mike corrected gently. “Is that why you say ‘Kaká’ when we’re out in the woods?” Cecily asked. “That’s his call when we’re out in the woods together.”
Brazil started slowly, and the U.S., in white, dictated the action early. In the 11th minute, midfielder Clint Dempsey subtly redirected a cross by Jonathan Spector, and the U.S. led 1-0. Whoa! What was going on here? It was the first goal Brazil had allowed in the last 315 minutes of play. It was Dempsey’s third goal in three games, having contributed to improbable victories over Egypt and, even more unlikely, world number-one Spain in the semi-finals.
Lightning struck again in the 27th minute. Diminutive U.S. veteran Landon Donovan stole a pass and counterattacked. He passed to Charlie Davies on the left wing. Davies returned the ball to Donovan who faked the only remaining defender into a spin, and put the ball cleanly by Brazilian goalie Julio Cesar.
“What a goal!” Mike said, surprise and hope rising in his voice. “I haven’t seen them play this well for a long time. Come on, guys!”
“A great goal,” the ESPN color man said. “A beautiful goal!”
At halftime, the TV people struggled to balance analysis (“The center backs are doing a good job of keeping their shape…”) with raw hope (“Could this be the ‘Miracle on Grass’?”). A win here would be the biggest ever for a country the New York Times called “still a developing nation in men’s soccer.”
The Confederations Cup is only the third most important tournament, Mike explained, behind the World Cup and the European Championships. But the U.S. had never even been in a FIFA tournament final before this. We’d never come close on the grander stage of the World Cup. And we were 1-13 lifetime against mighty Brazil.
A win here would be incalculably huge. Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. team member dressed in ESPN coat and tie, sounded the requisite cautionary note. “They (Brazil) are gonna come. We’ve got to batten down the hatches. Do the smart thing. Keep pushing forward and not sit back. They will come.”
Less than a minute into the second half, Luis Fabiano with his back to the goal trapped a ball at his feet, spun and fired a shot all in one fluid motion. “Goal,” Mike said even before Fabiano had received the pass. Two-one.
The Brazilians attacked in waves. Mike was nervous. “It’s just a matter of time. We’re sitting back. I guarantee they’ll score again.”
In the 74th minute Kaka surged into the penalty area, passed to Robinho, whose shot hit the crossbar. But Fabiano was there to head the rebound point-blank into the back of the net.
The U.S. fought to keep the score tied, to force an extra period. But the waves kept breaking, and the Americans were, as Lalas said, “running out of leg.” Howard stopped shot after shot, but in the 85th minute off a corner kick from the right, Brazilian captain Lucio out-jumped Dempsey and headed the winner home.
It was a brave showing. But there are no moral victories at this level. “We don’t want respect,” an ashen Landon Donovan told an interviewer afterward. “We want to win.” The U.S. women, in an admittedly smaller soccer world, have won their World Cup twice, while the men continue to struggle. U.S. coach Bob Bradley summed up the disappointment: “We continue to try to move ourselves forward. Playing these kind of games only helps, but it still feels pretty lousy to let this one get away.”
“The Brazilians, the Europeans,” Mike said slumped against the couch, “their skills are just so dazzling.”
Sometimes it’s a bitch to be right.