The Yanks Are Coming!

soccer ball graphic
This column was written by Stephen Barbara.
Marcello Lippi, head coach of the Italian national soccer team — known worldwide as the "Azzurri" — cut a dapper figure at the draw for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which took place last Friday in the east German city of Leipzig.

Trim, tanned, and silver-haired, Lippi learned that three-time world champions Italy would face the Czech Republic, Ghana ("the Brazil of Africa"), and the United States in the group stage of next summer's World Cup, which will be held across 12 German cities from June 9 to July 9.
His Group, E, is the only one to contain three teams in the top 12 of the FIFA world rankings. Arguably more competitive than Argentina's Group C, it was dubbed by some the Todesgruppe — the Group of Death.

Every four years, the World Cup takes place. And every four years the Cup is preceded by the draw, which usually produces one of these ultra-competitive groups. Some say it's pure luck (or ill-luck); others, conspiracy theorists perhaps, suspect that FIFA rigs the draw for its own dark purposes.

The World Cup draw, however, is about entertainment as much as soccer. Co-hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum and German television personality Reinhold Beckmann, the pre-draw extravaganza featured Hans Klok ("world's fastest magician"), who made the World Cup trophy appear from thin air, and Colombian pop sensation Juanes. It also featured many tasteless jokes about Heidi Klum and balls. The draw was conducted using them, and former England striker Gary Lineker made the first crack for the BBC: "We're happy to have Heidi Klum controlling our balls."

More enlightening were the reactions of the national team coaches to the results of the draw. In Italy there is a phrase, fare drammi, to describe the Italian pastime of drama-making. Coach Lippi might have indulged it after his team's unkind draw, but opted not to ("Lippi non fa drammi," the Gazzetta dello Sport crowed). He remarked: "We knew we'd be facing some tough matches even before the draw. That's not a big problem. We're improving all the time and we'll be even better by the time the tournament starts." Formerly a highly successful coach of the Italian club Juventus, Lippi carries himself with an air of cultured experience and knowledge.

Not that he knows everything. When asked by a reporter which American players worried him most, Lippi paused, appeared flustered, and said: "I do not name names." Czech coach Karel Bruckner was more forthright: he confessed to not knowing the names of any of the American players.

For Bruce Arena, the Italian-American coach of the U.S. team, these sly digs from the Old World serve as inspiration. "I'm optimistic that we can qualify out of the group, no matter what anybody else thinks," he said brusquely. But Arena knows it won't be easy. If his team does make the second round, he has already told journalists where they'll be able to find him — at a German bar, celebrating with drinks.

The United States is still searching for respect in the world of international soccer. Rich and powerful though America may be, the traditional European and South American soccer nations remain the rulers of the game. But our side has been making progress.

Fifteen years ago, at the 1990 World Cup, then-U.S. coach Bob Gansler brought a group of young college players to Italy for the finals. The U.S. team's draw at that Cup was similar to their draw for next year: Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Austria. In its first game, a nervous-looking U.S. team lost 5-1 to the Czechs. Against host Italy, the Americans spent the entire game bunkered in their own half, and managed to lose only 1-0, after Gianluca Vialli missed a penalty kick. A third loss, to Austria, followed.

Then came the 1994 World Cup, which America hosted. After a creditable tie with Switzerland and a delightful win over Colombia, the Americans lost in the second round to the street-smart Brazilians, who used all their wit and skill to nip a 1-0 victory, despite playing with only 10 men for much of the second half.

No shame in that — Brazilians are the kings of world soccer — but four years later disaster struck. At the 1998 World Cup, in France, the U.S. team lost all three of its games, including an embarrassing defeat to Iran. The poor performance highlighted a worrying fact: America had yet to win a World Cup match on European soil.