The Yanks Are Coming!

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.

Bruce Arena took over coaching duties after the debacle in France, and under his tenure the United States has climbed to 8th in the FIFA rankings. The team now defends well, works hard, and makes few mistakes. Particularly noteworthy was the American performance at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, where Arena's team beat Portugal 3-2 and hammered Mexico, 2-0, in the second round. Only a narrow loss to Germany in the quarterfinals budged a team that, while short on skill, was long on athleticism and team spirit.

Arena's prospects next year's Cup do not look so sanguine. Only two of the four teams in Group E can advance to the second round, which means that the United States will need to take points off of either Italy, a traditional power, or the Czech Republic, currently ranked second in the world behind Brazil. They will have to do so without star players, and, perhaps more dauntingly, on European soil.

Nobody ever said winning the respect of the Old World was going to be easy.

America's struggle to become a power in world soccer is mirrored by the struggle of its fans to become . . . real soccer fans.

Back in 1994, when the United States hosted the World Cup, it was fascinating to watch the crowds at U.S. games. Far from packing the stadia, American fans were often outnumbered by those of the opposing team, who were generally noisier, rowdier, and more colorful. While the Brazilians waved their yellow-and-green flags and danced the samba in unison, American supporters looked like English attendees of Wimbledon: They sat in their seats politely, and clapped when a goal was scored. So much for home-field advantage.

But soccer fandom in America is evolving, too. I spoke to Mark Spacone on the day of the World Cup draw. Mark Spacone and John Wright co-founded Sam's Army in 1994 in order to organize fans of the U.S. national team. Sam's Army is still a small organization — they have just 10,000 members in their database — but Spacone and Wright have succeeded in giving a face to American soccer fans. Now, when the American team plays, members of Sam's Army travel to the game, and, believe it or not, act like real soccer fans.

Every major soccer nation has its own body of fans, and each has different characteristics. The English wave English flags, and never — even if England is losing — cease singing for their team. Wary of history, the Germans do not wave flags, but are still rowdy. The Brazilians dance; the Italians, accomplished ironists, whistle when one of their players makes a mistake, and applaud when a player of the opposing team makes a mistake.

Sam's Army is developing the profile of American soccer fans. You can visit to study some typical habits and behavior. Members are advised to wear red (though the U.S. team jerseys are white and blue) and photos on the site show numerous Army fans in full Uncle Sam costumes.

Yet despite the national team's mediocre showings at recent World Cups (the team has only won three matches since 1990), American soccer fans have turned out to be optimists.

At lovers of the beautiful game share their views on their favorite teams and players; it is one of the best places to observe the football cultural clash. American fans, perhaps with the overconfidence that comes from growing up in a land of such plenty, are already predicting victory over Italy and easy passage to the second round. Comparing the talent of the two sides, one American poster gushed, "Talent-wise I think [Landon] Donovan is as good [Francesco] Totti." For the uninitiated: Landon Donovan, a star of the U.S. team, tried to make it in Europe, but flopped badly and was sent home. He now plays in the MLS for the Los Angeles Galaxy; Totti can play anywhere.

European members of Big Soccer, especially the English fans, seem to resent the overconfident American fans intruding into their Old World territory where England, Germany, Italy, and France are still powerful and relevant.

But it isn't just the fans fueling this ill-will between cultures. Eddie Johnson, the young U.S. striker, recently told the press: "I don't think Italy is that good anymore." It was a statement far removed from the usual polite noises athletes make.

But for the next six months, all such talk is just banter. The real test will come when the U.S. team faces Italy and the Czechs in June. Then we'll be able to judge whether American confidence has penetrated the last bastion of the Old World, or whether, as Marcello Lippi or Karel Bruckner will be hoping, America is still the Gatsby of the soccer world, proclaiming a wealth it does not possess.

Stephen Barbara writes regularly on sports for the Wall Street Journal.
By Stephen Barbara