The Week That Was Landon Donovan’s Goal

USA Today:

Here’s a video that marvelously compiles the national reaction to Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal at the World Cup yesterday, from Nebraska to Arizona to New York, and even to “some dude in Arkansas.” Look closely, you might see someone you know.

Charlie Corr at ESPN:

Emotions built as the clock ticked away Wednesday during the United States’ final Group C match against Algeria in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Which way would the tide flow for the U.S.? Would the Americans fall short once again from advancing through the group stage, or could they pull off the miracle goal?

In the 91st minute, the U.S. found that long-awaited clutch strike as Landon Donovan’s second-half stoppage time goal carried the Americans to a 1-0 victory over Algeria and first place in Group C.

The U.S. could not afford a draw, because also on Wednesday, England advanced through the group stage with a 1-0 win over Slovenia.

“It’s a match where both teams need to win, so it turns into a very wide open game,” former Chicago Fire and current U.S. head coach Bob Bradley said in the postmatch news conference. “Algeria is a very good team, skillful and well-organized, but the game now takes on a different tone just because of the need for both teams to win.”

If you were attempting to watch the two Group C matches simultaneously, there were some key sequences to pay attention to on both screens.

In the 20th minute of the U.S.-Algeria match, the Americans were involved yet again with another disallowed goal. Clint Dempsey was called for offside before striking the ball into the back of the net. But replays showed that he was level with Algeria’s back line.

Flip over to England-Slovenia, and in the 23rd minute England garnered a much-needed goal from Jermain Defoe to take a 1-0 lead. If things stood that way, with England topping Slovenia and the U.S. level with Algeria, that meant England and Slovenia would advance.

Back to the split-screen, in the U.S. match in the 57th minute, Dempsey hit the post off of Jozy Altidore’s cross. While that was going on, England’s Wayne Rooney had the ball one-on-one against Slovenia goalkeeper Samir Handanovic in the 58th minute. But Rooney’s strike hit the left post after the ball ever-so-slightly deflected off of Handanovic’s finger tips.

Aside from a near disaster at the start of the match — almost allowing a 6th-minute goal to Algeria — the U.S. created the better chances of the two teams. But the Americans were unable to finish.

From the U.S. viewers’ standpoint, they were grasping for any advantage, whether it was the U.S.’s match or Slovenia hoping to find an equalizer against England. Even if it meant an Algerian booking — Dempsey took a knock to the face from Antar Yahia in the 81st minute and Altidore was fouled from behind by Medhi Lacen in the 82nd, but neither foul (Yahia’s was not even called by the official) had any bearing on the match. Around the 90th minute of the England-Slovenia match, Slovenia had a few attacking moments to try and level things up.

But that little bit of assistance would not come. The Americans had to overcome this obstacle on their own, and Donovan came through with the tally.

Tommy Craggs at Deadspin

David Roth at The Wall Street Journal:

In the short run, the repercussions of Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal in the 91st minute against Algeria are pretty clear – the U.S. won its group and sealed a knockout round date with Ghana, the team that eliminated the U.S. from the 2006 World Cup. And yet focusing on the short run falls dramatically short of capturing the moment’s significance. More to the point, the goal was pretty awesome, and judging by the response to it – it nearly broke the internet and launched millions of high fives – Donovan’s improbable goal might’ve accomplished another improbable goal in turn: finally turning recalcitrant American sports fans into soccer fans.

“This was huge,” George Vecsey writes in the New York Times, “not because it put that foreign sport over the top, which is never the point, and not because it meant anything less about Algeria — a smaller nation and a skilled, competitive team — but because it felt like a sporting event that could unify America for a few screaming moments.”

All true, all well put, but perhaps most important of all: It was seriously, seriously exciting. “Remember June 23, 2010: the day the lame old ‘Soccer is Boring’ argument finally died in the U.S.,” the Journal’s Jason Gay cheers. “If you weren’t completely, utterly thrilled, exhausted and satisfied by Wednesday’s 1-0 Team USA World Cup thriller over Algeria, you’re a lifeless sports corpse.”

Stefan Fatsis at The New Republic:

The guy standing near me was crying, too. It was my new best friend, Ian Ainslie of the fan group American Outlaws, and after the fourth Foer brother — tell me that Landon and this blog’s editor aren’t separated at birth — scored the most important goal in American soccer history (later, Paul Caligiuri), tears were streaming down his face. Streaming, I tell you. Ainslie borrowed my notebook and wrote, “I don’t even have words.” I really think he couldn’t speak.

Inside Loftus Versfeld Stadium, the 90 minutes before bedlam were an anxious and frustrating referendum on US soccer. We had seen this movie before: the sloppy defending, the missed sitters. Jonathan Bornstein? Seriously? Here were my worries: a three-draw exit, capped by a nil-nil result, would rearm the wingnuts and the Reillys. More important, it would buzzkill what I gather is genuine hype and excitement — and good ratings — back home. Sunil Gulati told me before the Slovenia game that, while he doesn’t believe in tipping points, this likable team, this seriously ESPNed tournament and a bid-in-progress to host a World Cup presented a rare opportunity for the sport. I’m in the bag for Sunil, whom I’ve known for a long time. Backdated to 1984, he talked about a 50-year plan for American soccer; I’ve been yapping about a 20- to 30-year one for a while now. Fucking Jozy, I said. How do you not just tap that ball in?

And then it happened. Sunil cried, too. And he woke up this morning to escort Bill Clinton and shake the trees for votes from FIFA’s 24-member Politburo for that 2022 World Cup bid. (Clinton is the bid’s honorary chairman; he got a big cheer when his face appeared on the video board last night.) ESPN was assured another weekend of USA-fired ratings. And given that we’ve landed for the first two knockout rounds in the best group since the Beatles, the possibility for advancing further than any modern US men’s national team is real. Project 2010, anyone?

[…]

Anyone with a dust speck of knowledge of US soccer’s place in the world understands that the euphoria surrounding Donovan’s goal and the prospect for the US in this World Cup have nothing whatsoever to do with reinforcing American cultural might and everything to do with celebrating a long-time-coming (and still-not-there) American ascendancy in the rare place it hasn’t existed. Those chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” aren’t an expression of American superiority. They’re a foam finger in the world’s eyeball from a historically and justifiably overlooked, disrespected, disregarded second-rate soccer country. It’s all about redemption on the field, not politics off of it.

Daniel Drezner:

The USA’s thrilling, last-minute victory over Algeria yesterday seemed tailor-made for pushing the popularity of the sport in this country to the next level.  Americans like winners, but they really like last-minute, come-from-behind winners, and this American team seems to excel in that area.

On the other hand…. I’m not sure I really want Americans to care that much about what happens on a soccer field football pitch.  To see why, consider this Steven Erlanger story in the New York Times about how the French elite has reacted to that country’s ignominious exit from the World Cup:

The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who has often criticized the failures of French assimilation, compared the players to youths rioting in the banlieues, France’s suburban ghettos. “We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia,” he said in a radio interview.

While most politicians have talked carefully of values and patriotism, rather than immigration and race, some legislators blasted the players as “scum,” “little troublemakers” and “guys with chickpeas in their heads instead of a brain,” according to news reports.

Fadela Amara, the junior minister for the racially charged suburbs who was born to Algerian parents, warned on Tuesday that the reaction to the team’s loss had become racially charged.

“There is a tendency to ethnicize what has happened,” she told a gathering of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing party, according to news reports. “Everyone condemns the lower-class neighborhoods. People doubt that those of immigrant backgrounds are capable of respecting the nation.”

She criticized Mr. Sarkozy’s handling of a debate on “national identity,” warning that “all democrats and all republicans will be lost” in this ethnically tinged criticism about Les Bleus, the French team. “We’re building a highway for the National Front,” she said, in a reference to the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen….

Mr. Sarkozy himself called a meeting on the disastrous result on Wednesday, summoning Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot and Rama Yade, the junior sports minister. In a statement, he said he had ordered them “to rapidly draw the lessons of this disaster.”

Now, to be fair, there have been a few moments in the past when a US team has performed so abysmally on the global stage that it prompted a minor, ugly political kerfuffle (I’m thinking of the 2000 Olympic men’s basketball team).  Still, in order, here’s what I don’t want to see happen in the United States:

1.  Philosophers using a national team’s sporting performance to opine about the state of the union;

2.  Any politician blaming the performance of a national sports team on the country’s government;

3.  A Minister of Sport;

4.  A head of state summoning the head of government and other policy principals to discuss the broad socioeconomic lessons that can be drawn from the failures of a f***ing football team.

David Zirin at The Nation:

I personally felt almost a little drunk at the excitement of it all (which unfortunately may have come across on air.) The United States is not my favorite team by a long stretch. I’m an Argentina guy, myself. But I was reminded of the words of Eduardo Galeano, author of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, who said, “Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”

Yet after the show, I was reminded about why when the United States wins in international tournaments, it can bring a nasty undercurrent in its wake. I was listening to a DC sports radio show called the Sports Fix with Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro (Loverro writes a sports column for the Washington Times). Loverro was dismissive about the quality of the victory, saying, “When I think of Algeria, all I think about are terrorists and Abbott and Costello movies.” (Given what Algeria suffered at the hands of French occupiers, they probably have a different definition of terrorism.) The two then debated whether United States vs. Algeria was “a Grenada game” or “a Vietnam game,” comparing the soccer game to the two wars—Grenada of course being the easy win and Vietnam the tragic loss.

It reminded why these kinds of international competitions can leave me with such a sour taste. Why can’t we just recognize that Algeria played gallantly against a better US team, which won by the skin of its teeth? Why must an insanely miraculous athletic victory also be a reinforcer of cultural supremacy? It’s yet another reminder why it is so important for progressives to not just thrill to the joys of sport but be conversant in the politics of sports. The right will forever try to pump the worst kind of racist, nationalist garbage through our play, even at moments that by all rights should be above and beyond politics and just about the electric thrill of the moment. Especially given the right’s (and Loverro’s) contempt for “the beautiful game”, soccer of all things shouldn’t suffer the curse of being a cheap, political football.

Jonathan Tobin at Commentary:

In the NPR universe, the reluctance of the vast majority of Americans to embrace the so-called “beautiful game” is a symbol of our Bush-like arrogance and refusal to march to the same drummers as those enlightened soccer hooligans from Europe, South America, and even North Korea (whose representatives made the 32-team final in South Africa). For soccer lovers who see the sport’s minor-league status here as an affront to their globalist sensibilities, the World Cup is the quadrennial chance to boost its status, so the fortunes of the American team are a matter of deep concern to them. If the Americans succeed, as they have so far in this World Cup, then they hope that somehow this will translate into more prestige for U.S. soccer or at least a chance that the sports manifestation of American exceptionalism is in decline. Notwithstanding our sympathy for the boys running around the fields of South Africa in red, white, and blue, that is an outcome we should not desire. Soccer is just a game (albeit a boring one), and there’s no need for patriots to abuse it or its fans. But let’s just say that as long as Americans don’t share a common sports culture with Algerians and Iranians or even Europeans, we need not fear for the future of the republic.

But there’s the rub for hardcore leftists like Zirin, who hope that one day we will be no different than the rest of the world. Zirin wrote last week that the real reason that most Americans don’t like soccer is racism and looked forward to Glenn Beck’s dilemma when America was a World Cup favorite, as the right-wing broadcaster would have to choose between supporting the flag and his anti-soccer faith. But American successes, such as yesterday’s U.S. victory, provide Zirin with his own problem. In order for soccer to do well here, he’s got to root for the American team against Third World victims like Algeria (he admits he’s really an Argentina fan) and be subjected to jingoist soccer rhetoric about America’s “cultural supremacy” on sports talk shows. He confesses that is why international competitions leave him “with such a sour taste.”

While I find Zirin’s soccer evangelism as well as his aversion to rooting for his own country risible, he’s actually right about that last point even if he doesn’t follow it to its logical conclusion. While I wish the American World Cup team well, as I would any endeavor in which my fellow citizens represent our country, the business of wrapping team sports in national flags is sheer humbug. Which is why I despise the World Cup in the same way I detest other instances of sports globaloney, like the Olympics or our beloved national pastime of baseball’s own World Cup, whose absurd out-of-season international tournament has produced little interest here the two times it was played. It is far better to leave this nonsense to the denizens of Old Europe, unstable South America, and the despotic Middle East, whose one democracy, Israel, is not allowed to compete against its neighbors in soccer but must instead play against the powerhouses of Europe to get into the World Cup, and thus has never been allowed to participate.

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