No sporting event on the planet matches the World Cup for arousing national passions.
With its rich network of immigrant communities, Boston has been the site of more than a few patriotic hurrahs and heartaches since the quadrennial madness kicked off two weeks ago in South Africa.
This time around, even U.S. fans have suffered their share of near heart-attacks.
Riding a superb goalkeeping effort from Tim Howard, the U.S. team tied powerhouse England 1-1 in its opening match in Rustenburg.
A fourth-minute goal after a clinical series of passes by the sons of St. George augured poorly for their colonial cousins but the game changed dramatically after the British keeper, Robert Green, mishandled a spinning two-hopper from Clint Dempsey that skittered off his gloves and across the line.
Green desperately tried to claw the Jabulani ball back into his arms but the damage was done. “Red, White, and Green” and “The Hand of Clod” would soon be emblazoned across the front pages of the unforgiving London tabloids.
After the U.S. goal, the contest blew wide open, with surges up and down the field accompanied by the constant buzzing of vuvuzelas in the stands. Howard repeatedly parried blasts from the concrete boots of the English footballers and even absorbed a sliding forward’s cleats to the chest. The U.S. bent but didn’t break, winning a valuable point for the tie.
After stunning the 8th-ranked Britons, the U.S. roared back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to tie Slovenia 2-2. The shaky first-half defense yielded two goals to the smallest nation to qualify for the 32-team tournament, but the U.S. rallied after the break to score twice and nearly win on an 85th minute goal by Maurice Edu that was disallowed on a phantom foul call.
The tying goal was scored on a poke shot by Michael Bradley, son of team coach Bob Bradley, off a bouncing header laid into his path by the powerful U.S. forward Jozy Altidore, a first-generation Haitian American.
Quite naturally, soccer fans complained all the way to the top. “I haven’t seen the replay, but I’ve had 43 text messages from people who did, and they didn’t see a foul, either,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “We’ll ask, but they’re not required to tell us.”
A win in its final opening-round match on Wednesday against Algeria will send the Americans through to the single-elimination round of 16. The Americans also could advance if they tie the Algerians while England draws Slovenia, provided the U.S. maintains its advantage in goals scored over the English, currently 3-1.
“Now we have to win,” Donovan said. “Period. End of story. My guess is there’s not many teams in this tournament that could have done what we did and arguably won the game. And that is what the American spirit is about. And I’m sure people back home are proud of that.”
Howard, a star net-minder for Everton in the English Premiere League, anchors a Yankee squad that includes players with Nigerian, Haitian and Mexican ties. Howard, the son of a Hungarian mother and African American father, tops off the rainbow line-up, ranked 14th in the world.
“We can still get through,” Howard said. “Being down 2-0 in a game, I’ve played long enough to feel very lucky and fortunate to come out of it still in the World Cup.”
The U.S. side mirrors in some respects the multi-ethnic team that defeated England 1-0 in a 1950 World Cup upset in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The winning goal came off a diving header by Haitian émigré Jean Gaetjeans, a dishwasher and student who was later to disappear after being picked up by Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s feared Tontons Macoutes machete militia. The long looping pass to Gaetjeans came from the son of Italian immigrants, Frank Borghi, a hearse driver who grew up in St. Louis with baseball greats Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola.
That game was a fluke heard round the world, not to be repeated. As immigrant communities dwindled and club teams folded in the post-World War II period, soccer in the States declined even further.
But 60 years later, the U.S. has finally won some respect. Its coming-out party occurred last summer at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, a warm-up for the World Cup, where the Americans, led by Altidore’s scoring, defeated Spain, champions of European football and ranked number one on the world, before falling to Brazil 3-2 in the championship match.
The harsh reality of such global tournaments is that there’s always a great team waiting around the corner. In South Africa this time, it could be three-time World Cup champion Germany.
Stay tuned: More near heart-attacks ahead.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.