If the United States stood to become the world's only remaining superpower, it remained a 98-pound weakling on the world's most celebrated athletic stage, the World Cup, which eschews Olympian brotherhood fantasies for bare-knuckled competition. Qualifying for their first World Cup since 1950, the Americans went away quietly with three pool losses, including a 5-1 drubbing from Czechoslovakia, which had just escaped Soviet domination with much love for Americans and their money.
By now, the world has changed quite a bit.
The United States is viewed as a rogue power and its soccer team, only 16 years ago a motley assemblage of semiprofessionals and college kids, now is a contender of high-level international stars, if not a favorite. Czechoslovakia has broken into two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
And when this mature U.S. soccer outfit met the split-off Czech team in the 2006 World Cup opener for both teams June 12, the Americans still couldn't keep up. The Stars and Stripes mounted few attacks, the Czechs twice broke through a ragged American defense for easy goals and this wipeout ended in a 3-0 Czech victory.
The 2006 World Cup is taking place in Germany. The Yanks are coming -- but they need to come fast now. If the FIFA world rankings are a reliable guide, the U.S. landed in by far the toughest pool. The Americans need to beat a top-notch Italian side Saturday for any decent chance of advancing to the knockout rounds.
Following the opener, U.S. coach Bruce Arena went so far as to single out two of his stars, Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley, for their lack of production. Only American captain Claudio Reyna came close to a score, hitting a post late in the first half. Eddie Johnson came in at halftime and took two good stabs at the goal, missing high on one and wide on the other. The Americans hardly gave Czech goalie Peter Cech a chance to demonstrate why he's regarded as one of the world's best.
The Americans played a remarkably flat game in view of the stakes, which makes one wonder about distractions. How can the U.S. team be distracted at the World Cup? Who knows? But we do know the Americans face enormous hostility, not just because of the war in Iraq but due to a threatened change of order in the soccer world, where the strong man of power politics is a traditional pushover.
Perhaps now that the U.S. has lost for the eighth time in as many tries in World Cup games on European soil, that heat will ease. But tournament officials are leaving nothing to chance.
Wherever the U.S. team travels, armed police escorts pave the way for the only team bus not to display its national flag, lest some whack job should attempt a political statement over its dead bodies. Imagine the hostility toward the United States if the Stars and Stripes actually win this tournament.
It's a long shot, of course. Germany, the 1990 winner, expects a reprise on its own soil. England, despite a bizarre injury saga involving Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, is well loaded for its first cup since 1966. Brazil defends the cup, having appeared in the last three championship games and winning two. Argentina eyes a return to prominence it hasn't enjoyed since its last title game appearance in 1990. Portugal wishes to right the shortcomings of its recent World Cup history.
The tournament is wide open, though probably not until the knockout rounds begin in a week. For now, the eight pools of four teams each mostly are set up with two clear favorites for advancement to the 16-team thrill ride.
Just eyeballing the groups and the FIFA rankings, the teams to advance figure to be Portugal (ranked 7th) and Germany (19) from Group A, England (10) and Sweden (16) from Group B, the Netherlands (3) and Argentina (9) from Group C, Mexico (4) and Portugal (7) from Group D, the Czech Republic (2) and the United States (tied 5) from Group E, Brazil (1) and Japan (18) from Group F, France (8) and South Korea (tied 21) from Group G and Spain (tied 5) and Tunisia (tied 21) from group H.
Again, though, the Americans are in an especially tough pool, and they didn't help themselves in the opener. Group E not only is the only set including two of the top five teams, but no other group includes three of the top 20. In addition to the U.S. and the Czech Republic, Group E features No. 13 Italy, the three-time World Cup champ.
So the path is difficult for the Americans, not just because of external circumstances but because the competition in their group is stacked. The presumed bottom team from Ghana is ranked 48th, the second lowest of all the World Cup participants, but that hardly balances the scales.
Looking to Saturday, it's widely thought the Americans are fast enough to beat Italy, the only side on which all of the players participate in their country's top league. The Italians played a dangerous, aggressive game early in their Monday opener against Ghana, then settled into a defensive posture.
The Italians escaped with a 2-0 win, scoring their first goal on a corner kick, then clinching with a breakaway goal in the 83rd minute. Twice in the last 20 minutes, Ghana players were pushed or tripped in vicinity of the Italian goal, but Italy suffered no calls.
At this point, the U.S. must beat Italy and Ghana and hope for a positive goal differential to push them into the second round -- though this 3-0 loss makes it unlikely the U.S. will benefit from goal differential.
Evidently, this year's trip to the World Cup will be short for the Americans.