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Cope: Welcome to the knockout round

David Cope
Vail, CO Colorado
HL GTK David Cope KA 03-02-09
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“America’s Got Talent!”

The DVR at the Cope household is set to record two things this summer: Casey Cope’s favorite show and all of these blessed games. Sometimes when I watch the show I question the premise inherent in its title, but after watching the American team in this World Cup, I fully understand what they mean.

The cardiac kid from California, Landon Donovan, performed late-show heroics for the U.S.A. and gave us another weekend where the country can have a firm rooting interest in the World Cup.



The fever is spreading, according to the pictures of the groups of people watching the games all across the country. I had one colleague call me and say that these were the first soccer games he’d ever watched that didn’t involve the Battle Mountain Huskies. Don’t miss this afternoon’s game at 12:30, mountain time, live from Rustenberg, site of the U.S.A.-England game.

American drama



This U.S. team certainly has a penchant for the dramatic late goal. The U.S.A., led by Donovan and Tim Howard, has been a great example to athletes of any age and any sport. They have dealt with adversity and bad calls, stuck together and remained classy throughout the tournament, refraining from faking injuries, diving and chasing referees around the field.

Now they face the last remaining team, Ghana, from the host continent, with a place in the quarterfinals on the line. The Americans have some amazing stories and characters – some you may know, others not so much.

The goalkeeper, Howard, has overcome – successfully managed is a better way to put it – Tourrette’s Syndrome to become a top class netminder in the best league in the world. During games, he has an intense focus that allows him a respite from the ticks and impulses that hound him.



A devout Christian and an overall good guy, Howard trained in Vail in 1995 before heading to the Under-17 World Cup at altitude in Ecuador. He was the backup goalkeeper on that team and the only member of that team still representing the U.S., demonstrating that predicting talent at a professional level is very difficult, even for top-level youth players.

The development from age 16 to 22 is as much about perseverance, luck and maturity as it is about talent.

The U.S. faced the challenges of poor defending, slow starts, defensive mistakes in each game and two vital goals called back unjustly. Then, with time slipping away in the last game and with elimination looming, a miraculous goal by Donovan and his, now iconic, Pete Rose slide into the corner flag sparked celebrations across this country and a dog pile from his teammates.

This was a truly great moment for U.S. Soccer that will rank up there with the famous Brandi Chastain celebration of her penalty in 1999 to win the Women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl.

Dad calls it

The England and U.S.A. group ended up the way one might have predicted but not without some amazing twists and turns along the way. In the end, the two favorites advanced, but England did it despite lackadaisical play in its first two matches, internal strife and criticism from the British press.

At the end of the day, the solution was simple, according to my dad, just replace Heskey with a forward who can score. Nice call, Dad. Jermaine Defoe came into the lineup and scored the single goal in a 1-0 victory that qualified them for the next round. We would have preferred 6-foot-7 Peter Crouch, “He’s big, he’s red, his feet stick out the bed, Peter Crouch,” but as the Rolling Stones once said, “You get what you need.”

Crouch may yet figure into off of the bench against Germany. Look for overtime in that one, as each game between Germany and England at a World Cup has ended drawn after 90 minutes, most famously the 1966 final which England won in extra time and the 1990 semifinal which Germany won in penalties.

The Germans haven’t lost a penalty shootout at a World Cup, so England will need to settle it before that happens, hence Crouch off the bench to score the winner.

Thursday brought a furious finish to the end of Italy’s reign as World Champions. I’ve been watching a few of the morning games at a certain Vail cafe that is near the end of one leg of my daily taxi route ferrying kids to activities.

I have to keep it as an undisclosed location because many of the other spectators I’ve been watching with are construction workers on a “break” from work. Suffice it to say, without incriminating anyone, that not many buildings will be finished this month.

Real shame for Italy

In an amazing piece of timing on Thursday, as Slovakia scored its third goal to send the Italians home, Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” came on in the cafe, with its appropriate lyrics, “Listen as the crowd would sing, ‘Now the old king is dead. Long live the king.’ One minute I held the key, the next the walls closed in on me.”

You could sense the end of the run for the Italians and even in the last throes, one of the Italian players feigned a punch in the face in an attempt to get the Slovakian goalkeeper sent off.

It was an ugly coda to a reign which has been less than honorable. Their road to the title in 2006 included the ugly elbow to the face of Brian McBride in the first round draw with the US, a blatant dive to win a penalty and eliminate Australia in the last minute of the second round and the sordid comments that provoked Zinedane Zidane to end his career and hand the World Cup to Italy in the final.

In 2010, the most memorable part of their World Cup was a dive to win a penalty to salvage a draw against New Zealand, yes, New Zealand, and finally this bit of play acting in a last ditch attempt totrick a referee which brought to mind another line from Coldplay, “Never an honest word, and that was when I ruled the world.”

Before their final curtain call, however, there was one piece of sheer class left. Fabio Quagliarella scored a goal with a sublime chip that simply arced over the goalie and into the top corner. It was a moment that hinted at what might have been if the Italians had been more courageous.

Incredibly, this was the only game that Quagliarella featured in, and this as a substitute. Perhaps the most exciting young Italian striker, the New Jersey-born Guiseppe Rossi, was left at home after electing to play for Italy over the U.S. and scoring goals for Italy last summer against the U.S.

After the flameout of the French, one had to believe that karma is real. The handball to qualify for the World Cup might have gone unpunished, but karma paid them back with a miserable World Cup capped by a humiliating loss to the hosts. If there was true justice in the world, South Africa would have scored four against France and qualified for the next round.

Nobel Prizewinning theologian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu seemed to have set them on their way declaring, “We are living in a fairly tale and we are going to score four goals.” Two up in the first half, one sensed that the archbishop might have some inside information but alas, it wasn’t to be and South Africa became the first host country not to advance to the knockout stages.

Soccernomics

Japan and South Korea both advanced, doing for Asia what the African nations were unable to do for their continent. What explains the lack of success for Africa? Simon Kuper, in his excellent book “Soccernomics” explains that many of the African countries have slipped further back from the rest of the world due to the poverty in their nations and the lack of a quality organization and infrastructure.

To Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule (the number of hours of focused practice needed to become truly world class at any endeavor, which Gladwell gave examples of in his book “Outliers”). Kuper adds the number $15,000, which is the GDP per capita needed for a nation to achieve success at the World Cup, unless that nation is Brazil.

On the last day of this round, Brazil and Portugal played out their group in uninspiring fashion with a goalless draw. Chile had a minor meltdown in a game that Spain used to get their World Cup back on track. With six points already in the bank, Chile still qualified, though with the unenviable consolation prize of Brazil in the next round.

Spain head for an Iberian Peninsula show down with Portugal. In a rematch of the second round four years ago, Mexico get Argentina in the next round. Their goal had been to get to the “quinto partido” (the 5th game), but Argentina will make that very difficult.

African nations have so much going against them but, remember, these are young countries and they may yet get it right. A century into our own history as an independent nation, the US also had racial violence, a two-tiered class system, stolen elections (Mr. Cope’s U.S. history students can tell you about 1824 and the Corrupt Bargain), a civil war and a very small middle class. The US figured out that freedom and prosperity can overcome strife and conflict.

With the help of young Americans travelling there to do good works it may yet happen in Africa. Vail Valley soccer coach Mike Feichtinger is over there right now and he e-mailed me about a trip to a field that was locked up, incase the turf would be stolen. When they unlocked the gates to the field, Mike and his fellow coaches were amazed at the spirit of the kids who came from all directions to share The Beautiful Game with them.

These kids, from the depths of global poverty, serve as a reminder that anything is possible. The words of one of the theme songs of this World Cup, by K’Naan, illustrate this hope, “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.”

Perhaps the legacy of this World Cup won’t be seen for another generation. And so the last African nation remaining, Ghana, takes on the USA on Saturday. You can imagine who the neutral fans in Africa, the FIFA officials and various referees would love to see advance. My advice to the American boys, don’t leave it to a one-goal margin because anything can happen.

Above all, believe in yourselves and remember, America’s Got Talent!

The veteran soccer coach at Battle Mountain, David Cope is the Vail Daily’s World Cup columnist. He will be in a zen-like state of readiness for today’s American match and Sunday’s England-Germany tilt.


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