Tim Howard in the rain, 2013. Photo: Steindy, via Wikimedia Commons.
Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it. For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions. (Third was not even worth acknowledging.) While other countries celebrated their silver or bronze medals with parties and parades, American commentators thrust microphones into the faces of the “losers” and asked, sotto voce and with unconcealed disappointment, “What happened?” or “What went wrong?”
But this time around, American irreality, with its dangerous admixture of heady confidence—recall that Times poll, which revealed that a majority of fans in only three countries believed their nation would win the World Cup: Brazil, Argentina, and … the USA?—and its obliviousness of “failures,” has not translated into terminal disenchantment with the U.S. team. Okay, they lost to Belgium, the smallest country (in terms of land mass) in the competition, but the goalkeeper, Tim Howard, put on one of the greatest displays in the history of international football. The team fought until the very end, scored a fine goal, and almost forced the game to penalties. Americans may have thought—absurdly? endearingly?—that their team was going to win the whole shebang, but when it didn’t, they were content to take their place among the multitude of also-rans.
This is extraordinarily good news, psychologically, philosophically, and maybe even in terms of foreign policy. In a way, it made the front page of most papers this morning. Few journalists reporting on the game, or on President Obama’s supportive tweets, failed to observe the good-spirited way in which the team’s fans, both locally and abroad, took the loss. If the U.S. can come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have to be No. 1 in everything, who knows how far this new humility will take it?
Of course, the loss was made easier to swallow by Howard, who broke the record for saves in a single World Cup match—and they were quality saves, to boot. Howard was by turns brave, acrobatic, positionally astute, commanding, and almost invincible. In Howard, Americans discovered a true hero … and he was a loser.
So now that Belgium, in the powerful form of Romelu Lukaku, has turned out the light, is another big switch soon to be flipped? Last night ESPN culled the highest overnight TV rating ever for a World Cup game. There were 25,000 at Soldier Field in Chicago, outdoor screens and crowds all across the country, riveted attention in offices, packed bars. Is the nation so fickle that France vs. Germany and Brazil vs. Colombia will now hold no interest?
All the signs point in the other direction—and FIFA is already mooting the possibility of the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 2026, smack in the middle of Chelsea Clinton’s second term.
Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.