U.S. Vs. England: This Time It Matters

The World Cup match between the United States and England is being called the biggest game in American soccer history. That is sheer puffery. It's just one of at least three matches the U.S. plays within its group, and if the U.S. loses, it still goes on. But millions Americans, and just about everyone in England, will watch this game.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Tom's family won't be the only one that's tuned into the match, because this match between the U.S. and England is being called the biggest game in American soccer history. Well, not so, really. It's just one of at least three matches the U.S. plays within the group. It's not an elimination game.

But millions of Americans, and just about everybody in England, will watch this game. NPR's Mike Pesca has a preview from South Africa.

MIKE PESCA: So it seems like England and the U.S. have worked out a sort of sporting deal. The team sports the U.S. invented - baseball and basketball -the English dont even bother with. The games the English invented, like cricket, are but a punch-line, what with wickets and googlies abounding.

This is the problem with soccer. The U.S. used to not care. Then they pretended not to care. But the Americans are pretending no more.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard is quite eager to beat the English at their own game.

Mr. TIM HOWARD (Goalkeeper, Team USA): This is everything that we dreamed of and everything that everyone has been talking about. And so we're just ready to kind of get it on and ready to see what we're made of.

PESCA: As a goaltender, Howard is relied upon to hold is line. As a spokesman, he usually doesnt hold his tongue.

Officially, this is just one game. Still, American midfielder Landon Donovan concedes that stateside it's a pretty important game.

Mr. LANDON DONOVAN (Midfielder, Team USA): If you're a casual sports fan at home, you might think that this was the World Cup final, U.S. versus England. You wouldnt know any differently. I understand that. I get that, and I know there's importance. But like I've said many times, we can win Saturday and not advance and I would be disappointed. We could lose Saturday and still advance, and I'd be equally as happy.

PESCA: Donovan is right mathematically. The top two teams in each four-team group advance, so why not the Americans and their one-time colonial overlords? But this doesnt fit the blood feud narrative that the English team is forced to deal with. If the Americans are eager to win in order to gain some attention back home, the English team has had to deal with a salivating public and a sometimes venomous media.

Days ago, Coach Fabio Capello ranted at photographers who were snapping pictures of players getting medical treatment. And a last-minute change of captains necessitated when Rio Ferdinand was lost to injury has been treated as if Wellington were relieved of command before setting in foot in Belgium.

New captain Steven Gerrard tried to sooth the savage media beast.

Mr. STEVEN GERRARD (Captain, Team England): And I first heard about Rio's injury and that I would be captain, obviously me emotions were very mixed. I am sick in the stomach for Rio because he's a fantastic player and a massive player for us. And I'm obviously deeply disappointed that he's not going to be available. But now it's my responsibility to lead the boys out and I'm very excited and Im looking forward to it.

PESCA: In terms of skill, the English are better - they just are. Eight members of the American team play in England, seven in the Premier League. This is usually cited as a sign that the American team is one of quality. But every English player's club team is in the Premier League and none would deign play Major League Soccer in the U.S. - well, unless his wife were a Spice Girl.

Clint Dempsey, who has the potential to be a catalyst for the Americans, plays for Fulham in England. There, he says, pressure is a way of life for good and ill.

Mr. CLINT DEMPSEY (Midfielder, Team USA): I like the pressure because it forces you to step(ph) to the occasion. But at the same time, if you're somewhere and you know that, hey, I dont have to stress every day - it's nice, it's relaxing, I can still go out there and Im confident I can do things - thats good too.

PESCA: The U.S. team certainly has high expectations for itself, but it's an undeniable advantage to have some control over that pressure gauge. In terms of pedigree, the English have the edge. But soccer is a strange game and upsets are not uncommon, and football is very similar.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Johannesburg, South Africa.

SIMON: And if you just can't get enough World Cup news, or if you still wonder what all the fuss is about, you can check out NPR's World Cup 2010 blog. It's called Show Me Your Cleats! And to get there, just head to NPR.org/cleats.

(Soundbite of song, "Spice Up Your Life")

SPICE GIRLS (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

SIMON: Mrs. Beckham and the Spice Girls. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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