ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The New York Times called it a miracle on grass, a two-to-nothing victory by the U.S. men's soccer team yesterday. They beat the top-ranked team in the world - Spain. That victory sends the U.S. into the finals of the Confederations Cup Tournament in South Africa on Sunday. Their task won't get any easier - the Americans now have to play Brazil.
And speaking of miracles is Stefan Fatsis who talks with us about sports and the business of sports almost always on Fridays - joins us on Thursdays right now. Hi, ya.
STEFAN FATSIS: Imagine that, Robert.
SIEGEL: At least one Thursday. The miracle on grass, a reference to the miracle on ice in the Olympics hockey game over the Soviet Union. Is it really comparable? Is it that big a deal?
FATSIS: You know, those hockey players were amateurs going against the very best players in the world, and the gap is not that big today in soccer. Sixteen of the 23 players who are on that Confederations Cup U.S. roster play professionally in Europe. The U.S. is solidly in the second tier of world soccer, along with countries like Turkey, Paraguay, Mexico, Greece.
Having said that, Spain was the 2008 European champion. It had won a record 15 straight matches, hadn't lost in 35 matches going back to November of 2006. It sent its A-team to South Africa for this tournament, so, no, not a miracle, but still one of the greatest victories in the history of U.S. soccer.
SIEGEL: One of the greatest. There is a catalogue of great wins by U.S. men's soccer?
FATSIS: There sure is if you're a U.S. soccer fan. I'll give you a few -several games from past World Cups. The 1950 World Cup, the U.S., basically a bunch of college kids and immigrant workers, they beat England one-to-nothing. That was more like the miracle on ice. 1994, again, a bunch of some professionals, some amateurs beat Colombia, 2002 beat Portugal.
But this Confederations Cup performance does mark the first time that a U.S. men's team has reached the finals of a global tournament. And the Americans did it by playing tactically, aggressively, neutralizing a supremely gifted, talented Spanish offense.
SIEGEL: And the long shot here wasn't just beating Spain, it was getting into the game to play Spain.
FATSIS: Yeah, that's really the amazing story here, because the U.S. played terribly and losing the first two games in the opening round of this tournament to Italy and Brazil. Then they had to beat Egypt by three goals, and Brazil simultaneously had to beat Italy by three goals in order for the U.S. team to advance. It happened. And then the U.S. played better than I've ever seen a U.S. team play.
Now, I've always said it's going to take decades for the U.S. to join the world soccer elite. I think the win over Spain will be seen as a significant milestone, and if nothing else - I just wrote about this today for Sports Illustrated's Web site - it's forced a European soccer establishment and European fans, who have been dismissive of the U.S. in the past, to tip their caps.
SIEGEL: Now, another soccer story. We reported last week that during a match in South Korea, some Iranian players wore green armbands that would be an apparent support of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition presidential candidate in the disputed elections. Now there are reports that as many as four Iranian players have been banned from the team.
FATSIS: Yeah, it looked like they were wearing some green tape that was wrapped around their wrist. And apparently seven players did it and they did it in the first half and then took it off at halftime. Among them was a player who had scored a goal to beat the United States at the 1998 World Cup, after which Iran's leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, told the players that the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands.
Different times now. FIFA, soccer's world governing body today asked Iran's soccer federation for an explanation about the team's expulsions. It's a reminder that politics and soccer are never far apart.
SIEGEL: And a completely different sport - basketball. The NBA draft has begun, what's happened?
FATSIS: First pick, Blake Griffin, a versatile forward from the University of Oklahoma. He was selected by the perennially rebuilding the Los Angeles Clippers. Going second to the Memphis Grizzlies was center Hasheem Thabeet from Tanzania and the University of Connecticut. And the third pick was Arizona guard James Harden, he went to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.
FATSIS: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's Stefan Fatsis, who joins us to talk about sports and the business of sports usually on Fridays, but we made an exception today.
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