In the space of six days last week, the U.S. soccer team became a national sporting phenomenon, with audiences eclipsing the viewership of the NBA Finals (15.5 million), the World Series (14.9 million) and the Stanley Cup (some guy named René).
For the first U.S. game at the World Cup, nearly 15 million television viewers (11 million on ESPN; 3.8 million on Univision) and 1.5 million workplace skyvers (watching online) tuned in to see the USA beat Ghana with an exhilarating early goal, some unhealthy filling, and a spectacular late winner. For the second game, those numbers rose to 24.7 million television viewers (18.2 million on ESPN; 6.5 million on Univision) and 500,000 surfers, as the USA bossed their way back from a dire early goal to score twice against Portugal before coughing up a crushing last-second equalizer.
On Thursday, the U.S. team faces Germany in a match that most likely will decide their fate — if they lose, they could still advance if other circumstances occur — and America expects that every viewer will do their duty. On the East Coast, the noontime kick-off may demand a long, liquid lunch. On the West Coast, “morning traffic” could conspire to create a late start to the day. In Chicago, we like soccer, and 20,000 people have been watching the games in Grant Park, so no excuse is necessary. The Sunday-night timing of the Portugal match likely contributed much to its record-breaking numbers, but if television ratings for the German match don’t rise again, online numbers surely will. Especially considering office Internet speeds and WatchESPN’s picture-in-picture feature that allows viewers to follow both games at once.
The United States may not yet have reached the footballing passion of Uruguay, which has deluded an entire nation into impressively paranoid and shameless legal defenses of their beloved Suárez, such as “What bite?”; “Italians, meh”; and “What’s wrong with biting?” But the United States has come a long way from its qualifiers when, last September, the national team would have been grateful for anyone to care enough to ignorantly berate them for losing 3-1 to Costa Rica.
This World Cup really has had everything: last-minute goals, first-minute goals, spectacular headed goals, stonking volleyed goals, hat-tricks of goals, oodles of goals. Tiddlers defeating giants; giants defeating giants; tiddlers boring each other into nil-all draws. Vicious tacklers being red carded, gentle tacklers being red carded, savage nuzzlers being completely ignored. Preposterous haircuts; preposterous haircuts justified by Twitter as noble gestures; Twitter justifications promptly debunked; lots more preposterous haircuts. The first-ever water break during a game; the first ever dinner break during a game. And, best of all, a glorious, nerve-cheering absence of vuvuzelas. If you’re secretly football-curious, this is the tournament to embrace the compelling, entertaining, and toothsome, if not always beautiful, game.
Of course, the price we’ll pay for all this entertainment is an even more unrepentant Sepp Blatter and FIFA. Ah, well, bread and circuses have always worked for a reason.
So a word about the German game and the simultaneous match between Ghana and Portugal. The permutations of all the possible outcomes have been widely examined but, in brief: a win or a tie against Germany sends the U.S. through. A loss will have us cheering for a tie in the other match or, if that’s not in the offing, a narrow Portugal win. On no account must anyone bear in mind that Ghana still retains the power, albeit indirectly this year, to knock America out for the third World Cup in a row.
How will America fare? Well, there’s the ominous Manaus Effect: every one of the four teams to play in Manaus has lost its next game, as the inhuman heat of the jungle city appears to suck the life force out of visitors like an infectious parasite. And there’s the even more ominous German team, which sucks the life force out of its opponents like a German soccer team. Some may hope that the fellow countrymen managing the U.S. and German teams will produce a mutually satisfying draw through a Klinsmann-Löw non-aggression pact. I’d like to believe in that myself, but it always reminds me of the last one between Molotov and Ribbentrop.
My suspicion is that Germany will do us no favors, so I’ll hope for us to advance thanks to a fortuitous result in the other game. Again, two goalless draws would be perfect. Never have so many wanted so little from so few.