It’s hard to cheer too enthusiastically for a draw and even harder to pull for Cristiano Ronaldo, but the World Cup imposes curious burdens on the enthusiastic fan. America didn’t manage a draw today but, let’s say, perfectly gauged its 1-0 defeat to Germany to keep alive in the tournament. Portugal’s concurrent 2-1 victory over Ghana, courtesy of a Ronaldo winning goal, gave America the combination of points and goal difference it needed to go through to the knock-out rounds next week.
As the U.S. game opened, the German dominance evoked memories of the pithy law-school brief for the contracts chestnut Hadley v. Baxendale: “give the shaft, get the shaft.” For several minutes, it looked like die deutsche ’Schaft was going to give the United States the shaft. The Germans had kitted out in an away strip that looked suspiciously like Brazil’s famous Flamengo club, perhaps in a bid for local support, and they immediately poured forward in ominous waves.
After a tropical monsoon in Recife, the pitch was a boggy mess, and at times the ball moved around with all the zip of a geriatric game of lawn bowls. But Tim Howard’s sharp goalkeeping and several defenders’ tip-toe clearances were redoubtable for the United States. By the end of the first half, America had survived the highly mobile German attacks, as well as some gratuitous back-checking by the referee.
Meanwhile, in the other game, Ghanaian defender John Boye shinned in a gormless own-goal in the 31st minute to leave his team 1-0 down to Portugal. A draw in that game would have been the best result for the United States, but a Portuguese win was preferable to a Ghanaian win because of goal difference. So all looked comfortable.
Until the 55th minute. In the space of about 90 seconds, the Germans scored to go 1-0 up against the United States, and Ghana equalized 1-1 with Portugal. Suddenly, Ghana were just one goal away from knocking America out on the third World Cup tie-breaker: more total goals (they would be tied on points and goal difference).
I switched over to the other game to wait in dread for another Ghanaian goal, and that match made for tough viewing. First, bile had to be swallowed to cheer Ronaldo. Next, in the 61st minute, Waris missed a sitter right in front of goal that could have sent Ghana through at America’s expense. Then, in the 78th minute, a Portuguese defender hauled the shorts of Jordan Ayew so hard the poor fellow was left flapping in the altogether. At long last, in the 81st minute, Ronaldo (sans inspirational coiffure) put Portugal back in the lead, easing all of America’s travails.
In the end, Germany won the group with 7 points, Ghana took home the wooden spoon with 1 point, and the United States and Portugal tied on 4 points with America prevailing on superior goal difference. So despite our loss to Germany, we ultimately owe our success to Germany’s initial 4-0 sinking of the Lusitanians.
For America, Omar Gonzalez put in a terrific performance as a defensive replacement for Geoff Cameron, plucking several lethal crosses off the toes of German forwards. Michael Bradley, on the other hand, bumbled his way through a dire outing. His touch didn’t just let him down, it let all of us down: a pair of times on the edge of the German penalty box, once inexplicably in acres of space. I don’t know if Omar was a relative, but the good general might have been appalled at such a display against the Hun.
Speaking of Flanders Fields, our next game, in the Round of 16 on Tuesday, July 1, at 3:00 pm Eastern, is likely to be against Belgium. Sure, it may be difficult to gin up much fear of the Walloon Menace or a country that Monty Python deemed narrowly superior to Finland when going abroad. But the Red Devils are stacked with exciting young players, each of whom seems to be the best player on his club team. But America has the strength and athleticism to shut down the dynamic Belgian attack – so it may be time to start practicing penalties.