SAO PAULO, Brazil — When he discussed Thursday morning’s planned scrimmage against Belgium, U.S. national soccer team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said the informal match made perfect sense because the Belgians were staying “just around the corner.”
Nothing is just around the corner is this city.
Bursting with humans, highways and high rises, even the most straight-forward plans are complicated. The Belgians learned this upon arriving Tuesday and setting up camp at Paradise Golf and Lake Resort, some 40 miles east of Sao Paulo.
Around here, 40 miles could take four days.
Coach Marc Wilmots assessed the daunting task of traveling into the city to play the Americans — for a game with unlimited substitutions and closed to fans and reporters — and called Klinsmann to share his concerns. They agreed to cancel the match, which was due to be played at Sao Paulo FC’s headquarters, the U.S. base for the duration of its Brazilian World Cup odyssey.
“I don’t want to sit on a bus for five hours,” Wilmots told the Associated Press.
With nothing at stake, the travel would have been more detrimental than beneficial to the Red Devils’ cause. Belgium is pegged to breeze into the knockout stage and test the traditional favorites.
Even though Thursday is a national holiday, marking the opening day of the month-long tournament, traffic is a daily aggravation for residents.
So instead of a 90-minute game in the morning and gym workouts in the afternoon, Klinsmann will conduct two training sessions. The squad is scheduled to practice Friday morning before boarding a charter to the northeast city of Natal ahead of Monday’s Group G opener against Ghana.
The missed scrimmage did not seem to upset the U.S. delegation. The Americans had already played three competitive friendlies before arriving in Brazil, defeating Azerbaijan in San Francisco, Turkey in New Jersey and Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla.
One fewer game almost ensures a healthy squad, something most injury-afflicted World Cup teams cannot claim.
The Americans and Belgians could cross paths, after all. If, as expected, Belgium finishes first in Group H and the United States claims second in Group G, they will face one another July 1 in the round of 16 in Salvador.
In his first media availability since arriving, Klinsmann reiterated his belief the U.S. team cannot realistically expect to win the World Cup — something that contradicts the American ethos that anything is possible. He has said it several times since taking the job, though, and repeated it in a story that appeared in the most recent New York Times Magazine.
“I think we are getting every year another step forward. We are getting stronger,” he said Wednesday in a crowded conference room. “We don’t look at ourselves as an underdog, even if people want to put us as the underdog in this very difficult group. . . . And then we go from there. For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it’s just not realistic.”
He contradicted himself, though, giving the example of Greece winning the European Championship 10 years ago.
“Nobody from Greece would have said you are going to win the European Championship, but they did. Soccer is a beautiful thing; it’s unpredictable. You don’t know what happens.”
For the U.S. team, “we are not shying away from anybody. But first we’ve got to make it through the group. So let’s stay with our feet on the ground and get that group first done, and then the sky is the limit. Today, even before the World Cup starts, to say we should win the World Cup, it’s just not realistic.”
The German-born California resident then paused and said, “American or not American, I don’t know. You can correct me however you want.”
Landon Donovan, the U.S. all-time scoring leader who was dropped from the squad last month, responded on ESPN: “I don't agree with Jurgen. And as someone who has been in that locker room and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws [supporters group]: ‘We believe that we will win.’ I think that's the way Americans think, and I think that's the sentiment."
The current players did not seem bothered by Klinsmann’s comments.
“Look, we haven’t won a World Cup before, so you can’t go into the World Cup saying, ‘Oh, we have to do what we did in the past,’ ” striker Jozy Altidore said. “You come here obviously with that dream in the back of your mind. At the same time, you have to be realistic to understand there are some teams that are maybe a bit more favored than we are.”
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