As everyone knows, the U.S. team lost to Germany on Thursday afternoon and finished with 4 points in their group. But that was enough for the Americans to advance to the Round of 16 by virtue of a better goal differential than Portugal. After hearing of Portugal’s 2-1 win over Ghana, which sealed the deal, the Americans celebrated with the fans, some of whom had walked miles to the stadium after torrential rains and biblical floods had made roads impassable for taxis.
What I found particularly fascinating was the struggle going on in the media to figure out how to report the results of the match. Many stories that appeared within the first couple of hours after the final whistle were somber. They led with the negative: the U.S. had lost; almost apologetically they added that the losers would still advance. Many stories began with the unnecessary rehashing of the baseless speculation that the two teams might have been tempted to play for a draw.
Here’s how USA Today reported it:
“So much for a gentleman’s agreement. On a day when both teams could have eased into the Round of 16 with a draw, the United States and Germany battled fiercely and physically for first place in the Group of Death. The Americans got through to the next round, although surely not how they had planned after a 1-0 loss to Germany.”
But as the result and the implications began to sink in, the tone of the stories changed, and with them, maybe something in the American’s complicated relationship to soccer changed, also. It was, in the words of NY Times sportswriter Sam Borden, “a loss that felt like a win.”
It was never going to be easy for the United States to survive the group stage. They had to play in Group G — the Group of Death — with Germany and Portugal (#2 and #4 in FIFA’s world rankings), as well as Ghana, the team that had knocked the U.S. out of the last two World Cups. They had to fly over 14,000 kilometers to their three matches, more than any other team; play an exhausting match against Portugal in remote Manaus on Sunday, and then face a German team on Thursday that had had an extra day to recover. It was a tall order, and although they didn’t win or draw against the Germans, they played well enough to keep the score low.
Somehow I think the sports culture in the U.S. has a hard time appreciating the accomplishment of losing well and surviving to play another day. We tend to like unambiguous victories and we celebrate winners. In the Olympics, the only color medals that get attention are the gold ones.
Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. team and a former star player (and later a coach) for the German National team, experienced a little bit of the American stubbornness about winning before the matches in Brazil even began. He was quoted in an interview for The New York Time Magazine saying “We are not at that level yet [to win the World Cup]. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible.”
Unbelievably, this generated controversy with many thinking this kind of attitude was defeatist. What’s the point of playing, they said, if you don’t believe you can win?
But Klinsmann is smart and patient. He seemed to understand where those reactions were coming from, and he didn’t overreact. Nor did he take leave of his senses and begin predicting that the U.S. Squad would be cruising into the finals any time soon. It’s a process, he said. It’s all part of the process. What’s more, Klinsmann’s objective assessment of the current level of the U.S. team was balanced by an optimism that many feel make him more American than German in temperament. Maybe the doubters should have read what else he had to say. In that same magazine interview he added, “Talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic… but Greece in 2004, nobody said they would win the European Cup, but they did. Football is not predictable. If we get through this group, the sky is the limit.”
And the U.S. did that. They fought and fought and in the end they got through the group. In the 2010 World Cup it took a miracle goal from Landon Donovan against Algeria. In 2014, it took a 1-0 loss to one of the best teams in the world and help from Portugal against Ghana.
Losing never felt so good.