It’s about time
Fans eager for US-England rematch — 60 years later
IRENE, South Africa — The bars are stocked across America, and the pubs are getting ready in England. A 70 1/2-foot billboard of Clint Dempsey stands near Penn Station in Manhattan, and there’s even a large poster of Landon Donovan in a store along Piccadilly Circus.
American soccer has never been more popular in the United States or its players more well-known across the world. And tomorrow comes the first competitive match between the United States and England since the great American upset at the 1950 World Cup. For one afternoon, millions will be watching from California to New York. Like never before in the United States, this is the sport’s moment.
“I don’t know what’s going to be better, at the bar with my friends back home watching it, or actually playing it, because it’s going to be special,’’ goalkeeper Tim Howard said yesterday.
On the first cloudy day since the US team started workouts June 1, the Americans practiced in Pretoria. Then their red-white-and-blue bus with “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Victory!’’ on the side made the two-hour drive to Rustenburg, where the big game will be played.
Thousands of tickets in refurbished 38,646-capacity Royal Bafokeng Stadium were purchased back in the United States for the match. Stevan Galich, a fan from Chicago, organized transportation for 350 American fans from Sandton, a north Johannesburg suburb, to Rustenburg. His party plans to meet outside the stadium with Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws, two supporters’ groups. They hope to offset the roar from English fans who usually travel with their team in large numbers.
Donald Gips, the US ambassador to South Africa, said FIFA estimated 132,000 tickets for the tournament were bought in the United States, the most in any nation outside the host.
Interest ratcheted up last June when the Americans upset Spain in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm-up tournament in South Africa. The Americans ended the European champion’s streaks of 15 wins and 35 unbeaten games. The December draw boosted it even more when the United States was matched with England.
It’s far different from 1990, when the US team returned to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years and few American fans made the trek to Italy. There wasn’t much to root for, with the US losing three straight games.
And with growth comes responsibility. When the United States went 0-3 at the 1998 World Cup in France and finished last in the 32-nation field, the blowout created turmoil in the American soccer community.
Following a run to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, where the United States opened with a 3-2 upset of Portugal and beat Mexico in the second round, 2-0, there were great expectations for the 2006 tournament. But the team had another winless flop (0-2-1).
Reaching the final eight was the best finish for the United States since it advanced to the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930. Playing England, with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and John Terry, is a chance for American players to measure themselves against some of the best and most celebrated players.
Nine of the 23 players on the US roster were with English clubs last season, including Donovan, so the teams know each other well. And the supporters have a fairly good knowledge, too. That’s why this match has captured public imagination on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I think the cultures are similar, which is probably the biggest reason why,’’ said American forward Jozy Altidore, who spent last season at Hull.
While the US team is 2-7 against England, eight of those were exhibitions. The only one that really counted was the meeting in the 1950 World Cup, won famously 1-0 on Joe Gaetjens’s goal in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Altidore says his sprained ankle has improved, but he left the impression it hasn’t 100 percent healed ahead of tomorrow’s game.
The 20-year-old forward hurt his right ankle in training June 2 and missed last Saturday’s exhibition win over Australia. He resumed full training Tuesday.
“It’s getting better for sure,’’ he said after practice yesterday. “I didn’t think I had anything that serious to the point where I’d have to be relieved from the tournament, so I’m happy about that.’’