United States 1 Italy 1
Now that I've had some to think about the United States-Italy clash, I've come to the conclusion that the game deserves the status of classic.
Don't get me wrong. It will never be remembered as one of the all-time beautifully played games. It won't go down in history alongside such masterpieces as Brazil-Italy in 1982 or Holland-Argentina in 1998. There were no spectacular goals and hardly any sublime play. There was blood, red cards, and controversial officiating. It was messy and rugged, not artistic and breathtaking.
But don't be mistaken. This game will be remembered for a long time. United States vs. Italy. Kaiserslautern. 2006. The day the U.S., bloodied and reduced to nine men, held on to tie the favored, vaunted Italians and keep their thin World Cup hopes alive. In other nations more soccer-mad than America, folk songs would be written about such a heroic effort and passed down from generation to generation. It was Custer's Last Stand-type stuff.
In the days prior to the game, Eddie Johnson came under heavy scrutiny for describing the upcoming match with Italy as a "war" while speaking from an American Air Force base. The common perception was that Johnson needed a reality check and things put back in their proper perspective. Well, it turned out he wasn't too far from the truth. This was a war, so to speak. There were lines drawn in the sand. There were figurative casualties. And, oh, was there drama. And in the end, much like war, nobody won. It was a stalemate and everyone was exhausted and spent. The morning after. Only the wreckage could be seen littering the landscape.
Maybe I'm exaggerating, but should the U.S. advance to the knockout rounds, many an American fan will remember where they were the day we exhausted our last bullet holding off the surging Italians in Kaiserslautern.
Of course, as dramatic and horrifically lovely as the entire scene was, it cannot be forgotten that referee Jorge Larrionda did his best to ruin it all. Why this clown was even holding a whistle is beyond comprehension. How many times can a ref be suspended for corruption and "irregularities" before someone sensible says, hey, maybe he shouldn't handle games on the biggest stage? Or any game at all, for that matter.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the Italian soccer league is embroiled in an ugly controversy involving the bribing of refs. Meanwhile, Larrionda has been proven to be corrupt in the past and today he ejected two U.S. players and disallowed a U.S. goal. I'm not trying to jump to any damning conclusions, but it makes you wonder. If anyone would pay off a World Cup ref, it's probably Italy. They've cheated before and, judging by history, they'll cheat agin. They're cheaters. And if Italians don't like to hear that, too bad. Stop cheating and it won't be said.
I'm not blaming Larrionda, though. While Pablo Mastroeni's ejection was highly dubious, Eddie Pope's two yellow cards were each understandable, at least somewhat. Likewise, when Demarcus Beasely's goal was called back, Brian McBride was clearly in an offside position and obstructing Gianluigi Buffon in the Italian net. The calls could have gone either way, I suppose, which offers Larrionda at least the remnant of a credible alibi. Hell, even Marcelo Balboa agreed with the Beasely/McBride call and he was so incensed by Larrionda's earlier questionable decisions that his microphone was temporarily silenced. We can only imagine a litany of curse words while Balboa calmed down. Which I give him credit for. He's been far from a splendid announcer in this World Cup, but I can appreciate a true fan wearing his heart on his sleeve. Listen, we're in America, baby, and I'm not looking for objectivity from American announcers. I like knowing that Balboa is as equally fired up as I am.
The bottom line is that the U.S. played with balls. Whether they had any was a hot topic of debate after they played like ill-prepared, lifeless prima donnas against the Czechs. Suddenly, advancement doesn't seem so far away. Beat Ghana and let the chips fall where they may. It's that simple.
Hopefully, everything else works itself out.
Maybe the U.S. players were embarrassed after their opener. Maybe it was the insertion of Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey into the starting lineup. (Let's keep this, by the way.) Maybe it was a little help from the soccer gods when Italy's Cristian Zaccardo sideswiped the ball into his own net. Maybe it was the blood streaming down McBride's face. Maybe it was Casey Keller's heroic saves down the stretch.
Whatever it was, the U.S. saved face and kept the dream alive. And just in time. Now we can go back to discussing the U.S. team in the coming days without lowering our heads with shame. Our boys aren't the soft rejects we feared they might be at this time only yesterday.
United States vs. Italy. Kaiserslautern. 2006.
A line was drawn in the sand.
By the way, following De Rossi's heat-seeking elbows and the incessant Italian diving, it looks like my assessment of the dirty, cheating Italians wasn't too far off, eh?