IRENE, South Africa — American soccer players have been on magazine covers and the nightly news shows in ever increasing numbers. The World Cup is receiving unprecedented promotion in the United States.
"For the last six months all we've seen is U.S.-England," Landon Donovan said Wednesday. "And so, if you were a casual sports fan at home, you might think that this was the World Cup final, U.S. vs. England."
But it's not. Saturday's much-hyped game is just the beginning.
It's the first competitive meeting between the nations since the 1-0 American upset in the first round of the 1950 World Cup. Fans in both nations seem to be fascinated with the opposing team.
Well, that's natural given how much the U.S. and England are alike. As Winston Churchill said: "Two nations divided by a common language."
"It's an unprecedented moment, partly because of who we're playing, partly because of where the game is in the United States. Frankly, partly because of the promotion on television in Spanish and English," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. "So there will be a lot of people watching this game on Saturday, and it's one of those opportunities that we don't get very often."
England's stars are known from Broadway to Brighton. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry and other Premier League stars are seen even more on U.S. television than they are on British TV.
And top American players such as Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard have become well known in the Premier League, as familiar in the colors of Everton and Fulham as they are in the red, white and blue.
While all the buzz may be about Saturday's game in Rustenberg, U.S. players say are giving equal emphasis to their other two first-round games, against Slovenia on June 18 and vs. Algeria on June 23. The England game is primary only because it comes first.
"I think we have a good understanding about the way it works in the first round, with three matches determining who moves on," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "Our ability to move through those games and those situations is something that we have experience with."
Four years ago, the U.S. was routed 3-0 by the Czech Republic in its opener. Even with a 1-1 draw against Italy, the Americans still had a chance to advance. Only with a 2-1 defeat to the Ghana was the United States eliminated.
Players know that a team has a good chance to reach the knockout phase with four points and almost surely will with five. Players say they won't get too high or too low after the opener.
They think back to last year's Confederations Cup, when the U.S. started with a 3-1 loss to Italy and a 3-0 defeat against Brazil. To reach the semifinals, the Americans needed to beat Egypt by at least three goals while the world champion Italians lost to Brazil by at least three. The U.S. responded with a 3-0 victory, and Brazil won by the same score.
Then came one of the great upsets in American soccer history. Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey got goals in 2-0 victory over Spain, ending streaks of 15 wins and 35 unbeaten games for the European champion.
"Obviously there's a lot of talk about this first game, but, you know, we've proved last year that it is about the three games, that really matters as a collective," defender Jay DeMerit said. "These next two games are probably even more important for us. If we can get points from those two games, then we'll probably be through."
Last June, the U.S. took a 2-0 halftime lead over Brazil in the Confederations Cup final only to lose 3-2. While players were disappointed, Saturday's match is far more significant. And back home, more people are likely to be watching the U.S. team than in any game since at least the 1994 second-round World Cup loss to Brazil. That was at Stanford, Calif., when the Americans were the host.
"This game is about where the sport is in the U.S.," Gulati said. "It's water cooler talk. People are clearly talking about the U.S.-England game. You know, whether it's former students of mine that are writing to me or people that aren't normally involved in the game. They'll be doing it that day. They'll be doing it the next day. The question is what's happening on July 15? And so that's the opportunity we have. To get a whole bunch of people that might be casual observers, to get turned on by it, to get turned on by the hype.
"And I don't think there's any doubt that Americans are now more part of the World Cup and the international scene that they've been. And ticket buying and ratings will show that."
Donovan prefers to concentrate on the big picture.
"We have to be ready to react no matter what happens on Saturday," he said.
The 1950 win at Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on Joe Gaetjens' goal, was celebrated in the 2005 movie "The Game of Their Lives." Donovan didn't want to imagine what would happen if the U.S. wins again.
"I don't know who the hell would play me in a movie," he said. "I like Johnny Depp, though."