If American soccer hasn't progressed to the point at which American citizens take personal offense to their team's poor play (no soccer-related suicides or murders here -- yet), then perhaps all of us who hope and pray to bring the World Cup home to the U.S.A. by, say, 2050, can see progress in the fact that our side's poor play, while not offensive to Americans, certainly has rubbed a number of South Americans the wrong way.
The United States is officially hated by Hugo Chávez's Venezuela (opinions of individual Venezuelans notwithstanding), but if the U.S. had hoped for some sort of "soccer diplomacy" between the two glaring countries while Team U.S.A. competed in the Copa America tournament there this month, any opportunities for on-field negotiations were remarkably short-lived and most certainly fruitless. And a three minute anti-Chávez chant, at one point featuring a cry of "This government is going to fall!" during the U.S.-Argentina game in the anti-chavista city of Maracaibo, probably didn't endear Chávez to the presence of the Americans in his continent, in his tournament, in his newly renovated (at public cost) stadium.
Politics aside, though, after three games and three losses, the United States finished -- when an embarrassing goal differential of -6 is considered -- in the tournament's unofficial last place. Not since the '98 World Cup in France, in which the U.S. also finished in (again, unofficial) last place, have the Americans fared so poorly in an international competition.
But the embarrassing performance isn't the problem. It is, rather, the widespread pre-tournament expectation of an embarrassing performance for the Americans, who deliberately stacked their Copa team with unseasoned rubes, thirteen of whom (out of twenty-two) had played in less than five international-level games prior to the tournament and seventeen of whom were born well into the Reagan era, many even in his second term.
If major soccer tournaments are like "seasons" -- at least in a college football or basketball sense -- then the current American debacle in Venezuela is your classic "rebuilding" year for U.S. Soccer after a successful championship run (with a suitably veteran squad) at the Gold Cup last month. Unfortunately -- for diplomatic goodwill, at least -- South American soccer culture doesn't allow for rebuilding years. Latin soccer runs strictly according to the Rumsfeld Maxim: you take the field with the team you've got (and not the team you plan to have in three years). So U.S. Coach Bob Bradley's decision to sacrifice success for much-needed experience well in advance of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa isn't going over so well with his South American colleagues in Venezuela.
"We like for the continent's most important competition to be respected with the best players," said South American Soccer Confederation (CONMEBOL) general secretary Eduardo de Luca on Wednesday, leveling the ultimate charge of disrespect at the U.S. Soccer Federation. The Americans "opted to send a team with some players who aren't their regulars," de Luca told the Associated Press. "That doesn't please us."
Now, "that doesn't please us" sounds much more wooden and severe in translated English than it does in either Spanish or Portuguese, but it still gets across the message that a soccer-crazy continent -- perhaps 371 million South Americans -- feels that the United States has, once again, offended it, perhaps doubly so, as the U.S. is, along with Mexico, present only as an invited guest of CONMEBOL.
In particular, Argentine coach Alfio Basile spat some harsh vitriol the U.S.'s direction after his team 00 reportedly using his star-laden side at this year's Copa as a chance at redemption after a disappointing quarterfinal exit in last year's World Cup in Germany--drubbed the Americans 4-1 on June 28. Instead of taking the opportunity to publicly praise himself and his players, as coaches generally do in a post-game euphoria, Basile went the other direction. Dismissing the American competition his team had just faced, he said, "It was only one match, and we only beat the United States," adding, "This was not a litmus test of how good we are, or what we need to improve on." It's truly humbling when, in 2007, anything American is disdainfully referred to as "only the United States."
Granted, U.S. Soccer participation in the Copa America doesn't -- and shouldn't -- garner considerable attention in the upper echelons of government. But since world sports are all about pageantry and show, about reputation and goodwill, flags and national anthems, and since President Bush installed Karen Hughes in the State Department as the undersecretary in charge of our popular reputation around the globe, couldn't Foggy Bottom's soccer-mom expert have been more on top of the perception of Americans at the soccer tournament?