So — Dream Team USA fell to Ghana in extra time, in a 120-plus-minute game that it’s fair to say had a nation riveted. Hard not to feel glad for Ghana in their joy at the victory, and as one of their team ran the flag ’round the stadium in joy and victory — but here in Soccertown USA, which has swelled in population over the past two weeks as World Cup fever has raged, vuvuzelas have buzzed and Team USA has gone from strength to strength, it’s a bitter pill indeed.
Right now it’s sinking in — as I type, Bob Bradley puts on a brave face for the mic in his grill on ABC — but pretty soon as the match is pulled apart and dissected by true fans and fairweather experts alike, the blame game will begin. But even before today’s historic match played out in overtime as two phenomenal teams of phenomenal, highly muscular and not a little bit attractive athletes battled it out for primacy in the Beautiful Game, I heard one name mentioned a few times, with worry: Bill Clinton.
Okay people blame Bill Clinton for a LOT. And he was far, far from that field during the play, and he was not there in shiny shorts speeding his cleats across the field. But — he was in the team’s locker room after the last game, drinking a beer with the boys (that’s him above, pictured with Team USA captain Carlos Bocanegra, per the latter’s Facebook account). Similarly, the team got a call from President Obama, letting them know that a nation (not to mention a White House) was watching and cheering them on.
But could being sudden homegrown heroes have been a distraction? I heard the alarm sounded on Morning Joe yesterday morning, by ESPN’s Roger Bennett, who fretted that the sudden attention and things like “Bill Clinton in the lockah room” could pull focus (Rogah is very British). He reiterated that point last night on Charlie Rose, talking about the World Cup with ESPN soccer commentator Tommy Smyth and Sports Illustrated’s Jen Chang. Both times he noted that what had gotten the team this far had been focus and unity, and getting distracted by newly famous friends, media attention and the glamorous and lucrative world of endorsement and book deals would only be derailing for that work ethic.
So did that happen here? Who knows? Personally, I tend to think that any team who makes it this far is pretty awesome, frankly, and it’s not like the Ghanains are slouches — they did beat Team USA by the exact same score four years ago at Nuremburg, after all. And if that near-repeat miracle kick toward the end had been just a bit lower, the story would be very different (or, tying it up, would have had a fighting chance to be). I mean, that ridiculously marathon Wimbledon match was played between two guys, but John Isner‘s name is the one I keep hearing. No matter how well-trained, well-matched or well-built (and Lord knows these players are well-built!), only one can win.
In this case, despite the high hopes of a nation riveted by soccer for all of two weeks, it was Ghana. “Soccer’s a cruel game sometime,” said Landon Donovan after the game, but in this case, maybe not — there’s no shame in losing to a team of champions, no matter how close you get. The only thing that’ll be cruel is if the Bill Clintons, the Obamas, the media and the legions of new fans suddenly fall away, distracted by the next shiny object that bounces by. Because the Beautiful Game will still be beautiful (and frankly, so will all those soccer players) — and more beautiful still will be next time, when a nation of new fans will have four more years of caring to make it matter even more.
But maybe then, just to be safe, they should keep Clinton out of the locker room.