When soccer team loses, America wins

June 13, 2006|By BRENDAN LOWE

Yesterday's United States men's soccer match against the Czech Republic not only kicked off the Americans' play in the 2006 World Cup - they lost to the Czechs 3-0 - but also reignited their 50-year climb to international soccer respectability.

After failing to qualify for the quadrennial tournament from 1954 to 1986, the United States has taken great strides toward serious contention, most prominently in 2002 with a quarterfinal berth.

Such success seems out of reach this year. The Americans are stuck in the "Group of Death" with the Czech Republic, Ghana and Italy. Should the U.S. team be one of the two to advance, the next opponent likely would be Brazil, a reward akin to selling a Triple Crown winning horse to Elmer's.

The drama of the World Cup, which began Friday and concludes July 9, seemingly has been lost on most Americans. The recent rise of the national team, coupled with an all-time high in American media requests for the World Cup and those omnipresent TV commercials for the tournament that are so galvanizing, has not been enough to generate excitement stateside.

That success is unlikely and that Americans are not enamored with the World Cup is good news, if not for the soccer community or nationalism then for diplomatic reasons. After all, it's not as if the U.S. reputation over the past decade has followed the ascent of the men's soccer team.

The World Cup, with no disrespect meant, represents a quaint time every four years when global superiority is determined not by a nation's military might or the depth of its coffers but by its historical relationship with soccer and proximity to the Equator.

China, India, Russia and Pakistan might be powerful nations capable of dropping a nuclear bomb, but for the next month they'll have to leave the international stage to make room for relative pipsqueaks such as Paraguay, Togo and Trinidad and Tobago, all of which qualified for the tournament.

American lack of interest in the World Cup is a positive development because it gets our country out of the international limelight and, for a few short weeks, lets smaller nations bask in the glory.

For instance, instead of hearing about America, the world will hear about Angola. After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, the southwest African nation was racked by 27 years of civil war. (In a twist of fate, the Angolans played the Portuguese yesterday.)

This year's World Cup marks the country's first participation in the tournament. In a country with a paucity of positive developments, that's big news. An Angolan radio broadcaster told the BBC that the World Cup berth has inspired Angolans by showing how hard work can pay off.

This is a great story, one that should be told and embraced, a story that would almost certainly be hidden from view if Americans were making a big deal out of the World Cup.

Besides, the United States has more important international competitions to focus on, athletically and otherwise.

In March, America didn't make it out of the second round of the World Baseball Classic, the inaugural competition of what was once the national pastime.

In 2008, the United States will compete in the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Even though America has been the overall medal winner in the last three summer Olympics, China and Russia have won an increasingly greater percentage of medals; 2008 may be the year the Chinese pull ahead.

The Chinese are not just catching up in sports. Their gross domestic product is growing faster than the United States', and China is among the nations aiming to run neck-and-neck with the United States technologically.

As Purdue University President Martin C. Jischke noted in a speech in January, 20 years ago, America, China and Japan each graduated about the same number of engineers. In 2000, however, China had 207,500 engineering graduates, Japan had 103,200 and the United States had 59,500. And let's not get started with India.

As international competitions go, I'm more interested in graduating more engineers than scoring more goals. America may have built the bridge to the 21st century, but now other nations are using E-Z Pass to zoom across it while we're still paying cash.

Global affairs are inherently competitive, and by all means, the United States should compete and win. But we must pick our battles.

The World Cup is a victory the United States can forgo. An American loss at the World Cup would be an American victory in the world of diplomacy.

Brendan Lowe, 20, is an intern at The Sun and will be entering his junior year at the University of Maryland, College Park. His e-mail is blowe@umd.edu.

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