The U.S. men's national team couldn't ask for a better chance to capture the attention of its country for the World Cup, even if it was matched up against 9-foot tall aliens from the planet Socceralia.
Would Americans really get their collective bile up for footie-playing extraterrestrials like we'll see when the lads open the tournament against England on Saturday afternoon? The rallying cry didn't originate with, "Don't tread on me, Glyxelbop."
Americans enjoy tweaking the English, and if our national team can give a sports noogie to the people who invented the game, all the better. The best part, of course, is that not since the U.S. national team re-emerged as an international player at the 1990 World Cup has it been less ridiculous to think this country could beat England on soccer's biggest stage.
U.S. stars Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan have established themselves as forces in England's Premier League and Americans you might not have heard of -- Jose Torres, Stuart Holden, Herculez Gomez and several others -- provide talented depth and support for the stars. In other words, it's a true team, not just a few guys who are good playing with the soccer equivalent of their excited little brothers to round out the squad.
Yes, the U.S. is still the underdog, but the only category in which Americans lag behind the rest of the world is rabid support for the team. You'll want to help change that at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, because this is going to be fun.
Feel free to let fly with any shouts of joy or frustration -- even if the language isn't appropriate for polite company. Unleashing emotion is part of the experience, and besides, the players will have to bite their tongues. The referee and his assistants have been taking a crash course in English swear words. Brazilian referee Carlos Simon and his assistants for Saturday's match have been studying 20 swear words to listen for from the players.
Cursing the ref is frowned upon in soccer. Players risk a yellow card for going beyond "You so-and-so!" when addressing the referee, and if their mouths don't stop, their participation in the game will. Continuously crass treatment of the officials could get a player sent off for dissent.
Why would the players jump to question Carlos Simon's rulings during the game? The competitors, and everyone watching, have more than a few reasons. It'll be impossible to watch the U.S. vs. England without having a curt word or three for the referee. Simon's background is actually one of the game's silliest -- and most fun -- subplots. His home country's league suspended him last season after he was accused of bribery and incompetence, and in November the president of Brazilian team Palmeiras blasted Simon as "a crook, a scoundrel and a shameless bastard."
For the first time in 60 years, the United States will play England in the World Cup, and this highest of high-profile first-round matches will come under the control of a referee whose home league officially used the word "incompetence" when suspending him. Oh, and don't forget "bribery." World soccer governing body FIFA appoints the officials for these matches, and almost nothing FIFA does makes any sense.
Don't try to figure it out, and don't get too snooty about it either. We're the country of Tim Donaghy and Jim Joyce, after all.
And again, the U.S. is playing England, not the referee. If you're a novice, some names to watch out for are England's fullbacks Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson, defenders who often come up from the back to aid the attack.
Midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard will be a handful, even if the duo has never maximized its substantial talents while playing together for England. You'll hear about England's patchwork central defense, too, with disgraced former team captain John Terry having to work with aging or injury-addled partners. There's a soft spot the U.S. can target.
He stole the show in Nike's lavishly produced "Write the Future" mini-movie that doubled as a commercial, and no matter how excellently the U.S. plays Saturday, Rooney's overwhelming talent and force of will could silence all of our collective "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" chants. America's talented, committed and relentless defenders aren't necessarily overmatched, but Rooney has made fools of the world's best.
For all his ferocity, though, Rooney has more than a little "Rancor" in him. Geeks and '80s kids will remember the massive, lethal Rancor monster from "Return of the Jedi." The drooling kill force laser-focused on champing Luke Skywalker into bits was undone by his failure to remain aware of his surroundings. A popular thought that the U.S. could tame Rooney by angering him and encouraging him to lose control of his emotions.
The only reason Simon and his refereeing assistants are learning English swear words is because Rooney went off on a referee during a warmup match this week. Former English national team member Terry Butcher suggested the U.S. players provoke Rooney -- "even belt him one"-- to throw him off his game. I wouldn't suggest the U.S. defenders try it, but sometimes, well, you know, things happen out there, and then the unflappable referee has to sort it out.
The ads for the match have bombarded American media and would drag you in front of a TV Saturday afternoon if they could. "Just do it" (and not only because Nike sponsors both teams). Soccer might not be our country's most beloved sport, but the World Cup is about pageantry, subplots, sudden twists of fate and, yes, suggestions and hints of a conspiracy. For Americans, there's nothing alien about reveling in those aspects of sport.
Warming up: Whet your appetite for the U.S. match at 9 a.m. Saturday by watching Argentina play Nigeria. Even the most casual soccer observers have likely heard of Diego Maradona, now the Argentina manager and formerly the soccer savant who single-handedly defeated England at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, in part, by scoring a goal with his hand. Yes, that's against the rules, even for the super-duper stars.
Since taking over, Maradona has driven over the leg of a cameraman, been banned by FIFA for several months for an obscenity-laced press conference, belly-flopped in a torrential downpour after a crucial qualifying match, been bitten in the face by his pet dog AND promised to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the World Cup.
Also, there is a recognized religion that worships in his name and features its own version of the 10 Commandments (e.g., Thou shalt name thy first son Diego).
This article goes inside the Church of Maradona. It's not satire.
Beyond the Maradona traveling circus, the world's best player, Lionel Messi, plays for Argentina, and the roster is full of superb talent and ability, even though some of the country's better players did not get picked. Only Maradona would select something less than the best team, but it's actually part of the charm.
In a sports world with few surprises left to be discovered, Argentina at the World Cup is not just defying conventional wisdom. Maradona is leading his country into the world's most prestigious competition and making it up as he goes along -- including the rules. Whatever the results, "the same old thing" will not serve as an accurate description.