By Michael Davies
Special to Page 2

Day 17: Disappearing Michael, emerging football

June 17, Pan Pacific, Room 1412, 9:07 a.m.
I am sick. I feel weak.

I shower, because I always feel better after a shower, but this time I feel even worse. I put on my jeans, buckle my belt, and they fall to my knees. I can't say exactly how much weight I've lost since I've been here, but let's just say that my ass has completely disappeared. Those familiar with my considerable ass will find that difficult to believe. I think it has something to do with the hormones that end up in our food in the United States because it's not as if I've been on any sort of diet since I've been here.

Unless there is some kind of eat-as-many-Chunky- Kit-Kats-as-you-want diet that I don't know about.

The International Media Center, press room, 3:30 p.m.
It's pretty much deserted here, once again an indication of the generally appallingly low level of respect afforded Bruce Arena's squad by the international media. For days, all I've heard is that Mexico is playing such beautiful football, and Mexico is so happy to be facing the United States and Mexico vs. Germany will be such a classic quarterfinal. Well, Mexico has only beaten the U.S. team once in the last five meetings between the two teams. And by the looks on the faces of the U.S. players during the national anthems (doesn't look like Tony Sanneh knows the words, by the way), they're pretty sure they're going to win. Despite the crushing, crushing dual blows of losing Jeff Agoos and Frankie Hejduk.

The announcer on the press room feed seems to share the conventional view of this matchup, gushing on and on about how well the Mexicans have played in this tournament, how they deserved to beat Italy and, frankly, would expect to win easily today. After a good five minutes of ooze, the camera locates John O'Brien, the brilliant holding midfielder who plays for Ajax in Holland. "And there's the man who rarely plays for Fulham, Eddie Lewis."

Cobi Jones, Salvador Carmona
Cobi Jones settles the ball ahead of Mexico's Salvador Carmona, right.

The game kicks off and the U.S. team hardly touches the ball until Claudio Reyna (though the announcer insists it's Donovan), knocks it in to Josh Wolff, who the announcer identifies as Brian McBride, who knocks it back to McBride ... the announcer's really confused now ... who knocks it in. 1-0, United States. I hear a cheer from a number of people in the press room -- it's the Japanese students who work in the IT/telecom help area.

And that's the way it stays until halftime. The possession is all Mexico's, but as those of us who've been following England in this World Cup know all too well, it's not possession that counts. It's beating Argentina.

Press room, 4:35 p.m.
The announcer is pleading with Mexico to find a quick equalizer. Cuauthémoc Blanco's getting active, but on the replay he does seem to stick his tongue a long way out of his mouth. My mother would tell him he'd better be careful, or he's going to bite it off. She's never seen Michael Jordan.

Mexico is denied a penalty when O'Brien punches it out of the box, but were the 15 replays and subsequent references to that truly necessary?

No bother. Eddie Lewis drives down the left wing and delivers a superb cross (wonder if Tigana, his manager at Fulham, is watching) that Landon Donovan heads in to the back of the net. 2-0. The celebrations "are red, blue and white" stammers the announcer, technically accurate but a little gauche. I stand up and applaud the beautiful goal -- you should have seen the looks.

"Will Americans understand football now?" says the journalist opposite me, looking too angry to appear as smug as he'd like to.

"I think they're doing a pretty good job right now."

"You must admit, they have been very lucky."

"Today?"

"Not today. But against Portugal."

Claudio Reyna
Claudio Reyna whoops it up after the United States' stunning 2-0 victory over Mexico.

"They beat them 3-2."

"Portugal only came out in the second half."

"And so they lost."

"But they deserved to win."

Deserving to win seems to be a concept that only applies at the World Cup. It's certainly the only place I ever hear it. Argentina deserved to win against England, Portugal deserved to win against the United States, Italy deserved to beat Croatia. The rules of this game are very simple: The team that scores the most goals wins. Beautiful play is beautiful to watch, and we can all appreciate it, but goals win games, conceding them loses games. It's as simple as that.

I look up at the screen, just as Luis Hernández takes a dive in the penalty area that Greg Louganis would have been proud of. There's nothing beautiful about that.

After the second U.S. goal, the announcer makes his first positive statements about any member of the U.S. team. Donovan is "a good young player," and "they've got another one on the bench, Marcus Beardsley (sic)."

Press room, 5:25 p.m.
Scattered applause at the final whistle. I can tell you already what the story will be; the post-match interviewer has already framed it -- the U.S. team has been lucky, lucky to get this far, lucky that Mexico played so poorly.

Well here comes another rant. I'm a proud Briton, and I cheer for Europe in the Ryder Cup, but I cannot understand anyone who could ever underestimate the ability, professionalism and sheer toughness of U.S. athletes.

Americans are simply superb at sports. It's not just facilities, the money, the infrastructure or the weather (but spend a winter -- or summer, for that matter -- in the North of England, and you'll know what an advantage that is), it is the winning mentality, the frontier thesis, the "we made it over them thar mountains, we can make it over anything" psychology, the tournament toughness that is absorbed by each successive generation from the one before. Americans are not used to losing; they grow up watching Americans win. They are not burdened by a press that enforces self doubt upon them.

When Clint Mathis said before this tournament that the United States expected to win the World Cup, the only people laughing at him were the foreign press. The writers at the UK football website, football 365.com, almost universally picked the United States to be the team that would stink up this tournament. It is they, though, who now have the embarrassed looks on their faces, as they're responsible for the odorous emission of poor research and blatant anti-Americanism.

Anyone who's watched this U.S. team over the last couple of years knows they have plenty of offense. The surprise is how well they played defense today, and with a brand new back line. Granted, this was not Mexico's greatest performance; they looked horrible at times. But credit goes to the U.S. team for that; they never let them play. These are simply great days for the new American football.

Unlike 1994, this game is so beautifully poised to take off in the States to a level it has never attained before. Do I expect it to unseat basketball, helmet football or baseball? No. Can it be as big as hockey? Yes, I think it can.

Here's why:

10 reasons soccer is poised to break through in the States like never before

U.S. fans
Unlike the press room, U.S. fans of all stripes could be found in the crowd.

1. In a more outward-looking country, and what we all know is a much smaller world, the United States is starved of sports it can compete against the rest of the world in. The Ryder Cup comes along every two years, the Summer and Winter Olympics every four. How much fun is it truly to watch the Dream Team dunk on a bunch of 6-foot Aussies and Luc Longley?

2. The United States loves heroes and underdogs, hates foreigners who trash the USA -- it is really fun watching these underdogs, these heroes, beat those bastards. Especially the young ones like Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and O'Brien. When has U.S. soccer ever had truly young stars to get behind?

3. Every new immigrant who comes to this country -- and we're still coming -- is almost certain to know, care about and watch their football more than any other sport. We breed.

4. Youth soccer is tremendously well-organized in the United States -- chances are, your kid plays and thinks it's pretty cool. If this game can now get into the inner cities, East Los Angeles, South Central L.A. and the Bronx -- watch out.

5. The good old NCAA is the best developmental infrastructure for football anywhere in the world. In fact, there's nothing like it anywhere. Look for the college game, which produced Reyna and Arena, to continue to produce great players and start to make headway on television.

6. And talking of television, ultimately the driver of all sports, the coverage on U.S. TV of the top club teams featuring the top players in the world is already superb. On any weekend, you can watch top games from the English Premier League and the Champions League (the elite European club competition), and almost every big international match these days seems to be available on DirecTV or digital cable. As digital and satellite television inevitably proliferates, soccer is becoming easier and easier to find.

Moreover, these rights are still cheap, a bargain for ESPN and Fox compared with the rights for basketball, baseball and football. Look for these companies to double down on soccer over the next year in light of this World Cup. The ratings for ESPN have been outstanding and lucrative. Very young, very upscale, very desirable.

7. Major League Soccer continues to improve in every respect: play, core fan base and TV coverage. Yes, the league might find international offers for Donovan, Beasley and Mathis hard to match after the World Cup, but if this league continues to nurture talent like these three, the rest of the football world will take notice and so will the fans at home. Moreover, this league is superbly run, salaries are in check, and give it a few years and owners will be lining up. If "Millionaire" works in syndication, I know I will be.

8. Are you noticing the companies advertising in soccer? Nike, adidas, Coca-Cola, Mastercard, Toshiba, McDonalds. These are companies that have considerable amounts vested in the success of the sport in the United States -- and none of them will be disappearing any time soon.

9. There is no doubt about it, outside of NASCAR and golf featuring Tiger Woods, ratings and attendance for the major U.S. sports is declining. Overpaid, pampered athletes, free agency, general thuggery, exorbitant ticket prices, less entertaining games ... U.S. sports fans are finding it more and more difficult to relate to the big stars. That does not apply to U.S. soccer -- we all know people like these guys.

10. A number of my friends in the States to whom I have introduced to the game over the last couple of years have remarked on how much quicker and better the game appears to be these days. It's true, football is improving. Many sports have not benefited from better technology, better training techniques, improved strength and faster pace -- tennis, for example -- but football is better for it. Teams retain a perceptible shape, it is not chaos as it once was, set pieces are exquisitely executed, the fitness levels are superb. Moreover, the best players in the world have consolidated in the best leagues -- England, Spain, Italy, Germany (France and Holland a rung below) -- which has massively improved those leagues and the Champions League and UEFA competitions between them. It has also furthered parity in the international game, giving players from smaller nations the chance to play alongside the best in the world -- the vast majority of players in this World Cup play for club teams in those leagues. And look for those few who don't to be playing there soon.

And if you think that football is just not American, then perhaps you could tell me what American is. Take a walk down the streets of downtown Manhatan or Chicago or L.A. and point out the Americans to me. These are not the Cleavers. The country has changed. It's time to get with the program, and that program is going to be World Cup football. I am convinced that this has already been the most successful World Cup the United States has ever seen. The next, in Germany, far friendlier for U.S. television, will be even bigger. Perhaps World Cup football will be the exception, a great event every four years that the United States gets into and then says goodbye to until next time. I'd take that. But part of me thinks Manchester United and the New York-New Jersey MetroStars are going to be selling a few more football shirts.

By the way, speaking of Manchester United, I hear they're after Landon Donovan.

Michael Davies, a native of London, is executive producer of ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." He'll be filing five diary entries per week from the World Cup for Page 2.




Michael
Davies
CUP DIARY