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Global Goal: World Cup

June 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: At the 39-minute mark of today’s game in Ulsan, South Korea, German Michael Ballack scored on a header, blasting it past American goalkeeper Brad Friedel. The lead would hold up, ending the surprising run for the United States in this year’s World Cup tournament. Reaching the quarterfinals, it was the best performance for American men since the first World Cup in 1930.

And even in this final game, the team had its share of chances to win. Early on, Landon Donovan made a nifty move, but German goalie Oliver Kahn made a better save. Later, a shot by the American, Gregg Berhalter, seemed to nearly make it into the goal when it hit the left hand of a defender who was standing on the goal line. Referees, however, ruled no goal.

Earlier in the tournament, the U.S. team had defeated heavily favored Portugal and Mexico. And despite today’s loss, players and Coach Bruce Arena were happy with their overall performance.

BRUCE ARENA, Coach, U.S. World Cup Team: I was just disappointed in the result, but I’m extremely proud of our team. I think if anything they demonstrated to the world that the U.S. belonged here, and possibly the U.S. belonged to go a step further, but a great showing for our team in this World Cup. And as I said previously in the last interview, if you look at the opening game of the ’98 World Cup to the closing game of 2002, we’ve made a lot of progress. We can play with anybody in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: For several weeks now, soccer fans in the U.S. have been waking up in the middle of the night to watch games played on the other side of the world. The U.S. games have been watched by an average of more than two million households nationally.

Today, some fans chose to watch together, at large stadiums. In Columbus Ohio, more than 7,500 people showed up. In Washington, D.C., more than 4,000 came to RFK Stadium early this morning to watch on a big screen.

KIM KLYBERG: We got here like around 5:30, but we were up at a friend’s house watching the Brazil- England game. So I haven’t slept yet and I have to go to work later. So it’s going to be a long day.

RAY SUAREZ: Fans found comfort in suffering through the near misses together… providing morale from afar…

MAN: Good D, good D. Shut him down!

RAY SUAREZ:…And simply cheering the team’s success.

PEOPLE (Chanting): U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

CARL CORDES: It’s much better being out here with all of these crazy guys than being at home watching it on a small screen– just a lot of fun to really cheer the team.

RAY SUAREZ: While the U.S. is eliminated, the tournament continues this weekend.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, I’m joined by Ray Hudson, coach of the professional soccer team D.C. United; and Stefan Fatsis, sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Well, coach, I know you were up this morning, like people… sports… soccer fans all over America. What did you make of the game?

RAY HUDSON, Coach, D.C. United Soccer Team: It was an astounding game. You know, the best team lost, absolutely. The United States played players performed heroically, just like they’ve done all this tournament. And the United States and major league soccer are intensely proud of Bruce Arena and the lads over there they did everybody proud. And they were successful, hugely successful in this tournament.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, I know things can look a little different on television from what they are in real life, but was that American shot that bounced on the German player’s hand as close as it looked to going in?

RAY HUDSON: Yeah, it’s a very debatable call, and one that will haunt us for the next four years. We were this close from tying the game up. It’s a controversial call. It struck the player on the hand. It stopped the ball from going into the net. So it’s a tough call, but we are not going to cry about it for too long because we’ve got too much to be proud of.

The players performed just out of their skins. And we’ve created countless opportunities to take the lead. And Germany got their goal on a set piece, one of the very few chances that Germany created, but that was enough. With the Germans, you knew as soon as they scored, it was going to be very difficult. But all credit to the states, the players, the entire team kept on pressing and pressing and butting the dam, but it just wouldn’t burst.

RAY SUAREZ: Stefan Fatsis, what did you make of the game?

STEFAN FATSIS, Wall Street Journal: I thought they did great. And I thought it was a real… it was the greatest evidence that we’ve had so far that this gradual effort to improve the level of play among the American men is working. The U.S. Soccer Federation is spending more money, they’re recruiting kids younger and younger to be part of summer camps and other federation programs, and the talent is really bubbling up from the bottom the way we’ve expected it for years. The difference now is that you’re getting the proper coaching, you’re getting the effort to track down kids at a younger age, and get them up into the system quickly, and it’s paying off.

RAY SUAREZ: Now this is, Stefan, a team that was not favored early on in the competition, playing against one of the teams that’s a perennial contender in world play. They acquitted themselves pretty well, didn’t they?

STEFAN FATSIS: Oh, absolutely. The Germans are three-time World Cup champions. The U.S. has absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about by coming home. And this is one of the beautiful things about soccer, and I think that other soccer countries really understand this. Sometimes you play your heart out, you outplay your opponent, but at the end of the day, you go home a loser.

And the U.S. goalie, Brad Freitel, who was spectacular throughout the tournament, really captured this at the end of the game. He said… he said, you know, “we did play really well and we’ll go home knowing that we could have advanced even further.” And for U.S. soccer, that’s exactly what the men’s program wanted. Four years ago, the U.S. Soccer Federation rolled out this ambitious program to win the World Cup by 2010. And a lot of people laughed at that, but one of the things that people have overlooked is that the first step was to get to the quarter finals of the World Cup in 2002, and they did it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Coach, am I right in saying that you weren’t surprised by how well the U.S. side did?

RAY HUDSON: I wasn’t surprised at all. You know, I think the rest of the world was shocked. We’ve known that in major league soccer we have been pervading Bruce Arena in previous coaching regimes with better improving- quality football. It’s true bona fide players, not just athletes, but flair players, brave players, expressive players. And Bruce has taken them and galvanized them into a team.

We are not saying that major league soccer is going to be… this is going to be the magic one; this massive success, this great respect that’s been born today from this unbelievable success in this World Cup. It’s not going to, you know, take us to the top floor right away. And nobody is saying that. We are not trying to push the sand through the hourglass, but we’re building it step by step. And this was a massive leap.

This was a Bob Beman leap that’s catapulted all of the programs; anybody that’s involved with soccer. It has just elevated the whole profile of the game. It has made people much more aware of the beauty and the intrigue and the drama of the game. And it’s just… these are champagne days for everybody associated with major league soccer and U.S. soccer. It’s wonderful.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, now that the United States is out, Coach, who do you like the rest of the way?

RAY HUDSON: I think Brazil’s got to be everybody’s sweetheart. Again, you know, the enthrall, they’ve got that x-factor against them, the they’re unpredictable, they’re beautiful, they’re risky, they’re shaky at the back still, but I think if you’re a purist soccer lover, you’ve got to always love the yellow shirts. Spain looked threatening. Korea could, you know, really create an upset tonight against Spain. And don’t dismiss Senegal and Turkey. But I’d put my money on Brazil, and I’d be rooting for them if I was a soccer fan there, because they’re the most enjoyable, romantic team, and players that you can’t take your eyes off and you just love to watch.

RAY SUAREZ: Stefan, which games are you particularly anticipating?

STEFAN FATSIS: I agree with Coach Hudson. The Brazilians looked lovely today. They’ve got that fluidity, they’ve got that explosiveness ability to score any time. But I love the fact that we had four underdogs, soccer nobodies, making it to the final eight here. The South Koreans have just been brilliant in front of their enthusiastic home fans, and there’s a good deal of intrigue watching Senegal, an African team, get to the quarter finals and possibly making it to the semifinals, which would be a first for a country from that continent. It’s a wonderful tournament here. And at the end, you always look to the established countries that have been playing the sport for a century or more. And Brazil and Germany and Spain fall into that category, so anyone… you would be foolish to pick against them at this point, but you never know, because we’ve seen so many upsets so far.

RAY SUAREZ: And where does American soccer go from here, Stefan?

STEFAN FATSIS: I think it goes where it has been going. It’s very, very incremental. I mean, you have to understand that we are a country that does not have this ingrained soccer tradition the way that the Europeans and the South Americans and some of the Central American countries do. We have… we’ve been playing soccer for over 100 years, but the truth is that football displaced it very soon after the sports sort of went head to head in the 1860s and ’70s. We adopted baseball very quickly. Basketball is ours; we invented it. So soccer is an afterthought in this country. It doesn’t have the same sort of universal passion and universal acceptance the way it does in other nations.

And what that means for us is that it has to be something that evolves very, very gradually. And that’s what we’re seeing. We had fits and starts in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, but now, I think major league soccer has some committed investors, billionaires, that are willing to ensure that this league survives. And again, this development from the ground up that’s been occurring over the last decade, is going to continue to penetrate more and more kids. You are going to get more Latin Americans who have grown up in America, in the United States. You’re going to get more African American kids. The sport is only going to get better. So it really is a matter of time. 2010 isn’t looking like such a long shot anymore.

RAY SUAREZ: Stefan Fatsis, Ray Hudson, thank you both.