Marouane Fellaini attempts to get past Tim Howard and Omar Gonzalez on July 1.
"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." Like most cliches, this quote — actually a misquote from a poem from sportswriter Grantland Rice — is more apt to cause a sneer or an eye roll than anything else. Still, it remains as true today as when Rice wrote it in the early 20th century.
Case in point: day 20 at the World Cup, which saw Argentina win its game against Switzerland, and the United States lose to Belgium. On paper, the scores — 1-0 and 1-2 respectively — should be the only statistics that matter. But they aren't, and the reason why gets to the heart of what the World Cup is.
The world will not long remember the Argentina-Switzerland game, which was easily the most dull match-up of an otherwise highly entertaining round of 16. I've argued before that there's a clear division between the old-school World Cup of, say, 1990 to 2010 — relatively low-scoring, slow-passing, lots of fouls, a prevalence of penalties — and the new, exciting, high-scoring breed we've seen suddenly bloom in Brazil, the kind that harkens back to the World Cups of yesteryear.
Argentina-Switzerland was old school, the kind of game you'd be embarrassed to show to a friend you were trying to get excited about soccer. We had to suffer through five yellow cards, three for the Argentinians and two for the Swiss. We saw some very defensive play with a five-man Swiss midfield nipping every tentative Argentine play in the bud. We got one goal right at the very end of extra time, which Lionel Messi set up beautifully for Angel Di Maria, but was it worth the two-hour wait? Only if you're a die-hard Argentinian supporter.
USA-Belgium, on the other hand — now there was a game even neutrals couldn't help but watch with their hearts in their mouths, even though it too remained 0-0 until extra time. The reasons: a strength and discipline on the Belgian side that allowed them to retain possession for large chunks of the game and create a lot of chances, and the incredible superhuman goalmouth defending skills of US keeper and national hero Tim Howard.
It bears repeating that Howard made 16 saves in this game, a record for the tournament — indeed, if some sources are correct, a record since they started counting the number of saves in World Cup matches. That is what fans will remember long after the circus has left Brazil: the true grit of Howard's performance, the entertainment he helped create.
Granted, it would have gone better for the USA had Howard not been responsible for that much entertainment. The American back four never seemed to be able to stitch themselves together. Communication was poor across the board, which is why Clint Dempsey barely got the service he needed to take chances on goal. But there were shining moments of brilliance, such as the spectacular first-touch goal from super sub Julian Green.
But the US has this amazing ability, whether conscious or not, to make its games into thrilling roller coaster rides. Every one of its World Cup matchups in Brazil, with the possible exception of the exhausted and waterlogged Germany game, has had fans hanging on until the last minute, hoping for the deus ex machina goal that came against Ghana or Portugal, waiting for the burst of energy that comes in the dying moments of the game, and came again on Tuesday.
However scrappily put-together the performance, you can't deny that it's worth watching; that it hooked a nation. Howard's new record is something to be proud of, something to cling to in defeat, something that will hopefully bear fruit in ever greater support for Major League Soccer. Because none of us would watch the World Cup if it were all Argentina-Switzerland-style games; everyone watches it for US-Belgium style games.
With apologies to Grantland Rice for paraphrasing a misquote, it's not whether you win or lose — it's how thrillingly you play the game for your global audience.
Tags: ENTERTAINMENT, SPORTS, TEAM USA, World Cup