Sixty years later, U.S. and England meet again
RUSTENBURG, South Africa — When they emerged victorious the last time, they wound up calling it “The Game of Their Lives.”
Once-unknown players have spent a lifetime reliving memories of that unexpected night in Belo Horizonte, when the United States rose up and defeated mighty England in the World Cup.
Sixty years removed and 4,449 miles from that stadium in Brazil, the nations finally meet again today in a game that matters, a rematch in this year’s World Cup opener for both teams.
Once again, England is stocked with the talented and the wealthy, carrying the hopes of long-suffering supporters who still believe, even though 44 years have passed since the Three Lions’ only World Cup title.
And while the Americans are no longer obscure and many have gained experience with the very Premier League clubs that have produced England’s stars, they remain outsiders, eager to earn the respect of not only the soccer powers but also the skeptical public back home.
So, in refurbished Royal Bofokeng Stadium, in the open savannah bushveld near platinum mines and game parks filled with elephants and baboons, soccer’s English-speaking power and English-speaking upstart face off for pride and, more importantly, three points toward reaching the second round.
“We believe we’re going to win,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Friday. “It’s said with no disrespect to our opponent. We certainly know that it will take a strong, strong effort on our part.”
Far, far away from home, the setting is most unusual. This is the first World Cup match for the Americans in the southern hemisphere since that trip to Brazil ended with a 5-2 loss to Chile, days after the stunning 1-0 decision over their heavily favored opponent.
For England, the U.S. seems to be sort of a generic opponent, like the teams that lose to the Harlem Globetrotters. During coach Fabio Capello’s 9-minute prematch news conference, there was not a single reference to the Americans. While England is ranked eighth in the world and the U.S. 14th, it might as well be the difference between first and 207th.
“We are sure that we go forward in this competition,” Capello said.
Americans like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard have succeeded in the fast-paced English club game. And last year, they finished second in the Confederations Cup, beating African champion Egypt, 3-0, in this very stadium and before defeating European champion Spain, 2-0, in the semifinal.
“The USA are very hard working — very fit and physical,” England captain Steven Gerrard said. “They will be trying to deny us time and space on the ball. They know we have quality on the ball. We are expecting to be pressed really quickly. I’m sure it will be a good physical battle.”
FIFA told the U.S. Soccer Federation that 8,000 American fans purchased tickets for today’s game, 2,000 more than English supporters, and groups such as Sam’s Army and American Outlaws were expected to fill the 38,646-capacity stadium with sections of red, white and blue.
Grouped with England, Slovenia and Algeria, with the top two nations advancing, the U.S. faces its toughest opponent first. The Americans are 2-7 in head-to-head matchups, getting outscored, 35-8.
Some of Bradley’s lineup decisions were unclear, although he did say Jozy Altidore had recovered from a sprained ankle to start at forward and Carlos Bocanegra will start on defense.
But would he start Oguchi Onyewu or Clarence Goodson in central defense with Jay DeMeritâ¢ Onyewu is coming off knee surgery last October and without a 90-minute match in eight months. Would Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu or Jose Torres start in central midfield with Michael Bradley?
And would Edson Buddle or Robbie Findley start up front with Altidore?
Stopping the speedy and strong yet tempestuous Wayne Rooney will be the key. The striker has 25 goals in 60 international appearances, giving England hope that it can win its first World Cup title since hosting the tournament in 1966.
The Americans have other ideas.
“Historically,” Donovan said, “it’s an incredible game.”