Having wrenched a game from Ghana’s grasp on Monday with only three minutes left on the clock, Team USA had a game snatched from its own grip Sunday night with only 10 seconds to go before the final whistle. Injustice, thy name is “time added on.”
After 90 minutes of ding-dong battle in the heat of Manaus—heat so bad that the ref called for a water break in the first half—five whole minutes were tacked on to the game with the U.S. leading a ragged Portugal two goals to one. Five extra minutes in Manaus is like a lifetime in New Jersey, or California. A minute passed, then two, three, four…In the 94th minute, as American supporters began their jigs of joy, Cristiano Ronaldo found himself with the ball on the right flank, deep in the U.S. half.
Ronaldo, the snazziest player in soccer—a man as overweening as he is skillful —had had a quiet game, stifled by the tireless workhorses in the U.S. defense and midfield. Now he had acres of space, a sliver of time, and a man to whom he could cross the ball. Silvestre Varela was hurtling toward the U.S. goal when Ronaldo fed him a pass of curvilinear purity. And in a flash, Varela had headed the ball past Tim Howard, the American goalie, draining the latter, in an instant, of all color.
The game ended with a Portuguese heist, but it began with an American gift. In the fourth minute, Ronaldo showed us his abilities, producing a flash-dance of feinting and dribbling near the half-line that had the crowd gasping in appreciation. His display of skill must have bewitched the American defense, too, for a minute later, as if still in a daze from the magic they’d witnessed, they let in the softest goal imaginable. Geoff Cameron miscued a clearance to Nani, Portugal’s Cape Verdean winger, and he booted the ball into goal. Nani hasn’t scored for Portugal all year. He didn’t score all season for Manchester United. When Nani scores, you know you’re in trouble…
So it was Sunday night that Cristiano Ronaldo, brusquely thwarted for much of the game, put the upstarts in their place.
…Or so the omens seemed to say. But Jurgen Klinsmann’s men are fit, fast, and bristling with self-belief. Technically, they are no longer the Cinderellas of world football, either. They kept the Portuguese in check, matching them tackle for tackle, swerve for swerve. They belong at this level. Portugal was inferior for much of the game, and when Jermaine Jones scored from 30 yards in the 63rd minute, drawing the U.S. deservedly level, he did so with a volley that would have made Ronaldo proud. (The latter had, in fact, made a pig’s ear of a goal-scoring opportunity a minute earlier, belting the ball embarrassingly askew of the American net.)
Courage there was in abundance. Clint Dempsey played this game with a broken nose, and as if in divine reward he scored in the 80th minute, after a period of sustained American domination. The goal came off his tummy inside the Portuguese box, an apt way to score for a very gutsy player.
Thereafter, it was a question of keeping the Portuguese at bay, and as the minutes passed this appeared to be a largely untaxing task. But football is a game in which a moment of magic can undo an hour of toil. And so it was Sunday night that Cristiano Ronaldo, brusquely thwarted for much of the game, put the upstarts in their place. It was a beautiful end to the game. It was also a cruel end.
Where does Team USA go from here? Every country in its group is “alive,” with a real chance to get to the next stage. The most elegant way for the U.S. to progress would be to beat Germany on Thursday. But the Germans will strain every sinew to beat Klinsmann’s men, the better to ensure a place in the next stage for themselves. After their cliffhanging draw against Ghana, expect the Germans to be clinical—and unforgiving of American errors. A German humbled is a German energized.
Let’s be honest: A draw with Germany is the best the U.S. can hope for, and will ensure Team USA’s passage to the next round. But if the Germans win, the U.S. will be competing for second place in the group with the victors of Portugal v. Ghana. Everything—life or death—will turn on goal difference. If Team USA does lose to Germany, it would best do so by a margin of no more than a goal. In such ways does a tournament of strength and skill, of flair and physique, sometimes boil down to a question of simple arithmetic. The “beautiful game” can also be a pedantic game.