Earlier this month, Jurgen Klinsmann broke the unwritten covenant of global sports, telling The New York Times that the United States “cannot win this World Cup.” Last week during a press conference in Brazil, he stuck to his position, declaring a U.S. triumph “just not realistic.”
Soccer—especially World Cup soccer—operates in a space of collective delusion (or is it illusion?). For 90 minutes, a round ball traveling across a manicured lawn distracts us from both the mundane and profound components of human existence. In that expanse, we stare awe-struck at the television, awaiting elation. If you’ve forgotten what that can feel like, please revisit the 91st minute of the United States game against Algeria (Pretoria, South Africa, June 23, 2010.)
In that goal, a quintessential American counterattack strike, equal parts speed, strength, skill, and luck, a door seemingly sealed swung open, and the future of American soccer stretched before us, an unbroken frontier. Rational thought gave way to imagination, and a quarterfinal appearance that felt too improbable to hope for after the Slovenia game suddenly transformed, in a flash, into a beautiful vision on the edge of the horizon.
Though that joy melted against Ghana, I can return to Donovan’s goal today and still access a spirit, pregnant with possibility, that can lift the gloomiest veil from any moment. As a young supporter, I learned the selfish truth of soccer fandom: a goal on a faraway field can be scored just for me.
This summer, I will be forced to reconcile fantasy with the pragmatic voice of Jurgen Klinsmann nattering, lightly accented, in my head.
Diving save from Tim Howard?
“Cristiano will score on the next one.”
Wonder strike from Jozy?
“Realistically, there’s no way we’re beating Germany.”
After the New York Times article was published, Klinsmann’s truth-telling spawned an ocean of memes: Klinsmann cast as the consummate killjoy.
Many were funny, especially when uttered in your best Jurgen-voice, but I thought back to the Algeria goal. Would such heroics this summer spark the same bright dreams I felt in 2010?
While it would be ludicrous for Klinsmann to announce that the United States should win the World Cup, I wish he would harbor the ounce of ungrounded belief that makes the sport worth watching. If not for himself, then for fans of the game who stare at screens in bars, in airports, in offices, collectively dreaming of another Algeria, another moment of semi-religious ecstasy.
In its finer moments, soccer refracts the diversity of the human experience across eleven players, each solitary individual attempting to (paraphrasing Donald Bartheleme) bind together a string of passes into a rushing, vibrant whole.
Throughout his tenure with the United States, Klinsmann has added a twelfth voice to that conversation: his own. Out to remake American soccer in his own image, he has cast himself as the central figure around which all narrative must hang.
If the United States overachieves in Brazil, Klinsmann will be hailed as the ruthless genius, willing to make the decisions that no one else had the stomach to handle and seeing the potential in young players many believed were not yet ready to contribute at the international level.
If the United States falters, many will question the decision to relegate Landon Donovan to the broadcast booth, even as the Klinsmann program will continue apace through 2018, bitter truths and all.
ESPN has peppered their Brazil ad campaign with the drum-churning chants of the American Outlaws: “I believe that we will win.” But if the coach of the United States Men’s National Team doesn’t believe, why should I?