CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The taxi driver pilots his rickety white van around Cape Town with his seat reclined way back to accommodate his belly's girth, and with the racing pages spread over his dashboard. His name is Rousseau -- a South African of French extraction -- and as of 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, two hours before the U.S. men's national team was to begin what would prove to be its final match of this year's World Cup against Ghana, he hadn't had much luck with his day's bets. He didn't mind. "I don't drink. I don't smoke. That's my vice," he said. "Otherwise, I'd have to kick the woman or kick the dog or something."
Rousseau, as one might have guessed, is the philosophical type, and that his thoughts for the previous two weeks had so often turned to the U.S. side surprised even him. "I'm not a soccer expert," he said, "but they showed courage. They showed guts. They don't have the flashy players like Wayne Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo, but they do the job. I wasn't that impressed by their skills, but they did what needed to be done, and that's what you come for. It's not about fancy footwork, or this or that. It's all about just getting the job done.
"Had they gone down on that disallowed goal against Algeria," he said, "it would have been a sin against sportspeople all across the world."
The United States' run in South Africa has been dead for two days now and, from a very wide angle view, they did what almost everyone expected that they would: they reached the tournament's second round, and then they lost. But even as we contemplate what might have been -- had only their defenders defended a little better; had only their strikers struck a little more precisely; had only coach Bob Bradley made wiser personnel decisions; then they might have beaten Ghana, instead of losing 2-1 in overtime, and then they could have taken advantage of the easiest imaginable route to the semifinals, and then, who knows -- it's worth, as the disappointment lingers, considering all that they did accomplish here.
The U.S. side, as Rousseau was far from alone in pointing out, did not feature players anywhere near as talented as those from England, or from France, or from Italy -- and there's little sign they will have such players anytime soon -- but they were in this tournament as relentlessly tenacious as their counterparts from those European superpowers were relentlessly feckless. They ran, and they ran, and they ran; they attacked, and they attacked, and they attacked; they tried, and they tried, and they tried.
Twice they joined the international fraternity of national sides victimized by abhorrent officiating, on the crucial goals disallowed against Slovenia and Algeria. Events such as those break other teams -- as one appeared to do to England on Sunday against Germany -- but the U.S. scrapped back, and they persevered. They did it behind a leader and emotional centerpiece, Landon Donovan -- recently described in The New Yorker as "a fine-boned man with smoldering eyes and a scallop of receding black hair" -- who, despite being their best player and who now appears finally poised to belatedly commence a sustained international club career, probably wouldn't make the world's best national sides even as a reserve, but who scored three goals in total and made most All-Group Stage All-Star teams through the sheer force of his will. In short, this iteration of the U.S. Men's National Team was that rarest of things: an American sports team (an American anything, for that matter) for whom non-Americans could actually allow themselves to root, or at least to genuinely respect.
Ten miles from Cape Town's stunning, Mediterranean-style Waterfront, where tourists and locals sip glasses of the local Pinotage over long lunches, is the township of Langa. Langa, like its many surrounding townships, is beset by the type of poverty that many Westerners have never encountered. There, the heads of sheep rest on tables on the street in front of a butcher's shop made of wooden posts and a plastic sheet. The poorest people in Langa live in so-called "hostels," in which each family pays about $2.60 a month for the right to a single twin bed in a small room that they must share with two other families. Almost every room, however, has a television, and those televisions are generally always on, and this month, the people who live there say, they have almost always been tuned to soccer. When a few days ago a group of foreigners spent a few hours on a tour there -- after which, of course, they could retreat to their Pinotages and their long lunches -- a group of Langa residents ignored the Brits and excitedly surrounded the American members of the party. "U-S-A!" they said, again and again, holding deflated soccer balls. "Very nice. You have done very well."
That sentiment extended some 6,000 miles north, to London's Fleet Street, home to newspapers and tabloids that delight in needling and criticizing the U.S. -- and who often refer to the United States as "Little Brother" -- but, in this case, did not. After the U.S.'s 2-2 draw against Slovenia, that would have likely been a 3-2 win if not for Malian referee Koman Coulibay, the Telegraph called the team's performance "one of the most uproarious stories of this World Cup"; named Donovan "the best crosser of a ball in this tournament"; and deemed the U.S. effort "the finest comeback seen here yet." As the Ghana match approached, the Guardian admiringly wrote of "the stylistically limited but undeniably dogged efforts of Bradley's squad." And in the wake of the ultimate loss, the Mirror noted that "the USA never lay down" and that "The USA keep showing they have character in abundance."
A taxi driver, a group of men in a township, the analysts on Fleet Street -- even the horde of facepainted British fans who stopped Americans on the streets in Cape Town and shook their hands while solemnly and respectfully nodding -- all of this, clearly, represents a small sample size indeed. But it is not a stretch to believe that the way the U.S. Men's National Team played here earned them far-ranging admiration among the soccer-watching global public -- not for their skill or talent, in most cases, but for their style, and, most simply, for their effort. It's even harder to measure whether their performance might have done anything to change foreign views of the U.S. that extend beyond soccer, but we can imagine their fluent and workmanlike effort might have done something in that regard, too. "Everyone told me that Americans are an arrogant lot," said Rousseau, "but there've been loads of them around, and they seem like good people to me."
In the end, the U.S. tried and they tried, and they ran and they ran, until they couldn't run anymore. The final push against Ghana that everybody expected never came, as the Americans were, all at once, exhausted. Perhaps this World Cup will prove to be the high point for the foreseeable future; perhaps in 2014 in Brazil they won't again draw a group that proved arguably the tournament's weakest, and perhaps they'll draw a path to the semifinals and beyond that features teams that simply cannot be beaten largely on effort and fitness. Even so, the memory of what they accomplished here, and how they acquitted themselves, will persist. The record books will reflect the U.S. run in 2010 could have gone better -- they could have beaten Ghana; they know it; everyone knows it. In most every other way, though, it could not have.