PRETORIA, South Africa -- England wants desperately to win another World Cup, and whispers from inside and out of the Three Lions camp says this mix has the talent, the right coach and the pluck to stitch it all together -- never mind those recent friendlies that landed somewhere between unconvincing and alarming.
The United States carries far more humble ambitions into South Africa 2010, intent on escaping the first round and seeing what might happen from there.
Either way, the disparate bids begin jointly on Saturday in what may be the most highly anticipated soccer match in U.S. history. The air will be a bit thin and the tension dreadfully thick at Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium, where coach
"It's going to be pretty incredible," U.S. goalkeeper
"I really think our country is going to stop, I really do. I think our country is going to stop and watch and see if we get a result. It's a lot of pressure, but it's also pretty cool to see how far we've come."
For both teams, the opportunity is clear and the motivation is simple: A win in the opener points the entire South African adventure in the right direction. It vents pressure helpfully and gives everyone a big boost in the five days before the next test. A loss doesn't equal colossal failure, especially as more manageable opposition may lie ahead. But it would add weight to an already pressurized environment and reduce the margin for error going forward.
That's normal in any World Cup opener; it will be the same for 30 other World Cup qualifiers in South Africa.
But the U.S.-England match is thick with evocative subplots, starting with the countries' political ties and shared bonds in the sport. It's the "old money" of England versus a side that not so long ago was "the help," a nation still reaching for nouveau riche status. Plus, the English imprint on American soccer is massive. So many of the early teachers, coaches and pioneers of U.S. soccer were imports from the British Isles.
U.S. Soccer president
There are player links, too. Two of the American difference makers, Howard and
All that said, U.S. players are quick to remind that the World Cup first round is three matches, not just one.
"I understand how much has been put on this game and what it means, I definitely do, but there's more to it," said Donovan, who has declared himself more mentally and physically prepared than four years ago during the deflated Germany 2006 campaign. "We have to be ready to react no matter what happens [Saturday]. In the Confederations Cup last year, we thought we were out after two games, then we played a great game against Egypt and it changed everything."
On the subject of "changing everything," referees can and have done so at a World Cup. So yet another talking point on Saturday's match was created when FIFA selected Brazilian referee
That's just an opinion. But there is hard data to show that he doesn't mind waving cards. Simon refereed three games in 2006, showing 17 yellow cards and one red.
Added to the volatile mix is that referees in South Africa may not ignore or pretend not to hear the swearing directed at them -- a cascade of cursing that has become endemic in some soccer corners. England does have some history of disciplinary indiscretion in World Cups;
Otherwise, the Three Lions appear confident. Few would challenge coach
"I just can't wait now," Rooney said this week. "The sooner it comes, the better."
While the British press bangs on about Rooney's notoriously foul mouth and how it could undermine England's bid, perhaps it is the Americans who need to worry about Simon's propensity for reaching into the pocket. History has taught us that American players rarely gain the benefit of the doubt in global soccer.
In terms of tactics and selections, both sides have gaps to fill and questions to answer. Plenty, in fact. Capello appeared to have settled on a 4-2-3-1 arrangement -- a bit of an odd duck around English football, which traditionally worships at the altar of the 4-4-2. Recent injuries may convince him that 4-4-2 is the way forward, however.
Either way, success for England may be down to getting the most from important midfielders Gerrard and
As for Bradley, he could go in multiple directions in multiple places. Essentially, the same questions that have been asked for weeks (or months in some cases) still need resolution. Will center back Onyewu be ready? Or
All that, and he still has to worry about Rooney, one of the top marksmen here. They sound ready, at least.
"The mentality is good," Howard said. "You get tired of training. Tired of kicking each other. We've been together, like, forever. This is everything you've dreamed of, everything that everyone has been talking about. We're ready to see what we're made of. All the talk is over, or soon will be over. We're excited for that."