It wouldn't be fair, World Cup organizers said. That's why there was no additional star-spangled pregame pageantry at Stanford Stadium on July 4 and why no more Old Glories than usual festooned the Bay Area venue. For good measure an official issued a punctilious decree before the U.S. played Brazil: "There will be no fireworks."
As a prediction for the game at hand, those words certainly seemed supportable, at least as far as the host nation was concerned. Going into Monday's game in the Round of 16, the U.S. had not only failed to beat the Brazilians in 64 years but also hadn't so much as scored a goal against Brazil since 1930, when the U.S. lost 4-3 in the first World Cup. But once this game kicked off, matters were out of the organizers' hands and the fireworks were free to start.
"If we lose, nobody cares," said Alexi Lalas, the goateed American defender who's only a top hat and tails away from passing as Uncle Sam. "That is what we are supposed to do. But if Brazil loses...."
So huge was the opportunity—the home-standing underdog getting a shot at the favorite on the underdog's national holiday—that U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos sounded a note of suspicion before the game. "The whole thing seems like a setup," said Ramos.
It was a setup, but not as Ramos had hoped. Brazil set off most of the fireworks on the Fourth in its 1-0 win. Oh, there was a sparkler of a possibility for the U.S. when Tom Dooley just missed wide left a dozen minutes into the game. But the rest of the detonations were Brazil's. Aldair struck a Roman candle that barely missed. Bebeto's cherry-bombed volley just missed too. Romario sandwiched two bottle rockets around halftime, one that exploded off the post and another that Dooley cleared at the last possible instant. Finally, in the 74th minute, Bebeto set off a game-winning M-80 in the American net, and the hosts' run to soccer's Sweet 16 had come to an end. "It was a great script," said U.S. midfielder Cobi Jones, "except for the ending."
When Leonardo, a Brazilian defender, threw an elbow late in the first half, striking Ramos in the left temple, fracturing his skull and waylaying him for the rest of the game, Brazil might have been in serious trouble. Leonardo was ejected, which allowed the U.S. to play with a man advantage for half the game. But the loss of Ramos was devastating. He had been all over the field, setting up Dooley's shot, which wound up being the Americans' best opportunity of the afternoon.
U.S. coach Bora Mulitinovic believed his team's best chance would come if it could lock up the Brazilians for 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime, thus pushing the game into a penalty kick shoot-out, when the pressure on the favorites would only become more acute. But how to reach a shoot-out? The U.S. took its cues from Sweden, which tied Brazil 1-1 in the final round-robin qualifier on June 28 by jamming the middle and cheating back on defense. Mulitinovic started neither of his two best goal scorers, Eric Wynalda and Roy Wegerle, and deployed only one striker, Ernie Stewart. Nine players packed the back and the midfield, playing, as Ramos would put it, "to destroy, not to create." The Yanks would pillage for two hours and then try their luck.
Brazil, alas, was bent on wreaking some havoc of its own, and after the ejection of Leonardo, it seemed even more focused playing 10 on 11. The gut of the U.S. defense, Lalas and Marcelo Balboa, had shut down Switzerland's Stephane Chapuisat, Colombia's Faustino Asprilla and Romania's Florin Raducioiu, three of the most dangerous strikers in the world, in the first round. Now, with Dooley joining Lalas and Balboa in the backfield, they faced a pair of conjurers: Bebeto and Romario.
Maddeningly pouty and egotistical, Romario, 28, was twice sent home from tournaments as a junior for unspecified disciplinary reasons. At the last World Cup, in Italy, he insisted on bringing along his own trainer. Three years ago he spurned a call from the national team because he wanted to go to Ibiza on vacation. In the last few months he has called Pelè both "mentally retarded" and, intending no compliment, a "museum piece." Most recently, he pitched a fit over being assigned a seat on a team flight next to Bebeto, his soft-footed linemate and Spanish League rival.
Since the Cup began, however, Romario seems to have taken to heart the pleas of his coach, Carlos Parreira, to behave himself. Perhaps the pretournament counseling that the entire team went through, in which a specialist in positive thinking stressed a range of virtues, including humility, also helped set his head right. Whatever, he has caused no problems and channeled his ego well without entirely suppressing it. "This will be Romano's Cup," he pronounced after scoring in Brazil's opening-game defeat of Russia.
In the 74th minute on Monday, Romario set up the game's lone goal. He eluded Dooley's sliding tackle outside the penalty area, dodged Balboa and laid off a pass to his right, past Lalas to Bebeto, who didn't have to break stride to beat American goalkeeper Tony Meola. From the looks of the embrace the two Brazilian strikers shared after their collaboration, Romario may even be willing to sit next to Bebeto on the flight to Dallas, where the Magnificent Mononyms will play the Netherlands on Saturday in the quarterfinals.
Brazil, which has won three World Cups (1958, '62, '70), is a nation that looks for salvation from its soccer. The government is plagued by chronic corruption. The people can hardly tell what currency they'll be paid in from week to week. Renegade policemen shoot street urchins with impunity. Thus Brazilians hang their hopes on the promise of the national team every quadrennial, even as untimely injuries, dissension or turns of fate have thwarted their expectations again and again. Posters all over the country articulate the wish unrequited since 1970: ONE MORE, BRAZIL!
"Brazil lives for soccer," says Romario. "It has misery. It has bad politics. Soccer is like a blanket wrapping up all that."
Despite its elimination, the U.S. team raised its profile immeasurably during its Cup run. Say "Bora," and Statesiders no longer think of half an island in the South Pacific. By advancing to the second round the Americans pulled in a huge television audience for their match with Brazil, the team that, notwithstanding Leonardo's elbow, is soccer's best advertisement for itself. The U.S. was the perfect host—delivering the not-too-long, just-witty-enough toast before letting the guests be the lives of the party.
There's a life of the party, and then there's Brazil, which with its drum-beating fans and exuberant style is a festival unto itself. A few months ago someone asked Romario to name his dream World Cup final. "Brazil against Brazil," he answered, not unsurprisingly. As it happens, that's not just Romario's dream, or Brazil's, but much of the rest of the world's as well. For their artful style the Brazilians have come to be known outside the Land of the Carnival as everyone's second-favorite team.
So millions of Americans have reason to continue to follow this World Cup, in spite of the elimination of the home team—and to come to terms with a notion that only a few weeks ago must have seemed strange indeed: that they have a first favorite team, too.