American soccer took another finger in eye Tuesday night, and we say this fully cognizant of the fact that Argentina’s 4-0 victory in the Copa America was exactly the proper result and margin given the talent and inventiveness disparity between the teams.
In other words, this game is 4-0 every time it is played. Okay, maybe 4-1 or 3-0. But you and I will be long and safely dead before America beating the Argentines consistently is not an upset.
Not because American soccer is stagnant, as many people will tell you. It’s that its improvements are in line with the improvement of the actual soccer-centric nations of the world, which is to say the gap has closed on some of the second-tier nations but almost none of the elite sides.
Like, for example, Argentina.
The gap that is widening, on the other hand, is the American soccer media’s impatience. It operates as most soccer medias in Europe and South America and Asia and Africa do – victories must be lionized and defeats scandalized. Blame must be delegated with a heavier hand than credit, and punishments must be swifter than rewards.
Yay us! We’re big-time global second- and third-guessers! Drinks are on Roger Bennett and Michael Davies!
The problem, you see, is not the American players stink (they don’t), or that Jurgen Klinsmann is a tactical and strategic moron (he is more stubbornly idiosyncratic), but that people seem to think the U.S. should be beating Argentina because the U.S. was good in the 1994 World Cup, and that should have been the springboard to eternal glory.
Well, allow me to offer this. Other countries get better, too. The world does not stay static waiting for the Americans to get better. For every Brazil, which is basically the sport’s version of the Los Angeles Lakers (big rep, no pelts), there are eternal verities like Germany and Italy and yes, Argentina, new powerhouses like Spain and Belgium (which apparently trades the Benelux-based spotlight with the Netherlands). They all have what the Americans have – work rate and energy – but they also have what the Americans largely do not – systems that find and nurture the inventive, the intuitive, the genii that don’t fit into regimented boxes.
That is a function of decades of knowing what ingenuity wrapped in skill looks like, and a more open mind to nurturing that gift.
Hence, Lionel Messi – and lots of other incandescent generationals which America either hasn’t found or lost to other sports or smothered under the parent-dominated youth leagues.
[RECAP: Instant Replay: US blasted by Argentina in Copa America semis]
In other words, the American needs for measurables and conformity and hammering the nail that sticks out isn’t best suited to not-classically-built inventors and masterminds like, again, Messi – and we mention him because he schooled the Americans Tuesday night.
So America loses to elite teams, and the amazing thing is not that more people don’t say, “Well, Argentina should do that because Argentina is way better,” but that more people do say, “But we’re the United States, and our many advantages should make the rest of the world shrink in terror.”
And that’s not happening on any number of fronts, but we’re talking about soccer – and it’s not happening there, either.
So to summarize, the United States got not necessarily what it deserved, but what Argentina could show them – a very unpleasant evening. This is not the same as stagnating, or regressing, or failing to meet the promise of 1994, whatever the hell that was supposed to be.
This is going take far more time than that, and no, MLS isn’t going to be vanguard there. MLS is a real estate company that often brings in semi-retired decorators from overseas to tart up the properties while occasionally educating (and just as often humoring) the local workers. The U.S. has been serious about their place in this game for maybe a quarter-century (and no, we’re not counting the long and largely unlamented NASL, which was one team and a lot of local palookas signing up to physical and financial beatings), and soccer is not a top-down enterprise. Judging by FIFA’s magnificent corruptions, it’s actually bottoms-up when it comes to cash, but that’s another story.
Soccer is, as it is played on the pitches of the world, is about the imperfect bestowal of fast-twitch, vision and spatial curiosity muscles upon a precious few, and the hope that someone sees those packages and makes them into true gifts.
America has not yet had a Messi, or even come close, nor would it be likely to know what to do with one if it appeared because such creatures are discovered a hell of a long time before Klinsmann ever sees them. America is still a relative infant, and to expect to sprint with Argentina when the Argentines have a Messi (not to mention a Lavezzi, or a Higuain, or a Banega, or a SERGIO AGUERO COMING OFF THE BENCH, FOR GOD’S SAKE) is simply to give in to the satisfying but illusory instinct for bitching.
And America does have bitching down in ways the rest of the world can only admire enviously.