Third Time Lucky for England?


Group B: ENGLAND v USA - Al Thumama, Doha 22:00 local time

Third Time Lucky for England?

England play the USA for the third time at the World Cup later today but have yet to beat the Americans competitively, which is an odd thing to say.

Their first meeting was one of the cup's greatest-ever shocks - a 1-0 win for the US in 1950 in Brazil. The Belo Horizonte match has become the Americans' founding football myth, when the underdog upset the odds against the masters of football, a soccer Rocky if you will.

England had felt the first two World Cups were beneath them so didn't participate, but were still considered the best in the world, rather like the US took a less than committed stance towards Olympic basketball for years. Despite an England eleven featuring Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion and Stan Mortensen, the US goal led a charmed life and the minnows held on for a famous victory.

America did not return to the World Cup until 1990, a result of the sport declining stateside despite a return of professionalism in the 1960s and the NASL heyday of the following decade. Major League Soccer began in 1996 and had growing pains for most of its first two decades but is now established with 29 sides and 12 soccer-specific stadia, a significant advance. The average crowd is 21,300, not far behind the Mexican Apertura's 25,500.

America, like China and India, had always seemed a big missing piece in world football, but they are a fixture now, although the national team missed out on Russia 2018 and has not matched its quarter-final finish of 2002, where they beat Mexico and Portugal en route to a close tussle with finalists Germany.

It has always felt frustrating that our two nations had a common language which ended with sports. America had a football club as far back as 1862, a national team since 1884 and reached the semi-finals of the first World Cup in 1930, so should have gone on to be a major football nation but for various reasons soccer became a minor sport in America.

England toyed with the US in friendlies over the years before losing 2-0 to the Yanks in Boston in 1993, a nadir in Graham Taylor's ill-starred reign at the F.A.

The second competitive meeting was at South Africa 2010, a 1-1 first-round draw. I went to the match with American friends, who left much the happier. England fans were cheesed off afterwards and had nothing to celebrate. The US ones were partying. 

Steven Gerrard had given the Three Lions an early lead but Clint Dempsey's trickery wrongfooted the England goalscorer enough to let him get a shot away, which Rob Green famously fumbled over the line.

Wayne Rooney huffed and puffed but could not get past a dogged backline, while the US actually came closest to stealing it when Jozy Altidore outmuscled Jamie Carragher and motored in on goal only to strike the post. Both sides reached the Round of 16. Fabio Capello's England would exit embarrassingly 4-1 to Germany while the US lost narrowly 2-1 to Ghana.

It was a weird introduction to a curious World Cup finals. Rustenburg had a good-sized stadium but the King Bafokeng arena had a running track which always leads to a distant experience, while the single-lane highway in and out of the city caused the mother of all traffic jams afterwards. 

My abiding memory is the darkness around the arena being punctured by the piercing searchlights of a US Army helicopter transporting ex-President Bill Clinton to the match.

Americans tend to mock the English and would love nothing more for the pupil to beat the teacher tonight. In 2010, comedian Jon Stewart, who is a football fan himself, joked that the US beating England at football would be the final confirmation the British Empire is really over.

English soccer coaches have spread the game for years in America, it is the No.1 female and youth sport and the Premier League retains its popularity above other leagues for football lovers stateside, although the general public has still yet to get the soccer bug. Football grows bigger every year in America however and hosting the 2026 World Cup will boost it immensely.

"It is only a matter of time," an American fan told me in Dortmund at a Germany v USA friendly a few years ago. "The sport is just too popular not to succeed in America."

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(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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