Target Man: Notes In The Build-Up To Brazil-USA

It's hours before kickoff in the biggest game in U.S. soccer history. Or something like that.'s Greg Lalas checks in from Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
By Greg Lalas

JOHANNESBURG—Look how far we’ve come. Twenty years ago, the United States needed a miracle shot to beat Trinidad & Tobago just to qualify for a major international tournament. Now the U.S. is in its first final. It’s the biggest game in U.S. soccer history.

Or maybe it’s the most significant. Or the most important. I can’t quite figure it out despite just about every sportswriter in America riffing on something like this over the past few days. They usually add some drivel about how this big/significant/important game still won’t put soccer on par with American football, baseball, or basketball.

Thing is, we know all this, don’t we? And by we, I mean, we sports fans, not just soccer fans. We know this game isn’t going to make soccer fans out of every Dallas Cowboys season-ticketholder or every Red Sox fanatic. We know soccer is going to be a second-tier sport in the United States for decades to come. We know that MLS will struggle to grow its fanbase beyond the holding-steady 15,000 it gets now. We know that the World Cup will be a massive media event next summer but that when the final whistle is blown, most Americans will return to the bleachers at the local baseball stadium.

We also know that it’s okay. I would argue, in fact, that soccer no longer has to force itself into the American consciousness. It is already there, to varying degrees. Therefore, the Confederations Cup final is just that, a final. Period. It is inherently big/significant/important. The typical American sports junkie doesn’t need Joe the Sportswriter to tell him that anymore, which probably says as much about how far we’ve come as the team’s reaching the final does.

We Are All South African
When Katlego Mphela scored his stoppage-time cracker to equalize for the Bafana Bafana in the consolation match with Spain, the media center here at Ellis Park erupted in cheers. I don’t know if was a celebration of a brilliant strike or in recognition of the host nation, but it was heartfelt either way. Too bad Bafana fell in the end.
Maybe Not All of Us
Rumor has it a Mexican media member was robbed just outside of Ellis Park about five hours before kickoff. This report came from one of the two or three female journalists here, all of whom seem to own an endless supply of short skirts and makeup.

Speaking of Short Skirts
The Brazilian journalists have watched internet porn to while away the hours before kickoff.

And Now for a Musical Interlude

About an hour before kickoff, there is to be a kind of closing ceremony. According to the press release, it's going to include 150 drummers, 20 dancers, and several South African music stars, including Ntando, Judith Sephuma, and Steve Hofmeyer. I hear they're all big in Belgium.

The Smart Money Is on Brazil
Not surprising, really, but most of the people I’ve talked to over the past few days think Brazil will win the final. Two-nil seems to be the preferred final score. Oddly, this is the same scoreline most people predicted for the Spain-U.S. game, and we all know how that worked out.

But I Like the U.S. ...Seriously

I’m going with 2-1 U.S. It’s taken me some time, but I’ve come around about this team. The confidence—and even more importantly, the looseness—of the players yesterday at the hotel was inspiring.

Benny Feilhaber was teasing Ricardo Clark while I did an interview with the latter. The duo will probably lineup alongside each other against Brazil, so it was good to see the two of them showing a strong, convivial relationship off the field.

Tim Howard took a picture with Iraq manager Bora Milutinovic, who was his coach with the MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls) before he headed to bigger things in Europe. Milutinovic spoke of Howard as a young bundle of potential back then and how he was in China when he read the news of Howard’s transfer to Manchester United. “I think, ‘This is incredible,’ ” Milutinovic said.

And lastly, Bob Bradley. He was his usual businesslike self, but he looked entirely in his comfort zone. The day before the biggest game of his career, he seemed as steady and directed as he has all month.

Greg Lalas is editor of Magazine.