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October 26, 2014

Bob Davis: Learning from America's World Cup loss

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Posted: Sunday, July 6, 2014 3:15 am

The outcome of the men’s basketball gold-medal game between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich enraged 7-year-old me.

What happened? The most basic way to put it: We wuz robbed.

A fuller (but still brief) explanation is that even though the United States was ahead at the end of regulation, game officials added time to the clock that allowed the Soviets to “win” and therefore take the gold medal. In protest, the American players refused to accept the silver medals.

Infuriating and outrageous. (In case it’s not obvious, middle-aged me is still pretty steamed at this blatant miscarriage of justice.)

Moving on, 20-something me was shocked when the U.S. men’s team failed to win gold in 1988’s Seoul summer games. Around this time, many Americans were questioning why the United States’ roster was filled with amateurs while the international competition was basically older, more seasoned professionals.

The 1992 Olympic squad — the Dream Team — included pro all-stars Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. They put America back on the top of the pedestal. Then came 2004; 30-something me was shocked by the U.S. loss to Argentina. Up to that point, the U.S. record in Olympic competition was 109-2.

Enter Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke basketball coach who helped lead the United States to gold in 2008 and 2012.

Coach K offered an important reminder to both U.S. players and fans: You don’t own the sport of basketball. It’s arrogant and wrong to think that you do.

In his 2009 book, The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team, Krzyzewski wrote, “Since James Naismith invented the game in 1891, the United States had spent many years teaching it to the world. And the world had learned it well. Now, we had to accept the fact that we had something to learn from them.”

I’d like to believe there’s a lesson here for Americans who’ve spent the past few weeks watching the World Cup from Brazil.

A couple of Thursdays back, I was driving along an Alabama back road when a notification sounded on my mobile phone. It was news from the World Cup and it was awesome. Despite losing its match to Germany, the U.S. men’s soccer team was advancing to the next round.

I’m not sure what was more amazing to 49-year-old me — that technology has advanced to the point where a device can keep me up-to-date with an event 4,000 miles away or that I actually cared about the outcome of a soccer game.

I’ll admit it. I had World Cup fever, one that kept me glued to the action but not delusional enough to think we had a real chance to win the tournament.

Last week, Belgium eliminated the United States in a thrilling match that was closer than anyone might have predicted. The Belgians were superior yet hustle and extraordinary effort kept the United States in the game. The final was 2-1 in a match that required extra time.

So, what do we take from the U.S. performance in the World Cup? The Americans’ play helped them survive the so-called Group of Death, named for its fierce competition. Americans — die-hard supporters and casual fans — were inspired by the grit of players who were clearly fighting above their weight class.

Maybe, just maybe, U.S. soccer is at a place other nations’ basketball teams were several decades back. Soccer — or futbol, if you prefer — isn’t our sport, at least not in the way it’s celebrated in Europe, Latin America and Africa. But we are gaining on the rest of the world.

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