After an informal survey of the fan base swarming in the São Paulo airport, one wonders how many Mexicans can possibly be left in Mexico.
On the opening morning of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Mexicans are by far the most visible by virtue of both their sheer numbers and the prodigious size of their hats. The sea of sombreros jostling through the customs line is truly a sight to behold. On a flight later that shuttled a load of them to Brazil's Northeast Coast, some of them broke out into song upon landing.
They are ready.
Soccer fans around the world are ready — and now the wait is over. Some additional questions about readiness remain, however.
Is Brazil ready? Heading into the tournament, queries abounded in traditional and social media outlets about stadium readiness and even public opinion as mass demonstrations underscored the Brazilian people's frustration with their government's spending priorities. The attitude could be summed up thusly: "How can you spend $12 billion on tournament preparations and building stadiums — some even in cities that don't have professional clubs — when people are starving and in need of education and health care?" This type of legitimate question plays out at all levels of sport around the globe as economic development projects compete with social welfare demands.
But the bottom line from this reporter's perspective is this: We are dealing with Brazil and soccer. The two are symbiotic. They feed each other. The party is on.
Riding in a taxi from the Fortaleza airport to the beach just minutes before kickoff of the opening game, one could see people gathered everywhere, in alleys, living rooms, restaurants and around TVs in storefront windows. When Brazil scores, a collective cheer echoes through the streets and fireworks explode.
"It was an amazing day for us," observed Roberto Opice, a Brazilian who recently returned home after completing his studies at Indiana University. "Brazilians showed their pride for the national team, leaving behind all the governmental issues. The crowd singing all together was beautiful."
The game itself (attended by more than 62,000 people) started with stunner as Croatia went up 1-0 when Brazilian defender Marcelo's attempt to clear a threatening ball instead resulted in an own goal — the first in Brazilian National Team history. Croatia's glory was short-lived. Superstar Neymar scored two goals and Oscar added another in stoppage time.
The day after the match a local headline summed up perfectly the passion of the national spirit, which can be mobilized to protest, to play soccer and to party. Translated from Portuguese, it reads, "Emotion, Fear & Euphoria."
Brazil is ready. Is the U.S.?
After 10 appearances and (on the men's side) never getting closer to the championship match than the quarterfinals, is the U.S. ready to win the World Cup?
The world's soccer cognoscenti are not optimistic.
It's tough to find an analyst who predicts the U.S. will beat Germany, a team that is regularly forecast to make the quarterfinals at least.
The team can thank Abby Wambach for predicting that the men would at least make the semi-finals. (Wambach holds the U.S. scoring record. No U.S. player, man or woman, has yet to surpass her 167 goals in 221 international appearances for a goals per game average of .76. Landon Donovan, who holds the U.S. men's record, by comparison has netted 57 in 156 international games for a points per game average of .37.)
Even Coach Jurgen Klinsmann is focused on managing expectations.
"We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet," Klinsmann told New York Times reporter Sam Borden. "For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible."
Last Wednesday, he repeated a toned down version of the same sentiment to the Associated Press: "I think for us now, talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic. First we've got to make it through the group. So let's stay with our feet on the ground and say let's get that group done first, and then the sky is the limit."
In the current environment on the ground in Brazil, a U.S. fan can walk around proudly displaying their allegiance without garnering sneers or derision from representatives of other nations. Unfettered U.S. patriotism at other times can generate disdain and grumbling among foreigners about America's imperialistic tendencies. When it comes to soccer though, the reaction tends toward kind tolerance. People will smile and nod as they think, "There's one team I'm not worried about."
For some perspective, I looked to U.S. Men's National Team veteran DaMarcus Beasley. Beasley, who now defends for the U.S. after playing in attacking positions earlier in his career, is the team's first player to appear in four World Cups.
"I think people do look at us as a country that's growing in soccer, but they know how strong we are, how physical," Beasley said in an interview after the team's May 24 practice. "They know they can't take us lightly because we'll punish them. We've done that winning in Europe's big games. Winning at home against European teams, South American teams. We've done that."
Still, if the U.S. is going to advance from Group G, the so-called "Group of Death," solid, consistent defense is of primary importance.
We asked two of Beasley's former coaches, Bronn Pfeiffer and Bobby Poursanidis, former professional players themselves, what it will take to succeed. How, for example, does one defend against Cristiano Ronaldo?
While DaMarcus brings an "x-factor" to the game in that he can push forward and be a scoring threat, Pfeiffer advised a conservative approach to Portugal.
"You don't want to be caught naked when you are playing against Ronaldo," he said. "You can't be taking the chance to go forward and all of a sudden you give up the one chance for him to press forward.
"Ronaldo has great pace; so does DaMarcus. I think that's why the coach brought in guys like (DeAndre) Yedlin and (Timmy) Chandler that are fast. I think they're looking to match up some speed against him. Just be patient, don't get ahead of yourself or out of shape (in terms of tactical formation). Be patient knowing that he is such a dangerous threat the whole time. Obviously, I'm biased and I think DaMarcus can handle all that with his pace and ability to play the game."
Still, the teams the U.S. who will face are stacked with quality players that play in the world's top professional leagues and come together to form the national team — "kind of like putting our NBA players on the Olympic team," Pfeiffer explained.
"They're going to be strong throughout — you're not going to have weak links," he said. "So we'll have to do our best, but I think we are ready for it. I think this is our deepest team I've ever seen in our national team – there is some quality depth to their bench."
As the tournament progresses, it will be interesting to assess how players coming out of Major League Soccer in the U.S. will perform in comparison to the players they face from the elite squads of Europe.
What better way to take out old, experienced Germans than with young, hungry Germans? Just like Star Wars, at some point the student becomes the master.
There's no denying that soccer culture in the world's soccer powerhouses is at a different level than it is in the U.S. In a recent interview with NUVO, Kleberson, a member of Brazil's 2002 World Cup-winning national team who now plays for Indy Eleven (Indiana's new pro team), said, "Soccer here, the level is very different from basketball or baseball. It will progress. Patience. Soccer is never dead. You can learn, learn, learn. It is different; it's hard.
"When I'm in Brazil, I play in the morning and in the night — sometimes in my dreams. The kids in Brazil: It's soccer, soccer, soccer. Here, I drive, I don't see so many fields. In Brazil, when you drive you see field, field, field, kids playing in the street. Here is a different level."
In the end, the most important thing for everybody — for Brazil, for the U.S., for the players, the fans, the coaches — is to enjoy the game, soak in this beautiful, quadrennial opportunity to put the daily grind on hold and become immersed in the passion and the pageantry.
Consider these parting shots from DaMarcus Beasley: "In the World Cups, you see so many upsets ... The fun thing about fútbol — soccer — is: It's one game. Whoever is best on that day will win the game. End of story."