For the first half of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup held in South Africa, the US led mighty Brazil two goals to nil. They were merely forty-five minutes away from a storybook finish that would have made Walt Disney proud. As the saying goes, "Even Hollywood couldn't have written a better script." But it wasn't meant to be and by the 84th minute, Lucio's header ensured a win for the Joga Bonito club from Brazil. The incredible wave of improbability that the American squad had ridden into their first ever FIFA sanctioned final had ebbed into a foamy puddle of second place "nice tries."
According to ussoccer.com, after the game, coach Bob Bradley said, "It was a tough one. Obviously, a good first half, but we give up the first goal so early in the second half that we put ourselves in a tough spot." He went on to say that he was, "extremely proud. We continue to try to move ourselves forward. Playing these kinds of games only helps, but it still feels pretty lousy to let this one get away." U.S. midfielder and Bronze Ball Winner Clint Dempsey couldn't agree more, "Everything doesn't always work out how you want it to, but no matter what I'm proud of what these guys accomplished and it was great to be a part of it."
It's easy to put this game into perspectives, however. The FIFA Confederations Cup isn't that old. In fact, it was original called The King Fahd Cup, or the Intercontinental Championship, and was first held in 1992 in Saudi Arabia.
In 1997, FIFA decided to add it to their ever-growing list of tournaments, and changed the name to Confederations Cup. It's an association soccer tournament for national teams, currently held every four years and between the winners of each of the six FIFA confederation championships (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA, AFC, OFC, CONCACAF), along with the FIFA World Cup winner and the host country, to bring the number of teams up to eight.
Those who are invited to the cup are supposedly la crème de la crème. Italy is the current reigning champion and as such, gets an automatic berth. South Africa is the site for the next world cup in 2010, so they get the second de facto spot.
Egypt has won the last two CAF, Africa Cup of Nations titles. That's a pretty impressive resume to bring to the tournament. Iraq has been at war since 2003, yet they managed to find eleven guys who could not only spare some time, but actually beat everyone else in the AFC division including three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final.
Spain is the current UEFA champ. They are also the best team in the world at the moment. There's nothing like the best in the world to show up at a cup. It adds that je ne sais quoi air of legitimacy. New Zealand appears for the third time representing the OFC, the Oceania Football Conference.
Copa America representative, Brazil, is also five time World Cup champions. They are an impressive team to add to any tournament, especially this one. The last member of this year's Confederation Cup, the United States, has one of the least impressive resumes of the bunch. They have only been to a few World Cups, have never made it to the final of any FIFA-sanctioned event and is better known for losing to Iran 2 1 in the 1998 World Cup in France than anything else.
All the teams had brought their best players. Even though the Confederations Cup had little history behind it, and had no prestige to speak of, not one single team was taking this tournament lightly. The regional winners from around the world with their best players in tow were going to dispute this little known event in front of a worldwide audience.
The first match with Italy started promisingly. A penalty in the 40th minute, when Chiellini of Italy fouled USA's Altidore, was converted by Donovan and the US led at halftime, 1 0. But by the 58th minute, things started going downhill. Rossi scored for Italy and they eventually won, 3 1. Against Brazil the massacre continued. By the end of their second match, the US had zero points, had scored but once on a penalty, and had allowed six goals.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians had shocked world champion Italy that same day 1 0 and were tied with them for second place in their group. Brazil, having beaten both Egypt and the USA, was the leader. The USA squad was at the bottom of their group and appeared certain to be among the first to exit. All appeared right in the soccer world. All that was left was to see if how bad Egypt was going to slaughter the Americans and see if it would be enough for them to move on to face Spain. Of course, Italy had its chances to move on as well depending on their game with Brazil.
The US needed more than a miracle if it was to see its chances of moving on. Not only did the US need to beat Egypt by at least three goals, a near impossibility for the squad that had lost to Iran once, but Brazil also needed to beat Italy by at least three goals, about as likely as Obama becoming president of the United States. The odds were so much against them that it was reported that several British gambling houses simply removed the US from their betting roster, no sense in beating a dead horse and no one was foolish enough to think that they really had a shot of moving on anyway.
Miracle #1: USA 3 Egypt 0.
Miracle #2: Brazil 3 Italy 0.
As the world looked on in horror, the Italian and Egyptian squads slowly packed their bags, boarded their planes, and returned to their countries, fin d'histoire. The US team was moving on.
They were moving on to meet the team that is considered the best in the world. And it's not because their name is easy to pronounce either. In their last match, Spain had tied the Brazilian world record for number of consecutive matches without a loss at 35. But even more impressive, they had established a new record of 15 consecutive wins. No team in the history of FIFA regulation had ever accomplished that goal. Certainly the powerhouse Spain would put the pesky Americans in their place in the semifinals.