Sports Nut

A Draw, and the Drinkers Go Home

The view from England after the United States and England play to a 1-1 tie.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Also in Slate, Luke O’Brien says American fans in South Africa are jubilant over the United States’ draw with England.

“We drew,” said a man with the cross of St George painted on his face at the bar of The Queen, a pub in London’s Primrose Hill. Soon, it would be closing time and the crowd at this pub had thinned more than I had anticipated. When I passed by the premises before the match between the United States and England in South Africa, it was heaving. So, I imagine, was every pub in the country that has a television set. Prior to the match, the streets of London seemed deserted; a Sunday morning in London had arrived on a Saturday night. “If England win, you expect a lot of drinking,” said the barman before the game. “If England lose, you expect a lot drinking. A draw—the drinkers go home.” The barman said this in a way that suggested that he wouldn’t be so disappointed with a subdued end to a much-anticipated evening.

And yes—it was a draw. The United States did what England’s Italian manager, Fabio Capello, suspected, and gave England a difficult game. England did what Capello hoped it wouldn’t do—surrender its momentum after scoring a goal in the fourth minute of the match. For much of the rest of the game, England struggled to live up to its billing as one of the World Cup’s stronger sides. They may have scored in the fourth minute, a Steven Gerrard goal, but thereafter they weren’t convincing. Johnny Rotten once said of his band: “I really do think that the crowning glory of the Sex Pistols is that we’ve always managed to disappoint on big occasions. When the chips were down, we never came through.” The difference between the England football team and the Sex Pistols is that even when the chips look good, England still has a capacity not to come through.

In last season’s English Premier League, Fulham—the team that American Clint Dempsey plays for—surpassed expectations and reached a European cup final. On Saturday, the United States played as Fulham does, as the underdog, while England, mindful of its reputation, seemed unable to shake itself free of the enormous expectations. So it was fitting that Dempsey should score in the 40th minute. When he struck the ball some distance from the England goal, it didn’t look as if he would score. The ball hit the turf a couple of times, unawkwardly, but the England goalkeeper Robert Green proved unable to stop the shot. Robert Green took the sting out of it, lost control, and saw the ball roll over the goal line. Later in the match, Green made a terrific save to deny Jozy Altidore a goal, but already this World Cup has an unforgettable moment: the moment when Green fumbled what should have been a straightforward save.

Only in the second half did England manage to sustain period of attacking football, with Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey, and Frank Lampard all having their chances. (Heskey’s chance was the best of them, and he was denied by the brave American goalkeeper Tim Howard.) Those 20 minutes of England dominance aside, either team could have won the game. In particular, the two American strikers, Altidore (who is only 20) and Robbie Findley, look as if they have the strength and the speed to muscle through many formidable defenses.

U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan, too, had a more threatening match than his English counterparts, Gerrard and Lampard, despite Gerrard’s early goal. Donovan reminds me of the talented Dutch player Wesley Sneijder: Both of these midfielders are skilled at finding their attackers, and that was something neither Gerrard nor Lampard seemed able to do on Saturday. Rooney and Heskey, who have the potential to be a well-matched pair of attacking forwards, rarely looked more dangerous than Altidore and Findley.

In 1950, the United States had its famous victory over England in the World Cup. In 2010, Team USA had the better of what may prove to be an equally famous draw. Both teams will play Slovenia and Algeria, and both teams must win these games if they are to advance to the knock-out phase. Algeria is a strong side who can’t be underestimated. Why I think it’s more certain the United States will go through, I can’t explain.

One last word. The World Cup has seen its second day, and so far the pitches and the crowds have been good, contrary to what some thought they would be. There were an enormous number of England supporters at Saturday’s match, and they were no doubt disappointed not to see their side get a win over the Americans. But English disappointment is a complex phenomenon. Disappointed in a draw? Yes. Disappointed to be in South Africa? I think not.