Thursday, June 15, 2006
First of all, let me just say that it was a disheartening performance by a team that came out flat and couldn't snap out of it. As a frequent apologist for US Soccer I take that as a personal affront.

So disconsolate did I become in the face of a spectacle reminiscent of France '98 that, as often happens in times of personal patriotic crisis, my thoughts did turn to the American Eagle. "Noble creature, I salute you," my thoughts did think, "soar onward, unfettered and free, symbolic representation that you are of this, our great nation."

Which is when it struck me: I was thinking about this all wrong.

A literal analysis of who ran faster or kicked harder was unbecoming of the highest-educated team in the tournament. We transcend such petty concerns as speed and stamina. And trapping. Ours is the heady game of symbol-systems, in which this team is more than equipped to compete. As coach Bruce Arena was recently quoted in the New York Times: "If they awarded the World Cup trophy on who could do crossword puzzles, we'd win it easily."

Even the harshest critics of Arena's tactics and his players' seeming on-field conformity agree with that assessment, and on one other key point: the American Eagle is one of the most kick-ass national symbols in the world. For my money, it is also a promising competitor versus the national symbols of the remaining group E competition.

We all knew Arena (Cornell '73) was dreading a direct match-up of the American Eagle against the Czech Republic's major symbol, as depicted on their flag: a shield, representing a disciplined defense anchored by Chelsea keeper Petr Cech, with not one but two eagles, and a couple of lions thrown in for good measure. When considered on those terms, does it come as any surprise that the Czechs prevailed? It was like playing 2 versus 11!

Either way, it was always going to be a tough game given Pope's proven susceptibility to attacking players represented by the recycled symbols of a former totalitarian regime.

But when it comes to Ghana, our chances are looking up. Their national symbol: Kente fabric. This colorful, woven, ceremonial cloth dates back to ancient Egypt and is currently available through a number of websites. Serious collectors and daring executives alike can purchase bubba, hat and pants with "matching embroidery in dull red/gold color" starting at a reasonable $175.00 at www.africastyles.com.

As impressive a fashion statement as that would be, it is no match for the attack of an American Eagle, whose hooked beak can render the flesh from a mature ocelot in under six seconds.

Just imagine that colorful bubba, standing out in sharp contrast to the green grass. The eagle would spot it from miles away with laser precision. Now, picture that fabric being ripped to shreds by an enraged bird with a wingspan of over 8 feet, and you can begin to see why Michael Essien is sleeping none too soundly ahead of the June 22 match date.

Amoah and Appiah's experience, athleticism and vision won't have Carlos Bocanegra (History major, UCLA) overly worried when and if they swap their Puma jerseys for loose-flowing, 100% Kente uniforms. Indeed, the Fulham defender is eager to get the nod in game three.

But before facing Ghana, the US has a major hurdle to overcome in Italy.

Or does it?

Mastroeni versus Totti might seem daunting, just as Lewis (Sociology, also UCLA) going up against Camoranesi makes my mouth go dry. But abundant saliva may be returned to us all in the form of Italy's national symbol (according to the Pasta Barilla website): "Lasagne a la Bolognese".

Jimmy Conrad, a math major, may probably be thinking that the US team's biggest concern against Italy is overeating. And he may possibly be right.

I understand your skepticism. The matches are slated to be played on the terrain of the literal. And yes, it's true that Cory Gibbs will be missed, as much for his Brown education as for his abilities on defense. But I must insist: this many college-graduates, although seemingly ill-equipped for the rigors of physical sport, are exceedingly well-prepared for the challenges of intellectual debate, of symbols versus symbols.

And in that conceptual realm, on the thick, water-marked paper that degrees are printed on, the US is still an odds-on favorite to make the elimination rounds.

At least in the abstract.