Why We Believed: USA vs. Belgium from a Fan's Perspective

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A week ago, after the U.S. tied Portugal, I had breakfast with a Brazilian in Salvador. When I asked him who he thought were the best countries in the World Cup, he named four — and he didn’t even mention his own:

“Germany, Holland, Argentina … and the United States.”

He wasn’t even the first person to mention Team USA, and I don’t think he was just being nice because I’m American. A lot of Brazilians warmed up to the U.S. squad after watching them survive the “group of death,” and even though most fans from other countries still mock us for liking basketball and football a lot more than the world’s sport, they respect the boisterous party that we brought to Brazil.

We all knew that the United States wasn’t going to win the tournament; we just didn’t know when we’d be knocked out. Turns out, it was last night, to Belgium, a country whose waffles and chocolate became the butt of all our jokes for four days.

Belgium is a better team. But our fans trounced them in numbers — word on the cobblestone was that 20,000 Americans had showed up. Only 500 Belgians were there. The Belgian soccer federation was even selling $90 tickets the day of the game because they had extras.

The day of the Round of 16 match in Salvador, we all mixed together. At a hostel in the city’s old town, a young Belgian and a young American tried their best at game-day trash talk.

“You know it’s soccer, not football, right?” said the Belgian.

“I think it’s going to be 5 to 3. High-scoring game,” said the American. “After the game tonight I want to see you guys again. We’re all partying.”

“Oh, we’ll see you in the morning,” said the Belgian. “You’ll still be crying.”

“Oh, crying ’cos we’re so proud,” said the American.

For all the pomp that goes into producing the World Cup, most of the fans who fly to the games spend far more hours doing other things than watching soccer. In Brazil the party never ends, and in any of the host cities you can run into anyone from any of the 31 other countries who are here. The Australians were knocked out at the very beginning, but swarms of them are sticking around to drink. There are even a lot of Canadians, which is hilarious.

One fella from South Africa traveled to Brazil to support the USA, wearing his white U.S. jersey that he got in the states in 1994 when we hosted the games.

Inside the stadium, the red-white-and-blue fanatics crammed into the stands near a corner, refusing to sit down (and also refusing to go where our tickets said we should). They represented the whole country, from New York to Pennsylvania to Arizona to California. Some of them supported MLS clubs; some just liked the USMNT.

I asked one of them, from Albany, why he liked soccer, and he said: “I don’t know. I was born with it. There’s no answer for that. It’s like, for some people, why don’t you like eggplant?”

I hate eggplant, and the first 90 minutes of that game was a lot of eggplant. But we kept eating it hoping for dessert, and singing American folk tunes like “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land,” along with the patriotic soccer chants that the U.S. fans have brought to four stadiums in Brazil.

Everything that can be said about Tim Howard has already been said on Twitter, and anything that can be said about the future of soccer in the United States will probably be wrong, because its path in our country is as unpredictable as Jurgen Klinsmann’s set piece that almost put us even at the end of the game.

What I know is that I’ve been traveling to soccer cities around the world for the past four months, and the sensational chanting, both methodical and improvised, from the American fans in our loss to Belgium was as great as anything I heard in Dortmund, in Split, and in Sarajevo.

The official chant of the American fans is the pep-rally refrain “I believe that we will win,” and we lost, but based on the millions of people who crowded into stadiums not just in Salvador but in the United States to watch that game, who’s to say we didn’t win a little bit?

Matt Negrin is writing a book about soccer fans around the world and at the World Cup. His website is www.awayandhome.com.