"The United States are a very, very good team."
-- Kwesi Appiah, Ghana manager, ahead of the teams' match on Monday
It's a fine compliment, but it does say something about the peculiar history of sports on Earth.
The coach of the 17th-most-populous nation in the World Cup uttered that passage to the Ghana FA website in an apparent attempt to remind the soccer-conscious Ghanaian people not to overlook the team from the most populous nation in the World Cup, and the third-most-populous nation in the world, and the world's largest economy, and the world's largest cinematic and television influence, and the country that supposedly can do anything.
That's because Ghana has beaten the United States in the last two World Cups, and because Ghana came millimeters from reaching the final four last time around in South Africa, falling barely to Uruguay in a handball-and-missed-penalty nightmare of a quarterfinal in Johannesburg, settled on kicks.
That's also because the coach in the United States-Ghana round-of-16 match in 2010, Bob Bradley, had much of Egypt in a hopeful mode last year, a hard thing to do, managing its national team unbeaten all through World Cup qualifying into the final round, whereupon it visited Kumasi, Ghana, whereupon the whole two-year build-up disintegrated in a 6-1 night/nightmare.
It's also because in the United States, historically, we tended to take other people's games and tweak them, think up our own versions, out of either originality or insecurity or both. So by 2014 we have a runaway-popular game (American football) that almost no one else follows, while the world has a game that completely entrances it but ranks middle-of-the-pack, if rising, in our priorities. It's a rote fact of American life that the majority of the great athletes try the menu of games other than soccer.
That's how we get to Group G of the 2014 World Cup, stuck in a quartet with two sides -- sorry, teams -- from the world's mightiest continent, Europe, plus Ghana, whose coach has to remind his citizens of the opponent's very-very goodness.
In truth, it's an opportunity.
If there was one positive about U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann's startling omission of Landon Donovan from the squad, it's that it might have given us a chance to hear a little less about Donovan's goal at 90+1 that beat Algeria in Pretoria and won Group C for the United States in 2010. Donovan's goal generated a lot of noise at the time and since, largely because of its unmistakable drama, drama so thick that it occluded the fact that the entire Group C probably should have been relegated from the World Cup.
Recently, I visited one of those big-event stadiums whose use and expense goes into question after the event, Cape Town Stadium, and in the stillness I marveled that they hadn't torn it down after the 0-0 Group C draw between England and Algeria. They should have just for the sake of decency, just to assure that no crowd in the future ever could endure anything that ghastly. Group C also included Slovenia, a sporting country that plays way above its head in the Olympics and otherwise deserves only admiration, yet a country with just shy of 2 million people. What passed for controversy in Group C was a referee's disallowance of a U.S. goal that followed a referee's inability to spot a U.S. dive that set up the goal in a 2-2 draw with tiny, game Slovenia.
Only one of the eight groups in South Africa failed to send anybody to the quarterfinals: Group C. Running around in a 0-0 draw with Algeria in added time and getting out of Group C should not have made anyone shout except in relief just after Donovan's goal.
Getting out of Group G this year would constitute a feat, just as getting out of Group D did in 2002 when Bruce Arena's U.S. team subsequently beat Mexico in the round of 16 and reached a competitive quarterfinal with Germany. Even if Poland did thrash the U.S. in the third match of that group stage, the U.S. did beat Portugal beforehand.
Twelve years on, the U.S. remains in a kind of higher-level holding pattern, improving but still proving. It completed an excellent CONCACAF qualifying campaign, one further flattered by Costa Rica's mastery of Uruguay on Saturday. (How hard would it be to paint "CONCACAF" on one's face?) In recent weeks, it knew at least two controversies, one big-league and the other amateurish. One involved Klinsmann's spurning of Donovan and the informative discussion it spawned. The other involved Klinsmann's assessment that the United States could not win the World Cup, a statement of European realism that got some blowback from American dreaming, neither of which has anything to do with how the team will perform, unless Klinsmann's slight happens to help.
As a U.S. team very much worth watching (for Michael Bradley, just for starters) plays a Ghana team very much worth watching (for Asamoah Gyan, just for starters) as a big-boy group starts its three-match, 11-day process. The third-biggest country in the world will play slight underdog to the 48th-biggest, but that's the evolution of sport -- if not the origin of species -- for you. Weathering this group with smaller, more accomplished nations really would warrant loudness.