RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- How was it to watch the USMNT from the beach, at the white-hot heart of the World Cup?
Mostly, it involved sitting around, watching Argentines dance.
That's not a bad evening.
Three hours had passed since Lionel Messi set up Angel Di Maria, three hours since Di Maria used his left foot to redirect the ball exquisitely back leftward and inside the left post, three hours since Switzerland's Stephan Lichtsteiner stood at the goal's back netting with a look of dejection only 118 minutes of hope can foster.
Yet the Argentines were still bouncing. They dominated the beach. They sang their songs, including the one to the tune of "Bad Moon Rising" that asks Brazil "how it feels to have daddy in your home" before conluding that Maradona is better than Pele. Sometimes they got up on each other's shoulders, although one might assess their current state of consciousness and wonder if they should be doing that. I don't want to shock you, but some of them seemed to walk with suboptimal balance.
Nobody attacked them, which may or may not owe to the ubiquitous security forces along the sand.
For so many years, South America teemed down here while few Americans in the higher latitudes gave it much of a thought. Now it has gotten attention through that greatest of bridges -- sports -- and that greatest of sports bridges, soccer (a.k.a. football, futbol, futebol, كرة القدم, Fußball, le foot, サッカー, 축구, voetbal, calcio, ποδόσφαιρο). It's South America's World Cup, and in it, South America has thrived -- with six teams, five in the knockout round and three in the quarterfinals, and two dismissed only by other South Americans. There are more than 387 million people on this continent, and many of them can make a kicked ball do things you wouldn't think it could do.
It's always healthy to be marginal in a group, to realize again that most people really don't think about Americans very much, that most earthlings are just trying to get through the day. Still, a fresh wrinkle did just come: The United States seemed to join the planet in earnest. Sure, a U.S. match might be an afterthought in a gathering of the world's biggest sport on one of its top two continents. Sure, the prevailing sight is still the Argentines walking the promenade with flags, singing. And sure, the U.S. team might have progressed only from the common soccer term "minnows" toward something medium-sized, maybe something along the lines of a brim or a brook trout.
But even if you can see Belgium's superiority; even if Tim Howard wouldn't have to make 16 saves if Belgium didn't have that superiority; even if you agree no American field player could start for the Belgians (and that's one reason to admire the Americans); you know what has happened. You know the U.S. has joined in the world's sport. You've seen the jaw-dropping photos of crowds gathered in Grant Park in Chicago, in Kansas City, in Washington and New York and bars and bars and bars. You know Seattle and Portland must have had a good time, because Seattle and Portland long have strode ahead of everyone on this matter.
It's an upsurge driven by the young, who realize that soccer is pulsating and stylish way beyond even Marouane Fellaini's hair. Everyone has heard the naysayers who argue that it can't be a great sport if you can't use your hands, but hardly anyone cares. Now, a spiked number of Americans await what will become of the U.S. program across the next four years.
The forever-wonderful George Vecsey, one of the soccer-loving pioneers from back when the forest was lonely and bleak, wrote last night: "Where is the American De Bruyne? Where is the American Lukaku? Maybe watching the World Cup with friends and saying, 'I can play that sport instead of basketball or baseball or football.' That is still somewhere in the future."
Many believe that the U.S.'s newfound interest in soccer could signal an end to American "exceptionalism." But that was always just another term for arrogance and entitlement, anyway. So maybe someday soon, U.S. fans will come to a rival country, dominate the beach and think up songs that taunt the hosts -- even if it's doubtful the country will produce anybody anytime soon it can claim to be better than Pele.