RECIFE, Brazil -- Italy and Croatia were the first two guests in the Golden Tulip Palace in Recife this past week. It is not a hotel that lives up to its name, but there they were, some of Europe's most famous players, loitering in the lobby, relaxing in their private lounge or attempting to get some sleep despite the howling wind whipping in off the Atlantic in the small, dead hours of the morning.
It was all very low-key. The entrance into the hotel directly from Avenida Boa Viagem, the road that runs along the city's 10-kilometer stretch of beach, had been closed, leaving only the main door. A half dozen soldiers idled outside. A couple of policemen stood on the corner. Only when the teams left for their training sessions in the Arena Pernambucano was there any sense of movement: a couple of police outriders to help ease them through the traffic, and gates to prevent fans swarming the bus. That was it.
And then, this past Tuesday, the Americans arrived.
Two helicopters circled overhead. The streets around the hotel became a sea of red, flashing lights. Two trucks of fully armed soldiers stationed themselves outside. The lobby was taken over by pleasant-looking men in polo shirts and slacks, each with a telltale translucent wire running from their ears into their collars. The USA's security detail extends to some 700 people, ranging from traffic officers to FBI agents. This is not a team that takes chances.
It would be easy, given these strict -- not to mention entirely understandable -- security arrangements, for the United States to seem somehow apart from the rest of the World Cup. There are barriers, after all, between them and the tournament. That they do not, though, is to their immense credit.
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In part, that is because of their supporters. More tickets were sold in the United States -- more than 200,000, according to recent figures -- than in any other country other than Brazil, and though that must at least to some extent be attributable to the myriad ex-pats residing in the States, there are few nations, if any, quite so well supported here in Brazil than the U.S.
The sheer number of fans who made the trip suggests that the U.S. is becoming a huge footballing nation, but it also hints that being a football supporter in the USA means something different than in Europe -- that the sport appeals to a different core group.
What is not in doubt, though, is that these are real fans, and the U.S. is a real football nation. Europeans have a very odd attitude toward the U.S. and football. On the one hand, it is taken as a personal affront that they do not like the sport. On the other, there is an insistence that we do not care whether it catches on because we're quite happy the way we are.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding about all of this. In the same way that nobody quite knows what we mean by "dark horse," nobody really knows what "catch on" means in this context. Does it mean that football should be more popular than basketball or the NFL? Or does it mean that it should be capable of holding its own in what is probably the world's most competitive, most diverse sporting landscape?
The latter seems infinitely more sensible, and if that is the interpretation we accept, then the debate about whether football "will ever catch on" in the U.S. can be put to bed. Not because of the viewing figures: the 16 million who tuned in for the game against Ghana and 18.2 million for Portugal. Not because of the images that have emerged of packed plazas and squares across the country, of offices closed down for the afternoon to enable workers to tune in, of very obvious and very powerful passion.
No, we can be sure that it has caught on because of that picture of Barack Obama watching the narrow defeat to Germany aboard Air Force One, a way for him to connect to the public. Put all of those things together, though -- the viewing figures, the packed squares, the ratings-boosting President -- and you come to an unusual conclusion. Not only is the United States a football nation (as well as being a basketball nation and a baseball nation and all the rest ... it is big enough to offer some choice), but it is also, in a way, the perfect World Cup nation.
Europe has fallen a little bit out of love with the World Cup. It has fallen a whole lot out of love with international football too. Europeans care about their national teams every two years, deeply and passionately, for about a fortnight. The club game, increasingly, attracts the bulk of European attention and affection. The Champions League has replaced the World Cup as football's most glamorous and most significant destination. It is not that we do not care about the World Cup, just that perhaps that ardour is now a little more diffused than once it was.
What we have seen in Brazil is that the same does not hold true for the Latin American fans, from Tijuana down to Tierra del Fuego. It still matters here, just as much as it always did. It is a platform on which you state your importance as a nation. Anyone who has read James Montague's marvellous Thirty One Nil will know just how much significance it holds in those countries around the world who rarely make it too.
And it still matters in the United States -- that has become clear; if anything, it matters more and more with every passing edition. It is something that helps to grow the game, something that unites fans of all creeds and causes, a common cause and a common celebration. It means in America what it used to mean in Europe. It has lost none of its power, none of its magic whatsoever.
The U.S. are not separate from this tournament at all. They define it.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.