U.S. a waking giant in eyes of Brazil
1994 was a monumental year for American soccer. Not only did the U.S. host what remains the most successful World Cup ever in terms of attendance, drawing 3.59 million spectators, but the U.S. men's national team made quite a statement on the Fourth of July.
After surpassing expectations and advancing from their group, the U.S. faced off against Brazil in their first match of the knockout round. It was a hard-fought defensive battle that saw the Yanks go toe-to-toe with the eventual champions, but in the end they lost 1-0. The Independence Day test at Stanford Stadium showed Brazil and the world that perhaps the United States was ready to play with the big boys.
While the '94 World Cup was a coming-out party for U.S. Soccer, for many Brazilians the game vs. the U.S. was just one of a number of games during that tournament in which their team underachieved, despite eventually winning a then-unprecedented fourth World Cup. In Brazil, the game against the United States is remembered more for the elbow Brazilian defender Leonardo threw to the side of American midfielder Tab Ramos' head than for being a nail-biting draw until the 72nd minute.
That's largely why "no one talks about the '94 World Cup in Brazil," says Christopher Gaffney, an American academic studying urban, political and economic effects of the 2014 World Cup while teaching at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Gaffney has been living in Brazil since 2009 and began conducting research in the country in 2004.
"No one cares, because it was ugly. It was futebol forte, futebol de fisica, it wasn't futebol arte," he says. "Brazil thinks about things when they lose, because the narrative is, 'We're gonna win.' So when they lose it's more interesting."
Twenty years later, as the U.S. heads to Brazil for the World Cup, will the Americans be taken seriously? They gave the hosts something to think about in the 2009 Confederations Cup final, taking a 2-0 lead into halftime (before eventually falling 3-2). A year ago, the Yanks went undefeated through the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the midst of a 13-game winning streak, the longest of any team on the planet at the time.
Soccer's popularity in the U.S. has even quietly surpassed Brazil in terms of pure numbers. In 2013, MLS drew more than 6 million fans to stadiums around the country, boasting an average attendance of more than 18,000 fans per match. That's good enough for sixth among all the world's soccer leagues, and it's 5,000-plus fans per game more than Brazil's top division, Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, which ranks 13th, averaging less than 12,565 fans a match, according to Brazil's Globo Newspaper.
With soccer's growing domestic popularity and the recent U.S. success, do Brazilians think the Americans have any chance of winning the World Cup?
The short answer is no. At least, not this World Cup.
Camila Mattos, a Brazilian who coaches youth soccer in Holtsville, New York, says she believes the U.S. can challenge soccer's big names for an outright championship, just not anytime soon.
"I remember a Confederations Cup final that the U.S. almost beat Brazil," she says, recalling 2009. "Since that day I started to pay attention and realize that soccer is getting really big [in the U.S.]. And I think in three or four World Cups you guys will be fighting for the title and will be one of the most dangerous teams to play against."
Mattheus Teixeira, a Rio de Janeiro native known to friends as the football encyclopedia, says he sees the Americans as a formidable foe in Brazil. He has yet to even meet anyone who gives the U.S. a realistic chance of winning this year, but he says his expectations are higher than most.
"People know the G group, and most people think Germany and Portugal will pass without any problems," he says. "But I don't think it will be that easy because Ghana has good players, the U.S. has good players, so it won't be that easy.
"I believe that the U.S. can at least get to the eight finals, the quarterfinals. I trust the U.S. team ... so against Germany, against Portugal, against Ghana, at least for me, the U.S. can play equally [well]."
Teixeira's veneration is rare. Most Brazilians interviewed give the U.S. little to no chance of advancing past the group stage, but it's not for lack of talent. Few Brazilians doubt the players in the U.S. team, but that is mainly because few had any idea who those players actually are.
Caio Marcelo Vianna is a 41-year-old economist in Brasilia and a self-described soccer expert -- he was less kind toward the U.S. He can name, from memory, each member of the Brazilian national team for every World Cup squad since 1982, and the entire rosters of Argentina, Germany and Portugal, but could name only one U.S. player -- Landon Donovan, who was left out of the 2014 squad.
"[The U.S. has] less than 1 percent chance of winning the World Cup," he says matter of factly. "They have a 50 percent chance of winning in the next 20 years, but this year, less than 1 percent."
"We only see our own people," said Silvio Alves Barsetti, who covered the World Cup in 1990 in Italy, in 2002 in Korea and Japan, and in 2010 in South Africa for Brazilian newspaper Estado Sao Paulo. "The Brazilian players are playing soccer in Germany, England, Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. Every Saturday when you turn on the television, it's European football. We don't see American soccer games."
Barsetti also wrote about the 1994 and 1998 World Cups via satellite from Brazil. He could name one player on the U.S. national team, and in his estimation it would be a challenge for the average Brazilian to do that.
Despite a growing awareness and an increase in positive attitudes toward the United States and American culture -- research shows that Brazilians' opinions of the United States are at the highest level they have ever been, with 73 percent holding a favorable opinion, according to a 2013 Pew Research study -- American soccer is one export that has not made its way to Brazil.
"Some Brazilians say America doesn't have football," says Gaffney, "but you know what, we have a higher average attendance than Brazil, our women's team is by far the most successful in the history of women's football, and we're ranked No. 13 in the world.
"Who did Brazil play against in the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup? What was the score at halftime? That's as far as you can get: 'What was the score at halftime?' But we have that."
And that hasn't escaped the purview of soccer fans, even if they remain incredulous about the United States' chances this year.
"I gained much more respect for the U.S. team after the 1994 [game against Brazil] and the Confederations Cup," says Vianna, "but they still have less than a 1 percent chance of winning."