Dustin George-Miller is a life-long soccer fan, a sports blogger and a Goshen College staffer. His community blog on The Elkhart Truth, The Corner Flag: World Cup 2014, will cover the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
The centerpiece of the gloriously campy 1981 movie Escape to Victory is a football game. A team of POWs in a German WWII prison camp that includes American captain Robert Hatch (a young Sylvester Stallone) agrees to play an exhibition match against a team of Nazi soldiers as a German propaganda stunt.
The movie goes the way of most popular movies set during WWII: The scrappy cosmopolitan underdogs, featuring a fish-out-of-water American as goalkeeper, go down 4-1 early, but manage to claw their way back to win 5-4. There is excitement. There are bicycle kicks. There is, at the end, a dramatic escape. And of course, in the end, the Germans get what’s coming to them.
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Life may occasionally imitate art and vice versa. And while no one is making (or should make) any serious connections between the current German national soccer team and the Nazi squad that faced Stallone, Michael Caine, Osvaldo Ardiles, Pele and company, there does seem to be a whiff of a David vs. Goliath match up in play here ahead of Thursday’s crucial World Cup match between Germany and USA. As well a sense of inevitability.
After all, Germany and USA have thus far been the two teams that have emerged from the Group of Death the least damaged. Both only need a point to clinch qualification to the next round. The fact that USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann is a former manager of Die Mannschaft and is reportedly friends with current German manager Joachim “Jogi” Löw only adds an additional layer to what already feels like a match laden with narrative. The USA’s roster features several German-American players that at one time were part of the German youth football system – players like John Anthony Brooks, who scored the winning header against Ghana and young starlet Julian Green, who has yet to see the pitch but is oozing with potential.
How fitting that these two clubs should collide with all this as a backdrop, with everything on the line for both clubs. Has a pretty Stallone-esque feel to it, doesn’t it?
FIFA takes great pains to weed out the possibility of collusion between teams in the final group stage matches, having the teams from each group play their last matches at the same time. However, in every World Cup there’s a situation like what Germany and the USA face, where a draw would be enough to see both teams through. Some (including myself in a previous column) have suggested that the teams might come to a “gentleman’s agreement” of mutual beneficence. All they need is a point. Why not just have a little kick-around on Thursday, get the desired point from a nil-nil bore-fest, and start planning for the Round of 16?
I won’t speak for Jogi Löw, but it would be surprising if Klinsmann would agree to any such plan. Say what you will about Jurgen, his tactics or his (out of context) quote about USA not winning the World Cup, but the man does understand that American soccer fans would not be satisfied if his teams phones it in against Germany. Nor, I suspect, would his team.
In the final World Cup qualifying match, a dead-rubber game in Panama, the hosts were desperate for a win. If Panama could beat the Yanks, it would have the double-effect of sending Panama to its first World Cup finals and eliminating USA’s hated rival Mexico from the tournament entirely. USA had already qualified. And still scored two late goals to beat the Panamanians, crushing their hopes and sending Mexico — ironically — into jubilation. USA ostensibly saved its arch-enemy from football purgatory, something that American fans won’t let Mexican fans forget.
Still think this USA team will let its guard down against the Germans?
Despite its dalliances with the midfield diamond, a formation that hinges upon the health of striker Jozy Altidore, the USA is at its best when playing a 4-2-3-1 and counter-attacking: sitting deep and absorbing pressure; hitting back fast once regaining possession of the ball to try and surprise the opposition defense. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Germany plays as well, and the team is even better at it than the Americans.
So what happens when two teams try and counter-attack each other? We got a pretty good glimpse of that in the Germany-Ghana match. Ghana actually out-German’d the Germans, forcing them to take on the mantle of possession football while Ghana’s speedy wingers terrorized the German fullbacks. It’s exactly the way Germany likes to take out its opponents, relying on the speed and athleticism of its multitudes of world-class attacking midfielders.
Ghana also made a conscious decision to attack Germany at its weak spot along the right side of midfield. Benedikt Howedes is not a natural left back, and a spotty performances allowed Christian Atsu with numerous opportunities to get behind the German defense. USA’s wingers aren’t particularly fast, but a player like Graham Zusi and overlapping runs from Fabian Johnson could provide some openings for crosses into the box.
More critical for the United States is to get Michael Bradley back on track. While his performance against Portugal was an improvement over his abject display vs. Ghana, Bradley still made his fair share of mistakes, including the poor trap that led to Portugal’s gut-punch of an equalizer in the 95th minute. The USA has already proven it can get a result when Bradley is not at his best, but USA’s offense is much more effective when Bradley plays like he did in World Cup qualification.
Defensively, I would expect USA’s fullbacks, DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson, to stay a little deeper than they would in the 4-4-2 diamond, since any hint of daylight behind them is likely to be exploited by Meszut Özil, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze. Likewise, Jermain Jones will need to continue his excellent string of defensive performances and will likely be asked to wear Thomas Muller like a shirt.
Losing to Germany is not an unexpected result. In fact, USA should be considered even more of an underdog against the Germans than it was against a banged-up Portugal squad. In fact, previous performances and Ghana’s heroic effort last week should make American fans at least somewhat optimistic that, regardless of the circumstance, USA can comport itself well. But a loss, combined with results from the other Group G match, could send USA crashing out of the World Cup, which would be a massively disappointing end to what has been a very good tournament for Klinsmann’s squad. If nothing else, if the US heads home after Thursday, the minimum that can be said about this American team is that the Group of Death was so named because USA was in it.
The USA has overachieved against superior opponents before in the World Cup, and while the team doesn’t include luminary talents like Pele or Ardiles as in Escape to Victory, fans are hopeful of a similar cinematic ending. Or at least a draw. That might not make the best film, but it would ensure a happy enough ending.
One notable scene midway through the movie features Stallone’s character, who despite having no soccer experience whatsoever, has managed to finagle his way onto the team as trainer, in deep conversation with captured members of British intelligence. They convince a reluctant Stallone to escape from the prison camp and make his way to Paris, where he must try and convince the French resistance to mount a rescue of the team. It’s a dangerous assignment, and it’s all because of a German soccer match.
“This friggin’ game,” Stallone says, walking out the door, “is wrecking my life.”
As an American soccer fan, I know the feeling.