NATAL, Brazil—It had rained for three days and three nights in Natal, the water falling nonstop on this gritty seaside town. On my way from the shockingly remote airport—a public works project thrown up in what appeared to be a farmer's backyard—I'd watched women pushing wheelbarrows through the mud in the downpour. Sections of the city had flooded. Upon arrival, I was surrounded by a group of drenched Mexicans returning from the Cameroon game and was made to jump in their victory circle. All of this struck me as a bad omen for USA vs. Ghana.
Conventional wisdom, often correct, holds that Ghana—no matter the weather—is a superior team to the United States. The Black Stars had knocked the Americans out of the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, a legacy American fans know all too well. But we have short memories. American journalists write about getting off an eight-year schnide. The Ghanaians think in decades. And they never tire of reminding us of our team's incompetence. They talk more smack than any other group of fans.
Here is a snippet of an actual conversation (paraphrased) between an American traveling with my group and a Ghanaian:
American: You beat us the last two times.
Ghanaian: We beat you the last three times. (Prior to 2006, the U.S. last met Ghana in full-blooded international competition in 1983, losing 1–0 in the Merdeka Tournament.) Actually, we beat you four times in a row. (Also accurate: Ghana drubbed the U.S. 5–0 in the Presidents Cup, again in 1983.)
American: Maybe we'll beat you this time.
Ghanaian: No. Not for another 10 times.
American: Only God knows.
Ghanaian: Not tomorrow.
Such were the prevailing attitudes as we made our way to the Arena das Dunas, an onionlike stadium tucked behind Natal’s giant sand dunes. I'd been staying in a little surf town of colorful houses, stone streets and coconut trees about two hours away called Praia de Pipa. To get there, I'd taken a standing-room-only minibus that reeled through the dark and the hot, wet stink over potholed country roads laced with hidden speed bumps seemingly designed to decimate shock absorbers. The northeast of Brazil is a poor part of the country and in the little towns around Natal, stray horses wander the streets rooting through garbage while children play in the red dirt in front of evangelical churches and shacks selling shrimp and fish.
It had rained in Pipa, too, without interruption, like a Brazilian version of Macondo where the banana plantations are about to wash away. It was the kind of damp that made your bathroom mirror fog by itself. Your socks were always wet. But on Sunday, the rain stopped. A riotous party broke out along Pipa's main drag. Couples danced to Forró, a regional Brazilian polka that features an accordion, a metal triangle, and a zabumba bass drum.
In Natal the next day, a different kind of party took place at Dom Gourmet, a pizza/sushi bar near the stadium. The American fans had assembled there for a tailgate. They'd also taken over Habib's, a Middle Eastern food chain with a mascot Dan Snyder could get behind. For a few hours, Natal was theirs. Construction workers stopped what they were doing to watch Americans parade in Elvis costumes. Mothers brought their children outside to see the star-spangled Indian headdresses and Rocky outfits and Captain America suits. Buses passing the tailgate slowed and honked so passengers could gawk. Women leaned out the windows to blow kisses to the Yanks.
The American fan base has deepened and grown in the last four years. The chants continue to evolve. Once the domain of nerdy outliers and sporting snobs, soccer fandom in the United States has become more egalitarian, as the large crowds assembled back home to watch the Ghana game indicate. With so many young Americans now following professional clubs, buying apparel, playing FIFA video games, and gaining a deeper understanding of the sport, this World Cup, many business school brains believe, marks a phase shift for soccer in America, one that pushes the sport to big three status. In other words, we are finally getting over a respectability schnide. But first we had to get clear of Ghana.
Outside the stadium, I found Adolf Mwamub from Kumasi wrapped in a Ghana flag. He told me three planeloads of his countrymen had come to Brazil. To a person, their confidence was unshakable. "At times, it's luck," he told me. "But when the day is over, you will lose."
He would be right about one of those statements. The luck would be with the U.S. team, which managed to break its 31-year losing streak to Ghana, and barely. After Clint Dempsey's remarkable goal in the first minute elated the crowd, the American team disappeared, settling back into a familiar defensive crouch. It was the kind of pessimistic cling-to-a-lead stance—whether owing to strategy or being outclassed—that Jürgen Klinsmann foreswore. Just a few weeks ago, the feel-good coach had been talking about the team playing in a way that represented the national character. Americans control events, he said. They don't sit back and accept them.