MANAUS, Brazil—We were down by the port, where the air smelt of cigarette smoke and stale beer, when I realized how much things had changed.
Three men sat at a tiny table playing cards that were stained with splashes of wine and curled at the corners because of the humidity. One had a tattoo of a strand of rosary beads running down his forearm, the other sat shirtless, a thin layer of sweat beading up on his shoulders. His attention drifted between the card game and a World Cup match on his cellphone. Off in the distance, you could hear the sound of a boat motoring into a river’s muddy waters.
It was Saturday afternoon in Manaus, a sweltering, squalid city of close to 2 million in the Amazon rainforest. The next day the U.S. would play Portugal, and it seemed everyone had an opinion on the game. I asked the men at the table who they thought would win. “I think the U.S.,” one of them said, diverting his attention briefly from his cards. “But I’m rooting for Portugal.”
The oddsmakers disagreed with him: Even a Portugal hobbled by injuries would beat the U.S., they said. But I found it surprising how many Brazilians believed a different result likely. Having lived in Brazil years ago, I am used to the word fraca (weak) to describe our national team. But things were different now.
What surprised me even more, considering Manaus had once been a Portuguese colony, were how few fans I saw from Portugal. The city, it seemed, had been taken over by Americans. And that, more than anything else, is why the Brazilians quietly hoped we’d lose.
Being an American fan hadn’t always been this way, of course. A few days before, I had been sitting in a bar in a little surf village on the northeast coast of Brazil, talking with U.S. fans who had spent a decade following the national team from Turkey to Panama. It wasn’t that long ago, they reminded me, that you couldn’t buy a U.S. national team jersey because nobody bothered to carry them. “I remember going to a Gold Cup final in New Jersey, the U.S. against Mexico, and I couldn’t even hear the national anthem because there were so many Mexican fans booing,” a fan named Jason Burak said. “We were this tiny contingent of American fans, just this little cluster. So to go to [the World Cup opener] and see that many Americans, I’m not going to lie, I got a little choked up.”
I had been at that game too, between the U.S. and Ghana, and I’m not going to lie either: I, too, got a little choked up. But I had noticed something else. Midway through the first half, when yet another deafening “U-S-A!” chant drowned out any other sound in the stadium, a bald-pated man wearing the canary-colored jersey of the Brazilian national team rose from his seat and began a chant for Ghana. He did it with a smile, and we all understood: There were so few Ghanaian fans in the stadium, they needed all the help they could get (even though their team was thoroughly outclassing ours at the moment). When he was shouted down by the U.S. fans, with yet another thundering “U-S-A!” chant, his smile turned to a sneer. Soon, Brazilians in our section were chanting for their team, even though they weren’t on the field, with something that was morphing into outright hostility, as if to say: This is our game. In that moment, we were no longer the plucky underdogs we’ve been for so long, the lovable losers giving the world’s game a try with our clumsy passing and horrid first touch. Suddenly, we were a threat on the field, and in the stands at least, we were a bully.
I thought about this as I walked through the grimy streets of Manaus in the days leading up to Sunday night’s game, the heat heavy on my neck like a clammy hand. Everywhere I went, I saw Americans. I saw them in a stone cathedral, kneeling beneath soaring archways built in the 19th century, in our rocket-pop-inspired home jerseys, perhaps praying for a victory. Down in the market, where the air smelt of roasting fish, I saw them buying the fake weapons of Amazonian warriors to take home to their children. And I listened as two fans from Pittsburgh, out on the river, fishing for piranha with sticks of bamboo, talked about Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey the way they might Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu back home. But I rarely saw anyone wearing the jersey of Portugal.
Hardcore soccer fans in the U.S. (the sort that follow the Premier League) are constantly taking measure of where we stand compared with, say, Mexico, or especially England. Do we travel well? Are our fans sufficiently rowdy? How creative are our chants? (Answer: not very. “U-S-A! U-S-A!”) What’s unsaid is the hope that this is the year soccer finally arrives on our shores. And by arrive, I mean the U.S. at last becoming one of the best teams in the world.
But as I sat in the stadium, in what once again amounted to a home game, I realized what we’ve been waiting for is already here. No, we are not Argentina or Italy or Brazil, and we may never be. We are not one of the best teams in the world. But as the first two games of this World Cup showed, we have become a side that must be respected. No longer do we simply hunker down and hope for goals off counterattacks and set pieces. Now we can dictate the pace and render the world’s best player ineffective and invisible for most of the game.
We can also play beautifully, scoring rocketing goals to the back of the net like Jermaine Jones did, and we can score in slick, even sublime ways, like Clint Dempsey did in the 81st minute.
Going into the tournament, after our first friendly, one of my friends told me we’d be lucky to score a goal in the World Cup. We had no chance of advancing and would surely be eliminated by the end of the Portugal match. We booked our tickets home accordingly.
But with less than a minute to go, the script had been flipped. We were about to win the group and everyone around us was thinking about extending the trip beyond the group stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t do jack all game until he did, proving that with one perfectly placed pass, he could change the course of a match, and perhaps our fate (and Portugal’s) in this tournament. It left the American fans gutted, sitting in stunned silence long after the match was over. For everyone in Brazil who isn’t traveling on an American passport, this had to have been a nice turn of events: The American fans had to shut up, at least for a moment.
The fact that the U.S. has never been all that good at soccer has allowed us to cheer for our team in a full-throated, hyper-patriotic, guilt-free way. But as we gain respect on the field, our overbearing presence in the stadium stops being charming. The U.S. has everything else. Can’t the rest of the world just have this? Judging by the past few weeks in Brazil, the U.S. national team and its loudest, proudest fans have this to say in response: U-S-A! U-S-A!