The Americans hung with the defending world champions – much like they did in the 2006 World Cup – and took a lead into halftime despite having Ricardo Clark sent off in the 33rd minute for a reckless challenge. The Italians rallied due to the efforts of Benedict Arnold Giuseppe Rossi. The New Jersey-born and raised striker showed the class that made him spurn the U.S. and pray for an Azzurri chance. He left U.S. goalie Tim Howard absolutely no chance on the equalizer and his icing on the snake came in the 90th minute when an exhausted and stretched American defense got clowned again fora 3-1 defeat.
After the game, Italy’s coach Marcello Lippi was impressed with the American effort and the physicality of the team. “They were well organized and made it quite difficult for us, especially their number five player and 17, who caused us lots of problems. Yes, we won, but it was not easy,” Lippi said.
Who would be our No. 5 and No. 17? That would be Oguchi Onyewu and Jozy Altidore. And it’s no coincidence that the Italians struggled with Onyewu and Alitdore. They are our two most physically imposing players.
Onyewu is 6-foot-4, 210 lbs.
Altidore is 6-foot-1, 175 lbs.
You want to know when the United States will have a legitimate shot at winning a World Cup? When some of the country’s best athletes, like Onyewu and Altidore, decide to play soccer. Soccer doesn’t need all of this nation’s top athletes to play the game, like they do around the world. American soccer will be happy with 10 percent. Just give us 1 in 10, please.
I know this is a racially sensitive issue – and no, I didn’t consult with de facto Black Sports spokesperson Jason Whitlock about this – but facts are facts. The majority of black athletes are, well, more athletic than their white counterparts. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to this touchy, but undeniable generalization. And I’m not saying all blacks are better athletes than all whites. Just that black athletes are more physically inclined to excel than white athletes.
All one has to do is look at sports where jumping, speed and changing direction (i.e. athleticism) are most vital – those two sports being basketball and football. At the top levels, it’s predominantly a black game. Positions that require the most athleticism (running back, cornerback and wide receiver in football for example) are essentially controlled by black players (why else would Jason Sehorn be relevant other than being married to a hottie).
This isn’t anything new. Blacks are physiologically different than whites. I was taught that in college in my African-American Experience in Sport class. And if Malcolm Gladwell pens it, it must be true. He goes into much further depth than I plan to.
So, back on point.
On Monday, Altidore and Onyewu were key to the American side’s gutsy display against Italy. But they weren’t the only black American players to see the field against the world champions. Howard, Clark, Charlie Davies and DaMarcus Beasley all played a role while Freddy Adu and Marvell Wynne waited in reserve.
As the U.S. soccer team continues to further epitomize its nation’s demographics (blacks comprise roughly 13 percent of America’s population), the closer it will be to becoming a world soccer power.
Of the 54 players listed on U.S. Soccer’s official web site 2009 Player Pool, 12 are black or of mixed-race. McD assures me that’s a better rate than Major League Baseball. (No wonder, they call it America’s Past Time.)
The 12 black players currently at the national team’s disposal are: Onyewu (Standard Liege/BEL), Altidore (Villareal/ESP), Howard (Everton/ENG), Clark (Houston/MLS), Adu (Benfica/POR), Beasley (Rangers/SCO), Davies (Hammarby IF/SWE), Maurice Edu (Rangers/SCO), Sean Franklin (Los Angeles/MLS), Cory Gibbs (Colorado/MLS), Eddie Johnson (Fulham/ENG) and Wynne (Toronto/MLS).
It’s been a long journey.
In the 1994 World Cup, which was played in the U.S., the Red, White and Blue had just two black players on its roster (Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart). That’s the same number Sweden had (Henrik Larsson and Martin Dahlin).
In the 1998 World Cup, the U.S. had four black players (Stewart, Jones, Eddie Pope and French import David Regis). England equaled that number with Sol Campbell, Rio and Les Ferdinand and Paul Ince. The champions, the French, boasted twice as many black players with eight.
France’s success with black players led other former colonial powers to perhaps be less blatantly racist in their squad selection process. At the next World Cup in 2002, England brought nine black players, just one shy of the French. While the U.S. added DaMarcus Beasley and Tony Sanneh to its 1998 quartet.
France, consistently ranked among the world’s top-five teams, continued to lead the way among Western nations with 15 black players on its 22-man roster for the 2006 World Cup. The English boasted seven and the Americans just five, though Gibbs would have made the team had he not suffered a devastating late knee injury prior to the tournament.
In last week’s World Cup qualifier against Andorra, England brought eight black players in a squad of 18. That’s nearly a 50/50 split. For a team that brought just four black players out of 22 to a World Cup a decade earlier, it’s quite a shift in thinking.
The game is changing, and we’re not as far behind as you might think. In fact, U.S. Soccer might be the beneficiaries of another country’s apparent hesitance about calling in black players.
Born to a black former American serviceman and a German mother, Jermaine Jones, who plays for Schalke 04 in Germany’s Bundesliga, has stated his desire to suit up for the U.S. At 27, Jones had by now seen the writing on the wall. If he wanted to play in a World Cup, he would have to turn his back on the nation of his birth. In a New York Times article, Jones is quoted as saying that he had too many tattoos to play for the German national team, which capped him in three friendlies.
“When somebody looks at me, I’m not the perfect German. When I look at people in the States, they look more like me. In Germany with my tattoos people say, ‘Oh, he’s not a good man.’ But look at Beckham, he has tattoos and no one says that. Maybe because I don’t have blue eyes and blond hair. But that is not a problem for me. I don’t have a good feeling about stuff in Germany.”
With some obvious racial undertones in that assessment, Jones quickly issued a statement through his club’s web site saying he was severely misquoted.
“As we discussed possible reasons why I continue to be ignored by the (German Football Association), after considering a few other thoughts, the journalist came to the issue of skin color. I said quite the opposite of what is written in the article, being, “It has nothing to do with racism. I do not think that you have to got to have blond hair and blue eyes to play for Germany.”
Misquoted or not, a reporter wouldn’t have just pretended to hear him say, “Maybe I have too many tattoos and am not German looking enough.” Jones still lives and plays in Germany, and maybe he didn’t think his comments to the American press would make its way to Deutschland. Although, his original take might not be too far from the truth.
It seems the German national team is more likely to play guys from Poland (Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski) than blacks. On the Germans’ 2008 Euro team, David Odonkor was the lone non-white, and he was on the team for no other reason than to be used as a late game substitute to utilize his unmatched speed. At the 2002 World Cup, Germany deployed just one black player, Gerald Asamoah, who served as a late game substitute at best.
After the announcement of Jones’ decision to switch allegiances to the U.S., Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff made what seemed to be a preemptive strike to avoid any racial basis for Jones’ inability to stick with Germany.
“We have often emphasized how much we like to welcome many players with background of immigration into the Germany national team. This reflects the development of society in our country, but we have always emphasized that anybody who wears the DFB colors must identify with the national team and Germany.”
At the time I read this initial report, I thought, “That’s funny. It seems like the German Football Federation is trying to cover its ass just in case people get the wrong idea about why one of the top rated defensive midfielders in the Bundesliga could only manage three exhibition appearances.”
Jermaine, we’ll gladly take you. I don’t care if your English is broken. That can be taught. Some of the things you do on the field cannot.
Onyewu is the son of Nigerian immigrants, who moved to the U.S. to attend Howard University in D.C. Altidore is the son of Hatian immigrants. Adu was born in Ghana, but his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was eight. Because their parents came from abroad where soccer is king, Onyewu, Altidore and Adu were more likely to give the sport it’s due.
Sure soccer isn’t a glamour sport in the mainstream media. Rappers (at least most of them) don’t rhyme about soccer. Pop culture has pretty much ignored the sport. But as more opportunities and attention come the way of Onyewu, Howard, Adu and Altidore , the more inclined young black children will be to emulate them.
McD wonders what Chris Paul would look like on the pitch had he chosen soccer. Heck, Chris Paul would have been nice, but I’ll take a Kevin Ollie at this point. Perhaps ESPN’s increasing coverage of soccer can help. Shit, show the kids they can make millions like Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, and suddenly a soccer ball isn’t so gay.
Howard, 30, is the undisputed No. 1 in the American nets and just signed a five-year, $16.4 million deal. The former Manchester United keeper and current Everton stopper bided his time behind Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel on the national team and will finally get his World Cup chance next summer. At Everton, Howard has been one of the steadiest keepers in the English Premier League.
Onyewu, 27, is a towering rock on defense and has totally owned bigger strikers such as Mexico’s Jared Borghetti and Italy’s Luca Toni. Gooch is believed to be the tallest outfield player in U.S. national team history (two goalkeepers were taller). After excelling in the Belgian league, including leading Standard Liege to back-to-back titles, Onyewu is set to cash in on an apparent move to England, with Fulham and Birmingham City vying for his services.
Altidore, who is still just 19 and a Twitter-er, is an American phenom who has actually delivered. And he’s already on the cover of FIFA 08, one of the most popular video games in the world. (Another black American player Maurice Edu graced the cover on this year’s version of the game.) Now, yes he should have buried his 29th-minute opportunity against Italy, which was put on a plate by Landon Donovan, but he is far from the finished product. Like Dwight Howard and his hook shot, he’s developing. Give him time. He is a physical presence that did a more than admirable job in holding off the stout Italian defenders – namely Nicola Legrottaglie and Giorgio Chiellini, who both start for Italian giants Juventus.
Like Lippi said postgame, that No. 17 gave them trouble, and it was Altidore who earned the U.S. its 41st-minute penalty. Still struggling for game action in Spain, Altidore at least gets to train with some of the best players in the world at Villareal this offseason, and hopefully can earn himself some playing time in the upcoming campaign. If not, he may be loaned out again. But there’s no denying the Americans’ goal scoring hopes are pinned on his shoulders.
Add in Jermaine Jones and the ever-improving Maurice Edu (not to be confused with Freddy Adu) and the United States has talented, viable athletes ready to take this team to the next level come World Cup 2010 in South Africa.
Now, I’m not saying we need black players on the team for the sake of having blacks on the team. I still say we play our best players. And there are plenty of deserving white players (Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey among them). But we need a good mix. Bringing two and four black players to World Cups just won’t cut it in the future. Right now, more than ever, some of U.S.’s best players just happen to be black. And the more that trend continues, the better we’ll get.
Just ask the Italians.