It wouldn't be fair, World Cup organizers said. That's why there was no additional star-spangled pregame pageantry at Stanford Stadium on July 4 and why no more Old Glories than usual festooned the Bay Area venue. For good measure an official issued a punctilious decree before the U.S. played Brazil: "There will be no fireworks."
As a prediction for the game at hand, those words certainly seemed supportable, at least as far as the host nation was concerned. Going into Monday's game in the Round of 16, the U.S. had not only failed to beat the Brazilians in 64 years but also hadn't so much as scored a goal against Brazil since 1930, when the U.S. lost 4-3 in the first World Cup. But once this game kicked off, matters were out of the organizers' hands and the fireworks were free to start.
"If we lose, nobody cares," said Alexi Lalas, the goateed American defender who's only a top hat and tails away from passing as Uncle Sam. "That is what we are supposed to do. But if Brazil loses...."
So huge was the opportunity—the home-standing underdog getting a shot at the favorite on the underdog's national holiday—that U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos sounded a note of suspicion before the game. "The whole thing seems like a setup," said Ramos.
It was a setup, but not as Ramos had hoped. Brazil set off most of the fireworks on the Fourth in its 1-0 win. Oh, there was a sparkler of a possibility for the U.S. when Tom Dooley just missed wide left a dozen minutes into the game. But the rest of the detonations were Brazil's. Aldair struck a Roman candle that barely missed. Bebeto's cherry-bombed volley just missed too. Romario sandwiched two bottle rockets around halftime, one that exploded off the post and another that Dooley cleared at the last possible instant. Finally, in the 74th minute, Bebeto set off a game-winning M-80 in the American net, and the hosts' run to soccer's Sweet 16 had come to an end. "It was a great script," said U.S. midfielder Cobi Jones, "except for the ending."
When Leonardo, a Brazilian defender, threw an elbow late in the first half, striking Ramos in the left temple, fracturing his skull and waylaying him for the rest of the game, Brazil might have been in serious trouble. Leonardo was ejected, which allowed the U.S. to play with a man advantage for half the game. But the loss of Ramos was devastating. He had been all over the field, setting up Dooley's shot, which wound up being the Americans' best opportunity of the afternoon.
U.S. coach Bora Mulitinovic believed his team's best chance would come if it could lock up the Brazilians for 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime, thus pushing the game into a penalty kick shoot-out, when the pressure on the favorites would only become more acute. But how to reach a shoot-out? The U.S. took its cues from Sweden, which tied Brazil 1-1 in the final round-robin qualifier on June 28 by jamming the middle and cheating back on defense. Mulitinovic started neither of his two best goal scorers, Eric Wynalda and Roy Wegerle, and deployed only one striker, Ernie Stewart. Nine players packed the back and the midfield, playing, as Ramos would put it, "to destroy, not to create." The Yanks would pillage for two hours and then try their luck.
Brazil, alas, was bent on wreaking some havoc of its own, and after the ejection of Leonardo, it seemed even more focused playing 10 on 11. The gut of the U.S. defense, Lalas and Marcelo Balboa, had shut down Switzerland's Stephane Chapuisat, Colombia's Faustino Asprilla and Romania's Florin Raducioiu, three of the most dangerous strikers in the world, in the first round. Now, with Dooley joining Lalas and Balboa in the backfield, they faced a pair of conjurers: Bebeto and Romario.
Maddeningly pouty and egotistical, Romario, 28, was twice sent home from tournaments as a junior for unspecified disciplinary reasons. At the last World Cup, in Italy, he insisted on bringing along his own trainer. Three years ago he spurned a call from the national team because he wanted to go to Ibiza on vacation. In the last few months he has called Pel� both "mentally retarded" and, intending no compliment, a "museum piece." Most recently, he pitched a fit over being assigned a seat on a team flight next to Bebeto, his soft-footed linemate and Spanish League rival.
Since the Cup began, however, Romario seems to have taken to heart the pleas of his coach, Carlos Parreira, to behave himself. Perhaps the pretournament counseling that the entire team went through, in which a specialist in positive thinking stressed a range of virtues, including humility, also helped set his head right. Whatever, he has caused no problems and channeled his ego well without entirely suppressing it. "This will be Romano's Cup," he pronounced after scoring in Brazil's opening-game defeat of Russia.