Forget about “The Group of Death.”
As someone wrote on Twitter, this tense and terrifying soccer experience should have been called “The Group of Deep Breaths.”
And in fact, for soccer fans in America — who turned out to be millions and millions and millions — there were exactly 23 minutes when it was insanely hard to breathe at all.
Now that we’re all relaxed and celebrating and preparing to face Belgium in the World Cup knockout phase — and hey, legendary American patriot Jurgen Klinsmann says the sky is the limit — we’d probably just as soon forget those horrible 23 minutes.
Do you remember, or have you blocked out that seemingly endless period when we were standing on the cliff and staring into the abyss?
The crisis arrived with frightening suddenness, too.
At halftime of the United States’ final group game against Germany — ranked No. 2 in the world, thank you very much — things seemed under control.
The U.S. defenders had slowed and stifled the mighty German offense, and kept the game scoreless with a half to play in the flooded city of Recife.
Meanwhile, at the same time over in Brasilia, Portugal led Ghana 1-0 in the other Group G game — so both matches were going exactly as we might have ordered them off a menu.
The only danger to the U.S., if we simplify all the various scenarios, was a loss to Germany — with Ghana defeating Portugal and scoring at least two goals.
If that happened, we were out.
But things were quietly going so well, until…
U.S. goalie Tim Howard made a brilliant save on Per Mertesacker’s close-in header in the 55th minute, and the rebound bounded out to marksman Thomas Muller — who whipped a shot into the upper right corner of Howard’s net.
For all practical purposes, that meant the U.S. was toast in its own game. Heavy-legged from a game in the Amazon rainforest on Sunday night, and facing a clinical passing team like Germany — sigh, it was obvious there was no way back.
Still, Portugal was hanging on to that first-half lead, which had arrived through a horrid own goal suffered by Ghana defender John Boye.
And then they weren’t.
Asamoah Gyan, the chap whose goal knocked the U.S. out of the 2010 World Cup, struck again for Ghana in the 57th minute of that game.
So in roughly 120 seconds, that lovely margin for error we were enjoying was gone.
Like millions of others watching the U.S. toil fruitlessly to find a miracle goal that might produce a draw, I thought of Portugal — our opponents on that crushing night in Manaus — and how tired those guys must be getting.
Seconds ticked along. Minutes…
So, so slowly.
Surely we were going to hear about another Ghana goal, and…that damn last-second mistake on Sunday would be our doom.
What I personally did NOT see (and thank heaven for it) was Ghana’s Abdul Wiras skimming a header just barely wide of the Portuguese net.
It began to seem as though neither game would ever end.
The U.S. game had bogged down, quite literally on the swampy pitch, and while the Germans didn’t seem hungry for another goal, a 1-0 victory seemed totally assured.
If the U.S. had needed to score again, the boys would be heading home.
No use building up the suspense here, of course, because you know what happened — although the “how” of it was kind of amusing.
Portugal took a corner kick, the ball flew high in the air near the goal and seemed to hang above the head of goalie Fatawu Dauda.
Frankly, he should have waited — even in a crowded box — and just caught the thing like a shortstop snagging a pop fly.
But in a moment of madness, Dauda acted as though the ball might be toxic or something — and just pushed it weakly about 10 yards in front of him.
And there, irony of ironies, stood the world’s best player without a soul around him.
Was Cristiano Ronaldo going to accept this gift and knock the ball into the open net?
Does James Brown get down?
So just like that, in the amazing way soccer both thrills and crushes in the blink of an eye, the panic was over. We’d been hauled off the cliff. Yanked back from the brink.
Ronaldo’s almost casual conversion occurred in the 80th minute, so realistically, Ghana was cooked and the U.S. was going to survive the “Group of Death.”
There’s no other way to describe this Brazilian journey except to call it a fantastic achievement against absurd odds.
And honestly earned, to boot.
Just for the heck of it, there were a couple of fun little anecdotes as horns honked, phones rang, Twitter exploded and the United States enjoyed reaching the knockout round in successive World Cups for the first time…
To the anecdotes, then…
At the conclusion of the U.S.-Germany game, there was a sudden flurry of American defiance — first Alejandro Bedoya and then Clint Dempsey each came so very close to producing a tying goal.
Honestly, a 1-1 draw would have flattered the U.S., but it’s worth noting as we go forward that this team always seems to have another gear — and a belief that they can do whatever is necessary.
Then afterward, when the hugging and shouting and so forth was done on the field, Klinsmann made a gesture that proved how seriously he had prepared for this group battle containing the country where he was born, and with whom he won a World Cup.
At his post-match press conference, Klinsy smiled as a reporter asked him a question in German — and replied casually in his native language.
Why would that matter?
Well, because Klinsmann, a national hero and friend to so many of the German media, had refused to speak anything but English during the run-up to this tournament — and throughout the entire group phase.
So finally, he was implying it was acceptable. The United States’ first job was done.
“And now,” said Jurgen Klinsmann of Malibu, California, “we start the real tournament — the part of it we came here to play.”