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What’s the most underrated element in the World Cup?

The way the American team pushed forward was a sign of a trait many football experts overlook: will

Ricardo Guerra

Published: Updated:

Costa Rica and the United States are out of the World Cup. The American players have probably all returned to the United States over the past week. And the Costa Rican players may very soon be leaving Brazil after losing to Holland last night. However, every so often there are certain matches that observers instantly know will be remembered for years to come. The matches between the United States and Belgium and Costa Rica and Holland in the Round of 16 were one of those games.

Both bouts possessed all the essential emotions of life—sadness, happiness, drama, victory and defeat—and football fans are still processing what happened.

Sometimes it takes time to absorb all the crucial information that a match can teach us. Observers of the game always see different things and take different lessons from any given dual between two nations.

In most cases, the victors receive the most attention, and we forget about the losers. But sometimes how a team loses can be more indicative of its character than how that team wins. It may also offer bigger lessons.

It is true that United States goalkeeper Tim Howard was ambushed from all sides of the field and met those attacks with one of the most towering performances by a goal keeper ever witnessed in a football match. In fact, he performed 16 saves over the course of the game. He kept the Belgian players from scoring for so long that even they were impressed and later publicly heaped praise upon him, and for his brilliant performance, he deservedly was named the best player of the match. Undoubtedly, if the United States did not have one of the best goalkeepers in the world, the final score of the game would have been very different.

But there is another lesson from the game the U.S. played against Belgium that should not be overlooked. Very few teams in the world that found themselves losing 2–0 in extra time would have maintained the mental fortitude to attack relentlessly in an attempt to take back the game, but the United States went all out. Julian Green brought the score up to 2–1, and Clint Dempsey could have sent the game into penalty time after he missed a clear chance to tie up the game at the end.

The will to win

The way the American team pushed forward was a sign of a trait many football experts overlook: will.

Will, or the psychological fortitude of any given team or player, is one of the most difficult and least quantifiable elements in sports. Football experts and pundits often consider several elements related to the game, such as individual talent, technique, fitness and tactical prowess, but many observers of the game let will slip by unnoticed, perhaps because most of the time, this attribute can be observed only in times of tribulation, defeat or extreme adversity—that is, when a team is losing. Because we have a tendency to focus on the winners rather than the losers in any given match, any positive aspect that a losing team possesses during a given match frequently goes without mention.

The American squad stood out in this year’s World Cup for the psychological fortitude displayed by Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Clint Dempsey and others. It’s a personality trait that is missing in many World Cup teams and individual football stars these days. Several squads in this year’s Cup too easily called it a day when the going got tough. Conversely, while the United States team may not have been comprised of the most talented players, they made up for it in grit, determination and how doggedly they battled it out until the very end. It’s almost as if these players still had an amateur-like spirit, uncorrupted by the excessive commercialization of the game.

The American squad is also notable for its players’ hard-nosed, blue collar, hard-working mentality, a mentality we also see in the likes of two-time World Champion Uruguay, a little nation of less than 3.5 million people that is rightly proud of its rich tradition in the game. In the second-round match against Colombia, the Uruguayans defended valiantly, and when they were down 2–0, they continued trying to get at least one goal until the very end. Just like the American team, the Uruguayans don’t know what it means to surrender. They fight and fight until they hear the final whistle, no matter what the score is.

This mental fortitude and toughness may be in the DNA of American sports culture, more specifically American football, which is known to be a very physically demanding game and one where strong bonds among players are critical for success. As the iconic Vince Lombardi, a legendary coach in that sport and a towering figure in the psyche of North American sports culture, once said, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”
It’s in these words that many find inspiration, and many football coaches in this year’s World Cup should pay attention to them in order to inspire teams that seem to have lost their will. Imagine what more talented teams could do with the relentless drive and psychological strength displayed by the United States, Costa Rica and Uruguay.

This amateur-like fighting spirit was one of the factors that originally made the World Cup the most beloved sports event in the world, and the slow disappearance of that spirit may jeopardize the sport. To prevent this, other teams may want to take a lesson from the Americans. The American players truly believed they could win, a belief echoed in their fans’ inspirational chant: “I believe that we can win. I believe that we can win.” And I believe that given the doggedness and determination displayed by American soccer players, they may win the greatest prize in the sport sooner rather than later.

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Ricardo Guerra is an exercise physiologist. His articles have appeared in several international publications in five different languages, and his writing covers topics related to medicine, science and sports. He has a Masters of Science in sports physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several clubs and teams in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams.