The U.S. soccer team gathered in a meeting room at the team hotel here Thursday afternoon to watch the opening game of a World Cup it won’t officially become part of until Monday, when it meets Ghana in the northeastern coastal city of Natal.
And while the Brazil-Croatia opener kept most Brazilians on the edge of their seats, it put American goalkeeper Tim Howard to sleep.
“I dozed off,” said Howard, who blamed a grueling training schedule for his fatigue.
But he saw most of the game, including the only part most people were still talking about Friday — Japanese referee’s Yuichi Nishimura controversial decision to award a penalty after Brazilian forward Fred dived to the turf under a meek challenge from Croatian defender Dejan Lovren.
Moments later, Neymar converted the penalty kick, giving Brazil a 2-1 lead en route to a 3-1 victory.
“I don’t agree with it,” Howard said of the call. “But that’s not going to help Croatia.”
And if the Brazilians were guilty of a little gamesmanship, well, that’s how soccer is played.
“Any team I’ve ever been on, if we feel contact in the box, go down,” Howard said. “It’s the referee’s job to get it right. If you dive, book the guy or you play on. If it’s a penalty, then you call a penalty.
“But the decision lies with the referee.”
The U.S., like every team in this World Cup, got a refresher course in officiating when Esse Baharmast, a FIFA representative and a former Major League Soccer referee, gave a 30-minute briefing Monday. Hearing that talk, then watching how Thursday’s game unfolded, was helpful for midfielder Jermaine Jones, the most foul-prone U.S. player.
“We have to watch out with tackling in the box, with holding on corner kicks,” he said. “We know it, so just don’t touch the guys in the box.”
American defender Matt Besler also found the penalty instructive.
“As a defender, that was a tough one to see,” he said. “But I think it’s a good one to see because it’s a lesson that maybe some of us learned just by watching. It’s going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we’ve got to be careful.”
The U.S. team, after a gym workout Friday morning in sunny Sao Paulo, made the 31/2-hour flight to rainy Natal. But the change in the weather did little to dampen the players’ desire to finally get their World Cup started.
“The excitement level is at pretty much an all-time high right now,” said midfielder Graham Zusi, who is making his World Cup debut. “The game yesterday kicks it up a notch even more, to finally have this tournament started. And all the guys are itching to get on the field. I’m no different.”
Howard, one of four players who started for the U.S. in its last World Cup opener four years ago in South Africa, said soccer’s biggest stage brings with it both a thrill and an anxiety each player has to experience on his own. As a result, he’s kept the advice and the pep talks to a minimum.
“I think my words would be hollow,” he said. “Because no matter what I say, once those lights come on, you have to kind of deal with that and figure out your own kind of piece of mind within that chaos.”