"They call it the group of death. So be it." So said the voice of fictional American hero Jack Bauer, introducing ESPN viewers to the first of USA's three formidable opponents in the group stage of the World Cup, in a promo that aired before the USA-Ghana match on June 16.
It was a strange but welcome 90 seconds of soccer players kicking, screaming, and looking alternately triumphant and despondent in clips of wins, losses, and training rituals—narrated by Kiefer Sutherland.
"Ghana... took us out of the last two World Cups. And really seemed to enjoy it. In fact, we've never beaten Ghana. Some say that proves we don't measure up, that we'll never survive. And to that, we say: Thanks." Cue footage of Tim Howard cresting the top of a hill, American flag over his shoulder, while some sort of Wild West tune ramps up over the sound of an eagle cry. "You doubt us? Perfect." We love being the underdog.
"They call it the group of death,” Sutherland says in the final line. “Makes sense, because we're in it." Implication: Just kidding! We're never actually the underdog. We're the USA, and we dominate everything, duh.
And then we did. Dominate. For one game.
The pre-USA-vs.-Portugal commercial spent only a few seconds celebrating the well-earned victory: "We were too busy wiping off the blood, licking our wounds. Yeah we won the match, but we knew what was coming next." Cue footage of Cristiano Ronaldo flaring his nostrils like a raging bull.
We didn't beat Portugal, and that was disappointing. To get psyched for the next game, obviously, we needed another video. "The perfect mix of AMERICA and WE CAN DO IT and INSURMOUNTABLE ODDS," as SB Nation saw it.
"No one said this would be easy." Germany is formidable. But "we have heart. And with people counting on us, we have to get the job done."
Once again, ESPN had crafted a clever, chill-inducing narrative to get viewers pumped about the World Cup. It worked—because it was so. damn. American.
But America's supposedly unique brand of cocky confidence is not what carried its soccer team out of the group of death, and it's not going to translate to wins in upcoming matches, either. Do we love challenges? Sure. Is the USMNT full of heart? For now, yeah.
The World Cup does not look to be primarily a test of grit or spirit, though. As Atlantic editor Sophie Gilbert noted here last week, the beautiful game is "profoundly, messily unfair," and chance sometimes has a heavy hand in match outcomes.
The U.S. has been lucky so far. Just try and imagine Jack Bauer admitting that, though.
These ESPN commercials epitomize the American approach to this World Cup—or, at least, the narrative that American fans have embraced so far in the tournament: America’s improbable victory somehow feels probable, because of our nation’s sheer, self-evident awesomeness.
Prevailing attitudes may be shifting, though. It is plain that the U.S. made it to the round of 16 thanks to a confluence of factors outside its control. People are still optimistic, and some, like Gwendolyn Oxenham writing here at The Atlantic, found yesterday’s loss “thoroughly American.” But one-note, "rah-rah clear-eyes-full-hearts-can't-lose" enthusiasm might be fading, replaced instead by some lightheartedness about the situation: "U.S.A. Wins 0-1" was the joke of the hour after we conceded Thursday’s match to Germany by one goal but still qualified for tournament advancement over Portugal and Ghana.
It's unclear whether ESPN will be releasing another USA promo ahead of Tuesday’s match against Belgium. As Businessweek reported after the USA-Ghana one debuted, future video production depends on Kiefer Sutherland's schedule.
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