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US fans are tuned in and turned on

PERHAPS this will provide some perspective. England's defeat to Uruguay in their second World Cup group game was watched by just over 20 million viewers, the highest figure since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.

Crowds of USA fans watch their team's game against Germany on an outdoor screen in Washington DC Photograph: EPA
Crowds of USA fans watch their team's game against Germany on an outdoor screen in Washington DC Photograph: EPA

The United States' second group game, against Portugal, drew a total audience of 24.7m, split between the Spanish language Univision network (6.5m) and ESPN (18.2m).

Think about that for a moment. One way to read it would be that it appears as if there's a football-loving country nearly 25% bigger than the United Kingdom buried somewhere among the USA's population of 320 million.

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And even those figures are probably low-ball, as they don't take into account factors such as legal streaming (ESPN estimates at least a few million) and the fact many Americans chose to watch the game in bars and at outdoor viewing parties. Of course, given the sheer number of false dawns the game has had in the Land of the Free, you don't want to get carried away

It could well be a fad. But there are two important things to note. The first is the 6.5m watching in Spanish. These are obviously first and second-generation immigrants who may have allegiances to their country of origin, most likely Mexico. And some, no doubt, were folks who just wanted to watch Cristiano Ronaldo.

But there is plenty of reason to believe that a big chunk of them were actually USA fans who simply happen to speak Spanish. And that's an important leap forward in a nation where, until recently, when the US faced Mexico or indeed most Latin American countries at home, it often felt like an away match.

The other point is that a sizeable proportion of US fans are well aware that their team aren't particularly good. They watch the Premier League, La Liga and Champions League; they can distinguish between Kyle Beckerman and Arturo Vidal, Graham Zusi and Lionel Messi.

And yet they still tune in for the same reason that fans of every nation, other than the seven or eight with a legitimate chance of being crowned world champions watch: to be a part of it and because they love their national team.

On the pitch, it has been more about guts and the ability to hang in there than it has been about sparkling football. Against Ghana, the US took an early lead, sat deep, conceded an equaliser and then marched up the other end to win it, thanks to an unmarked set-piece header.

Portugal took the lead against them, Jurgen Klinsmann's side equalised, thanks to a long-range wonder strike from Jermaine Jones, before Clint Dempsey somehow deflected the ball into the net with his belly (no, really…). They then gave up an injury-time equaliser to Silvestre Varela. And, under a torrential downpour, they fell to Germany 1-0.

To the neutral it's not pretty; to the fans it matters not a jot. Belgium are next up on Tuesday and you wonder if the run can continue. Marc Wilmots' men may be one of the most talented sides left in the competition, but they have also looked disjointed and chaotic. In three group games they led for only 24 minutes, mainly because they've had to rely on substitutes and late goals to get results.

A no-nonsense formation - speedster full-backs (including former Rangers man DaMarcus Beasley), three workman-like midfielders (Michael Bradley, Beckerman and Jones) and Dempsey up front - is exactly the kind of set-up that could frustrate the Belgians.

After that, who knows? But given the strong viewing figured across the board - not just when the USA are playing - you get the sense that, at the very least, Americans enjoy the World Cup. Whether it's the dawn of a new era remains to be seen.

On Friday, rather than holding a pre-game press conference, Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez gave an impassioned speech that saw him applauded by his country's press and derided by much of the rest of the world.

He conceded that Luis Suarez's behaviour deserved to be punished, but then talked about how the punishment - nine games for Uruguay, four months at all levels - was excessive.

"We know where the power lies, but we can't accept that this power be used indiscriminately against us," he said. "We can't accept that one man be made a scapegoat, an example.

"Or that the punishment should be meted out as a result of a media bombardment, fuelled by journalists who wanted to talk of nothing else. I don't know who they were or where they're from, but I do know they all spoke English."

So much for cultural gaps then, eh? Tabarez would likely have been better off having a word with whatever rocket scientist prepared Suarez's defence at the Fifa hearing which led to his long ban. According to the written reasons released by Fifa, Suarez claimed the following in testimony: "I lost my balance and fell on top of [Giorgio] Chiellini. In so doing, his shoulder hit my mouth. At no point did I bite him or attempt to bite him."

The obvious question to "El Maestro" Tabarez is this: "Why do you think Suarez deserves to be punished? Do you not believe your own player's testimony that he merely tripped and that it was Chiellini's shoulder that went into his mouth?"

The fact is that all this is nonsense. What happened happened, but if you're smart, you recognise it, apologise and then wheel out all your mitigating factors. You don't deny the obvious. The saddest part is seeing a man as intelligent and experienced as Tabarez being sucked into this alternative reality.

Costa Rica v Greece today is a match for those who love underdog tales. The Greek stroke of good fortune should run out against a well-organised Costa Rica side, but then again we said the same about virtually every game at Euro 2004 and we know how that turned out.

Holland v Mexico, on the other hand, could be much closer than people expect. Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have papered over plenty of cracks in the Dutch team, starting with a defence and midfield that appear clearly sub-standard, something mitigated only partially by Louis van Gaal's tactical acumen.

Meanwhile, the Mexicans - awful in qualifying - appear to be growing stronger as the tournament progresses.

Throw in the likely climatic conditions - 1pm local time in the cauldron of Fortaleza - and it wouldn't be at all surprising if the Mexicans advance.

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