SAO PAULO -- Like most soccer fanatics around the world, the U.S. national team gathered around a TV to enjoy the 2014 World Cup opener between host Brazil and Croatia on Thursday. The players watched Brazil’s 3-1 victory from a private lounge in their heavily guarded team hotel, the five-star Tivoli in this city’s trendy Jardins district.
They came away with two strong impressions, which they carried with them Friday afternoon as they flew to Natal, site of their Monday opener against Ghana:
• This country really, truly is crazy for soccer.
• Referees at this World Cup are calling things very tight in the penalty box, so it’s best for defenders to keep their hands down.
“I was up in my room for the second half with my window creaked open a little bit, and when Brazil scored those two goals in the second half and then again on the final whistle, I heard the entire city of Sao Paulo roar, and it gave me chills,” U.S. defender Matt Besler said. “It was so cool. I was watching on my TV, and I saw the ref blow the final whistle and in the two-second delay, I heard an eruption in the city. I’ve never experienced that before. The energy of the country is finally here.”
As for the questionable call on Croatian defender Dejan Lovren, who was booked with a yellow card in the box when Brazilian forward Fred went down after apparently little contact, the Americans said they learned a lesson.
“That was a tough one to see, but I think it’s a good one to see because it’s a lesson that maybe some of us learned just by watching,” said U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones, who is admittedly foul-prone. “It’s going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we’ve got to be careful.”
Early last week, FIFA assigned an officiating representative to meet each of the 32 teams and brief the players on what they should expect from referees and some areas of emphasis. Esse Baharmast, a retired American referee who worked the 1998 World Cup, met with the U.S. team on Monday and fielded questions.
“Some referees were in the hotel to give us the rules and to say that we have to watch out with hands and tackling in the box, with holding and corner kicks and all that stuff,” Jones said. “So we know not to touch people in the box and watch out with all that.”
Officiating controversies are part of the World Cup. Mexican fans surely weren’t happy that two Giovanni Dos Santos goals were called back in Friday’s 1-0 victory over Cameroon.
Four years ago, the United States rallied from two goals down to tie it up against Slovenia, and then Maurice Edu scored an apparent game-winning goal in the 86th minute. But Malian referee Koman Coulibaly waved it off without explanation.
Tim Howard, America’s veteran goalkeeper, when asked about the penalty in the Brazil-Croatia match, replied: “Which penalty? I didn’t see one, but you know I don’t have a whistle, so I’ll have to take that into account and hope we don’t touch anybody in the box.”
Howard said he doesn’t fault Fred for going down.
“I’ve got no problem with the Brazilian player going down,” he said. “I would encourage my own players, if they feel contact, to go down. It’s a referee’s job, obligation and responsibility to make sure that he gets it right.
“It’s a hard job, but it is the referee’s job to get it right. If it’s a dive, they book the guy or you play on; if it’s a penalty, you call a penalty, but that decision lies with the referee.”
Saturday’s game between Colombia and Greece will feature an American referee, Mark Geiger, the first to work a World Cup match since 2002.
Heading to Natal
The U.S. team left its base-camp hotel Friday afternoon and flew to the northeastern, coastal town of Natal, known for its beautiful beaches and sand dunes. Its name is Portuguese for Christmas because the town was founded on Dec. 25, 1599.
Many players will be joined by family and friends in Natal, including Weston’s Alejandro Bedoya, a midfielder playing in his first World Cup. His guest list includes his parents, grandfather, brother and sister, girlfriend, Weston FC youth coach Steve Ziegler and his wife, and childhood friends Cesar Aguirre and Beau Brudzinski.
For Bedoya, a Colombian-American whose grandfather played professionally in Colombia, this is a lifelong dream for the entire family.
“I’m in Brazil, the mecca of football; doesn’t get any better,” he said. “You kind of have to pinch yourself. Everyone was really excited when we got to the Miami airport [to fly to Sao Paulo], and we had some fans there.
“When we got on the airplane, everyone was trying to take selfies. Everyone’s just excited to be part of this. It’s a wonderful opportunity. Hopefully, we’ll make the most of it. Have fun but take care of business.”