2002 World Cup revisited: US set stage for shockers with Portugal upset

Paul Oberjuerge recounts the 2002 World Cup with a look at the United States' pace-setting group stage stunner over Portugal.
Brian McBride celebrates causing an own goal against Portugal at the 2002 World Cup. Shaun Best / Reuters / June 5, 2002
Brian McBride celebrates causing an own goal against Portugal at the 2002 World Cup. Shaun Best / Reuters / June 5, 2002

What we were watching could not be happening – 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 – in the 36th minute, against Portugal, and their “golden generation” of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Joao Pinto, Sergio Conceicao, Pauleta and the rest.

The side with the “3” were the United States, the team on the pitch in Suwon who had not been chosen by Pele as the side most likely to win the 2002 World Cup.

Anyone who has watched sport experiences those moments of not believing their own eyes, and this was one of them.

If the US, who had finished last at the 1998 World Cup, were to escape Group D, conventional wisdom held, they would need four points from their second and third matches, those against South Korea and Poland. It was assumed the match with Portugal was a lost cause.

Figo was the World Player of the Year, and Portugal’s first XI were playing for Europe’s best teams. The Americans were playing for the Columbus Crew, DC United and the LA Galaxy.

Those of us in the press tribune, at the end of the stadium, had not seen this coming. Especially those of us who had covered the minimally talented 1990, 1994 and 1998 US sides.

In later analysis, it was a perfect situation for a shock result. Portugal had been celebrating, the US coach Bruce Arena alleged, since the draw for the 2002 tournament had been confirmed.

Portugal’s media had reported players on shopping sprees and sloppy training sessions. The Americans had no expectations, outside their own group, and little attention.

John O’Brien got the first goal, in the fourth minute. The second was a shot by the 20-year-old Landon Donovan, which deflected off Jorge Costa and was ruled an own-goal. Brian McBride, who later played for Fulham, got the third with an extraordinary diving header.

We knew Portugal were too good to go down without a fight and the defender, Beto, scored in the 39th minute. Then Jeff Agoos conceded an own goal in the 71st and Portugal still had time.

Donovan came off in the 75th minute and his memories of the final 15 minutes jibed with those of the US press corps.

“When I came off,” he said, “I kept looking at the clock and I’m thinking, ‘It never goes this slow in a game’, you know?

“I looked up and it’s 80, and I swear it’s 10 minutes later, and it’s 82. I said, ‘What the hell’s going on here’, you know? We were just counting down the minutes. We couldn’t wait for it to end.”

After a seeming eternity, it did, with the help of Brad Friedel, the Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper. It was the greatest US victory in 52 years and was one of the bigger surprises of a tournament that was to be packed with them.

The US drew with South Korea in their second game, which put them into the knock-out stage, where a 2-0 victory over Mexico took them to the quarter-finals. It was there the story ends with a questionable Germany goal in a 1-0 defeat.

Portugal, meanwhile, never recovered from those first 36 minutes. They finished third in the group, behind the Koreans and the Americans, and went home in ignominy.

Arena neatly summed up what those of us in Suwon had seen. “We came to win the game,” he said, “not just to participate in it.”


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Published: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM


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