It comes around only once every four years, but the FIFA World Cup has no trouble with dominating the headlines--both in the United States and abroad--during the month period which it takes place.
Call it The World Cup Fever. It’s a tough thing to avoid, especially with the success of the United States Men’s National Team, and the Bengals are not immune. More on that in just a moment, but first a bit of background:
The U.S. was placed initially among four teams in Group G, referred to by many pundits as the “Group of Death.” That’s soccer verbiage for the seemingly most difficult group to advance to the next round of the tournament. USA was joined in Group G by Ghana, Portugal and always powerful Germany.
For those who are not sure on how the tournament works, each team played the three others in its group, earning three points for a win, one for a draw and no points for a loss. Group matches concluded late last week, and in each of the eight groups, the two teams with the highest point totals move on to the Knockout Stage, a single-elimination 16-team tournament.
Prior to the start of the World Cup, analysts and fans alike knew the U.S. would have an uphill climb to reach the Knockout Stage. But Team USA made it, finishing second behind Germany. The Americans had the same record as Portugal -- one win, one tie, one loss -- but they placed ahead of Portugal in the first tiebreaker, total goal differential.
That brings us to today, when Team USA will open the Knockout Stage against Belgium at 4 p.m. EDT. Borrowing a phrase from college basketball, the winner will move on to the “Elite Eight,” and the loser will head home.
Now, back to those “futbol” loving Bengals. Bengals.com caught up with two of them, nose tackle
“I used to play when I was younger,” said Sanu. “It was my first sport, and then I started playing football. Recently, I started playing the (soccer) video game again. My girlfriend played in college too, so I would watch her play all the time.”
Peko didn’t gain an interest for soccer until later in his life.
“It all started when I was in junior college,” said Peko. “A couple of my college teammates there were playing the FIFA video game, and I just started playing that and I fell in love with it. I started watching the World Cup from there and just saw how accurate they are with the ball, and what they can do with the ball at their feet. I just became a fan of it. My kids are also playing it now, which puts me more into the game. I love watching them play and I love watching games with them.”
Both Bengals say they have been impressed while watching the U.S. team in its first three games.
“They’ve played very well,” said Sanu. “They’ve been able to utilize what they’ve got. They’ve been able to strike when they can and take advantage of their opportunities. That’s what you have to do in the game of soccer. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you get unlucky. It’s just about taking advantage of opportunities.”
“I’m excited about them moving on to the Round of 16,” said Peko. “They’re playing really well. Everybody kind of doubted them as far as the Group of Death. They kind of proved the world wrong and did really well in their three games. It seems like the coach (former German national star Jurgen Klinsmann) has been doing a great job. Even through injuries, they’ve been able to pull together and find a way to stay alive.”
The biggest among the injuries Peko referred to was that of starting striker Jozy Altidore. The 24-year old Altidore was expected to be one of the best goal scoring threats for Team USA. However, he pulled up in the first half of USA’s first game against Ghana with a strained left hamstring. He missed the next two games but has been declared fit to play against Belgium.
Additionally, two other key players for Team USA have suffered broken noses. Striker Clint Dempsey was kicked in the face in the Ghana game but finished the game and was able to play both of the next two games. Dempsey has scored two of Team USA’s four goals thus far in the tournament.
Midfielder Jermaine Jones suffered a broken nose in last week’s loss against Germany. Jones netted Team USA’s first goal in the 2-2 tie against Portugal and has been one of their most productive players in the tournament. He is expected to be a full-go against Belgium.
“I’m really excited about Dempsey, but also Jones has been playing really well,” said Peko. “He’s having a heck of a World Cup. He’s been defending his tail off and also scored a nice goal for us. That was kind of unexpected. I’m excited about him.”
Sanu, a native of South Brunswick, New Jersey, grew up in the same area as Team USA’s starting goalkeeper, Tim Howard. Howard hails from North Brunswick Township, N.J.
“Of course Tim Howard is one of my favorites, being that he is from my area,” said Sanu. “He’s great to watch.”
While soccer is still short of the traditional major sports in popularity in America, the level of interest this year cannot be denied. Team USA’s match against Portugal drew a total of 24.7 million viewers on two networks, ESPN and Univision. The 18.2 million viewers on ESPN represented a record for a soccer game on American television.
The success of the 2014 U.S. team has certainly rallied the nation to a cause that anybody can get behind if they so choose.
“I think how well they’ve played is helping a lot,” said Sanu. “Soccer is obviously not the number one sport in America. It kind of falls in line after football, basketball and baseball. Everywhere else in the world, soccer is their number one and it’s like their religion. It’s a great sport and I think people are seeing that.”
“I think it is helping out,” said Peko. “It just lets people know that the U.S. is getting better and better at soccer every year. I hope that the sport grows here because it’s really big in Europe. I see all over the U.S. that people have been gathering. In Chicago they’ve been having thousands of people watching the games at Grant Park. It’s all over Twitter as well. I think there were over three million tweets about U.S. soccer on the day of the Germany game. It’s really good to show people that soccer is a wonderful sport. Nothing to take away from basketball, baseball, football but soccer is an awesome sport. Me and my family love the game, it’s wonderful.”
Other Bengals players have caught the Fever as well. Tight end
It’s been a fun ride for American soccer fans thus far in the 2014 World Cup. As far as the match against Belgium, Sanu and Peko both had the exact same prediction.
“I think it will be a tough match,” said Peko. “Belgium is a young team and they’ve been playing really well. They won all three of their group games. I think we can pull it off. If I had to guess a score, I’d say 2-1 USA.”
“It should be a good, close game,” said Sanu. “Belgium has a great attack. We’ve just got to play good team defense and be able to create and convert on opportunities. I think we might win 2-1.”
A victory for Team USA against Belgium would punch their ticket to the quarterfinals for only the second time in their World Cup history (2002 the first).