Starr: Soccer's Cinderella Team

I am of the persuasion that believes rivalry is the lifeblood of sports. As a Bostonian, I am particularly partial to Red Sox-Yankees, but I have no lack of respect for Ohio State-Michigan (on the gridiron) Duke-UNC (on the hardwood) BU-BC (on the ice), Federer vs. Nadal and Tiger vs. the field. Whatever stirs your juices is fine by me.

One of the burgeoning rivalries bordering on a blood feud that always stirs my juices is our very own U.S. soccer lads vs. Mexico. Most of the passion surrounding this rivalry is, not surprisingly, delivered from south of the border. Mexican fans are distressed if not totally crazed about the recent turn of events on the soccer pitch. They cannot believe that the damn Yanquis have actually supplanted their country as soccer's numero uno in this Central America/North America/Caribbean region.

It is hard to imagine a moment of greater despair for Mexican fans than when the United States earned a quarterfinal berth in the 2002 World Cup by booting Mexico 2-0. And since then, things have not gotten better. The American team is currently ranked No. 16 in the world, a full 10 spots ahead of Mexico. And while the Mexican team can still handle the U.S. (and pretty much anyone else) when it plays games at stratospheric altitude in Mexico City (7,000 feet), it appears helpless against the red-white-and-blue at any altitude in this country. Mexico has not defeated the U.S. on American soil since 1999 and has not even scored a goal in its last 754 minutes of play here. And while these are officially road games for Mexico, the visiting team—in Dallas, Houston and L.A.—has seen the lion's share of the crowd cheering for Mexico.

I am not deluding myself that this recurring soccer skirmish rises to either the playing or emotional level of the greatest regional rivalries like Brazil-Argentina or Germany-Italy. Frankly, not enough Americans yet care. But while it may be a rivalry of the second rank, it never lacks for passion on the field. The matches are always chippy—there is far more trash talk than in your average NBA game—bordering (and sometimes crossing the border) on downright nasty. So I have been looking forward to the latest chapter, with the two nations expected to meet Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago in the finals of the Gold Cup, this region's biennial championship.

But as thrilling as this rivalry is, there is a sports phenomenon that is far more rare and, thus, capable of generating greater excitement. That's a Cinderella story, a surprising success for some upstart team. And when the Gold Cup semifinals are played in Chicago on Thursday night, Cinderella will be standing square in the path of a Mexico-U.S. renewal. Playing the role of Cinderella is Guadeloupe, a tiny Caribbean island—actually an archipelago consisting of five islands—with less than half a million people. (Canada is also standing in the way, but like everyone else, I'll just ignore our northern neighbors.) Guadeloupe, which faces Mexico in one semifinal, has never before played in the Gold Cup championship. In fact, it has never competed in a major international tournament because it is not a nation but rather an overseas province of France. (The Gold Cup organizers can invite outsiders to play; last time, in 2005, Colombia and South Africa were invited to fill out the 12-team field.)

Guadeloupe has made the most of this chance. In the qualifying round, it upset Canada and tied Trinidad and Tobago, a Cinderella itself with its run to the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany. Then in the quarterfinals, Guadeloupe stunned an up-and-coming Honduras team that had finished ahead of Mexico in its qualifying group. While nobody imagined such a successful debut, soccer cognoscenti are well aware that players from Guadeloupe or with island ancestry have been mainstays on the French national team for decades now. In fact, Jocelyn Angloma, a former starter for France on defense, has come out of retirement, at age 41 and after five years on the sideline, to lead his countrymen—ah, make that provincemen—in this rare showcase for Guadeloupan soccer. And if the Gold Cup keeps extending its hospitality, we may see aging French heroes such as defender Lilian Thuram and peerless striker Thierry Henry in the Guadeloupe lineup someday.

Because of the large Mexican population in Chicago, fans of el tri will outnumber the Uncle Sam contingent in Soldier Field. As a result, Mexico-Guadeloupe is actually the featured game of the Thursday-night doubleheader, with U.S.-Canada the appetizer. As much as Mexican fans dread another stumble at the feet of the Americans, a loss to Guadeloupe would rise to the level of a national calamity. And it would be a giant blemish on the record of probably the most popular Mexican player ever, Hugo Sanchez, who debuted as national team coach this year. Sanchez had been severely critical of his Argentine predecessor for failing to instill a winning attitude on the team. But his predecessor never lost to Guadeloupe.

The U.S. team, which got schooled in last year's World Cup after entering the quadrennial tournament with unprecedented expectations, seems to have regained its footing—with an 8-0-1 record this year—under new coach Bob Bradley. (The last victory put the national team—after 70 years of competition—at the .500 mark for the first time ever.) The key has been the rejuvenation of Landon Donovan, who at just 25 years old is the team sparkplug as well as its veteran leader. Donovan had slumped badly at the end of Bruce Arena's coaching tenure. He didn't score a goal for an entire year—18 games—through the disappointing '06 World Cup. This season he has already scored seven times, which along with a pair of assists, has made him the U.S. team's all-time scoring leader. With Claudio Reyna now retired from national team play—and I was never as enamored of Reyna's play as his coaches—the team has been bolstered by an infusion of speedier youth in the midfield, including the coach's son, 20-year-old Michael Bradley.

As much as I am a root-root-root-for-the-home-team guy, I, like most American sports fans, am also a sucker for an underdog. After all, we named the "Miracle on Ice" as the greatest sporting moment in this country's history. So while a Gold Cup win would be nice for the American team, it would hardly be earthshaking. But for Guadeloupe, it would be their "Miracle on Turf." I suspect we might hear the cheering all the way from the streets of Basse-Terre. And like everybody who ever wept through "Casablanca," I am also a sucker for "La Marseillaise."