SAO PAULO — American fans decked out in red, white and blue watched their team’s lone public training session in Brazil, cheering and seeking autographs.
Jurgen Klinsmann maintains they shouldn’t expect the U.S. to lift soccer’s top trophy for the first time July 13, even if that stance upsets some.
“I think for us now, talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic,” the American coach said Wednesday during his first news conference in Brazil before the tournament. “First, we’ve got to make it through the group. So let’s stay with our feet on the ground and say let’s get that group first done, and then the sky is the limit.”
The Americans open Monday against Ghana, the team that eliminated them from the last two World Cups, then play No. 4 Portugal and FIFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. They close group play against three-time champion Germany, the world’s second-ranked team.
Landon Donovan, the star forward cut by Klinsmann last month, started work as an ESPN analyst Wednesday and said: “This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen.”
He said former American defender Alexi Lalas, another ESPN broadcaster, felt the same way, as did the team’s primary fan group.
“As someone who has been in that locker room and has sat next to the players ... we agree with the American Outlaws: We believe that we will win,” Donovan said. “And I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.”
Odds makers peg the U.S. chances of winning the title at 250-1, up from 60-1 before December’s draw.
“I’ll be at the Natal game. I’ll be in Manaus. And I’ll also be in Recife — and, hopefully, the next stage,” Liliana Ayalde, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, said after the almost two-hour training session.
Klinsmann won the 1990 World Cup as a player for West Germany and coached Germany to the 2006 semifinals. He caused a stir last weekend when he was quoted by The New York Times Magazine as saying in a December interview “we cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet.” Klinsmann, who has lived in Orange Country, California, for most of the last 16 years, was accused by some commentators of having an un-American mentality.
“If it’s now American or not American, I don’t know,” he said. “You can correct me however you want.”
Mix Diskerud, the 23-year-old midfielder with a Norwegian father and Arizonan mother, took Klinsmann’s remarks as a challenge.
“That’s an opportunity for us to prove him wrong,” he said.
Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya thought it was a meaningless debate, but he does feel the Americans are dismissed by the soccer cognoscenti.
“People still have around the world a little bit of a prejudice maybe or something that America is still growing in the soccer world,” Bedoya said. “They still poke fun maybe that we call it soccer and not football.”
Only eight nations have won the World Cup, all from Europe and South America. Brazil has a record five titles, followed by Italy (four), Germany (three), Argentina and Uruguay (two each), and England, France and Spain (one apiece).
“Look, we haven’t won a World Cup before, so you can’t go into the World Cup saying, ‘Oh, we have to do what we’ve done in the past,’” forward Jozy Altidore said. “You come here obviously with that dream in the back of your mind. Let’s not be silly. At the same time you have to be realistic and understand there are some teams that maybe are a bit more favored than we are obviously to win the tournament.”
Brazil, the 3-1 favorite, opens the tournament Thursday against Croatia on the other side of Sao Paulo.
“They are born with having football in their blood, and you will feel that now,” Klinsmann said, adding: “Obviously they expect the title.”
And even more.
“The win is not enough,” he said. “It has to be a couple beautiful goals, as well.”
The Americans enter ranked 13th, nine below their record high in April 2006. Their best World Cup finish was at the first tournament, when they reached the semifinals in 1930.
This is the seventh straight World Cup appearance for the Americans, who failed to qualify from 1950-90.
“I think we are every year making another step forward,” Klinsmann said. “We always now approach games where we say we don’t look at ourselves as an underdog, even if a lot of people want to put us as the underdog. In this very difficult group, we’re not. We’re going to go in there and take the game to Ghana and they will take it to us, and then we’ll go back and forth and hopefully the people see an exciting game and us as a winner at the end of the day. And then we go from there.”