In the 10th minute of the 2009 Confederations Cup final in Johannesburg, United States attacker Clint Dempsey managed to evade both Lucio and Gilberto Silva before redirecting Jonathan Spector’s long cross from the right beyond Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who hadn’t spared the layers on a cold night in the South African capital.
It was an opener that had come from nothing. If anything, Brazil might have been disappointed it hadn’t converted at least one of the two corners it had earned inside the first seven minutes.
From there, the match cranked up a gear. Just two minutes after going behind, Brazil was nearly level when Robinho, having been set up by Kaka, forced a spectacular save out of American goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Both sides continued to trade chances until shortly before the half-hour mark when, suddenly, the United States found itself 2-0 up.
Following a wayward Robinho pass, Landon Donovan was in good space for a counterattack. He found Charlie Davies sprinting up the left side of the field with a well-placed ball and got in behind the defender for his teammate’s return. Donovan controlled it nicely before beating Julio Cesar.
Having already dumped Euro 2008 winners Spain out of the tournament at the semifinal stage, the United States went back down the tunnel with a two-goal lead and only 45 minutes from winning its first major international title.
It wasn’t to be.
Before a minute had ticked off the clock following the restart, Luis Fabiano had pulled one back for Brazil. Later, he completed his brace when he restored level terms in the 74th minute. By this stage, there was only going to be one winner, and Selecao captain Lucio completed the fight-back with six minutes to play, as Brazil claimed its third Confederations Cup.
But what if the result had been different? What if Brazil hadn’t roared back? What if the United States had successfully absorbed the pressure and even nicked a third with the Brazilians caught upfield?
American television numbers suggest a good many people would have watched the historic victory.
Nearly four million viewers tuned in for the match, making it the most-watched non-World Cup game in United States men's national team history and, at the time, the third most-watched of any competition (following the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against Germany and 1994 group-stage encounter with Colombia).
Having a winner in a sport still seen by some of the mainstream networks as foreign would surely have helped speed football’s American transformation from exotic to conventional. This would have happened even though the product on the pitch wouldn’t have undergone much of a change, if any, ahead of the World Cup the following June.
On the other side of the ball, however, things might have been much, much different.
Coming into the tournament, the Brazilian public and press establishment were still getting used to the idea of Dunga being Selecao manager, and the victory against the United States—particularly the manner of it—helped cement the former midfielder in the job going into a World Cup year.
It also vindicated his selections.
Despite some up-and-coming talent back home—namely then-Santos duo Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso—Dunga opted to build a predominantly Europe-based squad built around the attacking trio of Kaka, Robinho and Luis Fabiano. All three did well at the Confederations Cup, and without a competitive match between the final and the start of the World Cup, they basically guaranteed their places in the first XI.
As did Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva—neither of whom was particularly popular but ended up being impossible to take out of the team after winning a trophy.
The result was a team fashioned in the image of its stern, often grumpy manager that produced the majority of its goals on the counterattack and brought none of the country’s young stars into the fold.
In other words, it was seen to be “un-Brazilian” and even despised in some corners back home.
Had the United States held on to win the Confederations Cup, Dunga would almost certainly have been forced to crumple his blueprint and design another. Perhaps he would have made the sort of changes that would have seen Brazil to more success the following year, or at least made the team more enjoyable to watch.
But that’s the “what if?” game. And while it’s fun to play, we’ll simply never know for sure.