USA and Algeria become the neutrals' choice at World Cup

The runners up in Groups G and H have both been on a footballing journey in Brazil

USA football squad
(Image credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Two teams with very different football backgrounds made it into the last 16 of the World Cup on the final day of the group stage.

The USA and Algeria booked the runners-up spots in Groups G and H, sending Portugal and Russia packing and outperforming established nations including England, Spain and Italy.

The two countries will be underdogs in their knockout games against Belgium and Germany next week, but their unexpected success at a vibrant World Cup has established them as two of the most popular teams among neutrals.

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While the success of the US team is helping establish 'soccer' as a mainstream sport in that country, it is already an obsession in Algeria and the celebrations that greeted the result against Russia were almost hysterical.

The US have made it through the group stages before. They were semi-finalists at the first ever staging of the tournament in Uruguay in 1930, and made the quarter-finals in 2002. In 2010 and 1994, when they hosted the competition, they got into the knockout stages. And after failing to qualify for nine tournaments between 1950 and 1990, they have appeared in every competition since.

Despite that record the US remained a footballing backwater, but things are different under German coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who even urged fans to skive off work to watch his team in action.

"Until now football has advanced by stealth. Now, there is lift-off," says Paul Hayward in the Daily Telegraph.

"The rise of football in America has been one of the great stories of this tournament, with tens of thousands packing into parks to watch Klinsmann's men on giant screens and 90,000 travelling to Brazil to the see the competition live. US embassy staff claim there are three times as many American fans here as there are from any other country."

More people watched the USA take on Portugal than tuned in to watch the NBA play-off final. Vice President Joe Biden was in the stands for the match against Ghana and met the team afterwards. His boss, Barack Obama, sent a good luck message for the team and celebrated the result on Twitter.

Before the game against Germany the Empire State Building was illuminated in red, white and blue and actor Will Ferrell was in the crowd.

What has prompted the change? The Daily Mail puts it down to a mixture of American patriotism and the impact of David Beckham, whose high-profile move to Los Angeles in 2007 put the sport on the map. His arrival "galvanised interest" in soccer and "created a monster in terms of public interest", says the paper.

The game has caught on among the educated classes keen to distance themselves from the "meathead" image of some US sports, reports The Guardian. But flag-waving Americans are also "discovering in ever-growing numbers that US matches can deliver the same kind of patriotic, communal big-event experience normally associated with the Super Bowl".

Football has been doing just that in Algeria for years, but this is only the Desert Foxes’ fourth appearance on the grandest stage of all.

Their first, 32 years ago, ended in bitter recriminations. Algeria produced a momentous performance to stun mighty West Germany early in the 1982 tournament in Spain. But they were denied a place in the knock-out stages by one of the most cynical episodes in the tournament's history as West Germany and Austria conspired to produce a result that sent both teams through at Algeria's expense.

Now Algeria have finally made it through to the final stages and their reward is a rematch against the Germans in the last 16.

Backed by the likes of Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri, French stars with Algerian family connections, Algeria have "been a breath of fresh air at this World Cup", says The Guardian, thanks to "their fearlessness, off-the-ball movement and tactical flexibility".

Their fans have also made an impression, not just in Brazil but around the world. Supporters took over the Champs Elysee in Paris and the streets of west London after the result and the exuberance of supporters at the tournament has won over many neutrals. Algeria are set to fill the role taken by the Black Stars of Ghana in 2010.

In Africa things have been even more chaotic, and the equalising goal against Russia, which sent them into the last 16, caused utter mayhem in Algiers.

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