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A Grudge Match In the Making

This afternoon, the "amateur" U.S. soccer faces a much more professional British team in the World Cup. Besides being reminiscent of a 200-year old war or two, this will be a grudge match for two more reasons: 1) the tensions between the two countries over the BP oil spill and 2) the David vs. Goliath nature of the match.

A similar grudge match took place 30 years ago, at Lake Placid, in the ice hockey rink, as described in the movie, Miracle on Ice. An amateur American team, given no chance against a professional Russian team, won 4-3, and went on to win the gold in the Winter Olympics.

That success was owed not to the players, but to the coach, Herb Brooks. Brooks had been a player in the 1960s, the last to be cut from his Olympic team, a burr that remained with him for the rest of his career.

Brooks did things differently from other coaches. For starters, he chose the most dedicated, not necessarily the most skillful, players. To do this, he administered several physical tests, plus  a written psychological test, that everyone took except for goalie Jim Craig--whose stubborn refusal to take the test told Brooks all he needed to know about Craig's goal-tending abilities.

"You think you've got talent?" Brooks challenged his team. "You don't have enough talent to win. We won't be the best team on the ice. But we will be the best-conditioned team on the ice."

When the team was confronted with Russia's fierce reputation, Brooks said, "Other teams don't work hard enough to keep up with the Russians for the whole game. We WILL work hard enough." He put the team on day and night drills.

After America lost to Russia 10-3 in an exhibition game, Brooks turned to the problem, goalie Jim Craig. "You need to take your game up a whole level. Show me the kid who refused to take the test."

The Russians took an early 2-0 lead, as expected. The Americans got one of the points back in the middle of the first period, and through a "lucky" shot, a second point, just as the period was ending. This caused the Russians to change their goalie. "They just benched the best goalie in the game," Brooks told his him.

Unless you count Jim Craig, who fended off numerous shots, so that "save by Craig" became a standard announcement. Over the rest of the game, the Americans outscored the Russians 2-1, for a 4-3 victory.

America can win this afternoon if it has a leader like Herb Brooks, otherwise it will lose.