Our country is notorious. We are pretty hard to ignore. We have the world's largest gross domestic product. Our companies find their ways into every corner of the globe. The business world has adopted our language. We are the largest developed country, and our citizens love to travel. Media outlets around the world follow our politics, and just about everyone everywhere knows who our president is. If we don't like what another country is doing, we mess with it.
We are the big, bad United States of America.
But being an American during the World Cup is humbling. Our successes in global men's soccer are limited. Our best World Cup finish was third place in 1930, our first World Cup ever. We've participated in the tournament 10 times, and the farthest we've gotten since 1930 was being knocked out in the quarterfinals by Germany in 2002. On the other hand, Uruguay, a country with a population about one one-hundredth the size of ours, has won the tournament twice and participated 12 times. Brazil has won five times and participated in all 20 World Cups.
I've been living in Brazil since August of last year, teaching English as part of an 11-month exchange program. My main goal in Brazil has been to learn as much as possible about the culture firsthand, and my motto has been to say yes to everything (don't try this at home). Pelotas, the city where I live, in Brazil's southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, has a population of about 325,000 and isn't exactly a tourist destination.
Brazil must be one of the best places in the world to be a foreigner, especially an American. Most Brazilians are open and generous, and while people from other foreign countries sometimes look down on Americans as being arrogant or ignorant, you would be hard-pressed to find a Brazilian who doesn't give you a fair chance. They generally like the USA. Many of them consume and embrace our TV, movies and music (though their own versions are popular too). They Portuguese-ize lots of our words, like "hip-hop" (pronounced "hippy-hoppy") and Internet ("Internetchee"). Most of them like Barack Obama.
Some Brazilians talk down about their country and tell me that ours is the greatest in the world. But it's for that very reason that it was weird to see so many Brazilians rooting for us during the cup, not because they liked us but because they root for underdogs and, for once, we were underdogs. They rooted for us the same way they rooted for Algeria and are rooting for Costa Rica: We were queridos, a cute, historically unsuccessful team making a run at some mammoth squads.
In the end, we stumbled our way to a lackluster 1-1-1 advance out of the group phase, thanks to Germany's massacre of Portugal. Though we only lost 2-1 in our elimination against Belgium, we suffered an onslaught of attacks — allowing 38 total shots and taking only 14 ourselves — and for a good portion of the game looked helplessly unable to control our adversaries.
As I watched the game with a group of Brazilian friends who were cheering for the USA for no other reason than that they are good friends, they joked that the American squad would get shipped off to Iraq afterward and that if they switched the soccer ball out for a football, they might be more successful. They had the right to make fun of us. They had all seen Brazil crowned world champions twice (1994 and 2002).
I couldn't help but feel like we were out of our league in this tournament, which was a strange feeling. I reject the idea that one country is generally "better" than any another. Still, as Americans, we have grown accustomed to winning head-to-head competitions and leading on a global stage.
The World Cup has always been a reality check for us, and a healthy one. We are a great country with rich options for culture, ideas, music, food and many other things that come from being a meeting point for people from around the world. But let's face it: We're still not that good at soccer, and we're not the one great country of the world, as some of us sometimes like to think. Looking like losers reminds us of that.
The World Cup is a time to learn from other countries' successes. Maybe we should look to Uruguay, that tiny country with a history of World Cup glory. Uruguay's president donates about 90 percent of his salary to charity, lives on his wife's farm instead of in the lavish presidential palace and drives an old Volkswagen Beetle by choice. At the end of last year, Uruguay became the first country to fully legalize the sale, cultivation and distribution of marijuana, a step it has taken not to raise tax revenues but, as its politicians contend, to reduce cartel profits and crime.
Maybe we ought to get inspired by this year's surprise star, Costa Rica, which the Happy Planet Index named the happiest country in the world in its two most recent rankings because of the country's high measure of experienced well-being, long life expectancy and relatively low ecological footprint.
Maybe we ought to take a good look at this year's host and the most successful country in the history of the tournament, a country whose people prioritize friendship and family and have so far hosted a World Cup rife with fun, peace and happy visitors. Despite the protests of last year and widespread opposition to the event, Brazilians have embraced the moment.
Monday night, as I watched samba performer Dudu Nobre close out the festivities at the FIFA Fan Fest in Porto Alegre in the cold and rain, workers wearing bright orange jumpsuits danced through the crowd picking up trash as they traded smiles and dance moves with fans from all over the world.
This is the spirit of Brazil, and maybe we can learn from it.
Stefan Scherer-Emunds, an Oak Park native, teaches English in Pelotas, Brazil.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun