SAO PAULO – Much of the United States soccer team gathered Thursday in a common room at the Tivoli Hotel here to watch the World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia.
Some sat in rapt attention at the scene on television. Others quietly talked among themselves about the strategy unfolding. Goalkeeper Tim Howard, a bit exhausted from all the travel and training, sprawled out on a couch and dozed off a couple times.
All were alive, awake and quite animated, however, during the game's critical moment, erupting like fans around the globe at one of those infuriatingly soccer events that enrage nearly everyone.
In the 69th minute, the game's referee fell for a blatant dive by Brazilian forward Fred in the Croatian box. It resulted in a penalty kick that led to the decisive 71st-minute goal in Brazil's 3-1 victory.
"Sucks for Croatia," Howard said. "That's what I think."
He shrugged his shoulder a bit and got philosophical.
"That's part of the game."
It's the part of the game that drives many back home, at least more casual fans of soccer, crazy.
Diving, flopping, feigning grave injury after minimal contact is un-American. It's an assault to our nation's sensibilities.
Many of our greatest sporting heroes are the ones who seek contact, fight through defenses and emerge unscathed. It's rooted in a puritanical mindset, not to mention a history of hard labor from farmers, explorers, fisherman and so on.
It wasn't long ago – before concussions became a primary concern – that even undeniably tough NFL running backs were criticized for running out of bounds rather than, Walter Payton-like, lowering a shoulder and getting a lick in on a linebacker even if no additional yards were gained.
"Never die easy," Payton used to say.
This is the opposite of that.
And no matter how distasteful it is to some, the United States may be trying to do a better job playing to the unwritten rules of the sport that other world powers exploit rather than just falling back on the fight-through-it ethos of the American work ethic.
Howard, for one, said that he encourages attackers to do exactly what Fred did. If they feel a slight brush on the shoulder, hit the deck and put the pressure on the referee to make a decision that is so challenging in real time he can easily get it wrong.
"I've always said, whatever team I've been on, if we feel contact in the box, go down," Howard said. "It's not our responsibility. It's the referee's job. It's a hard job but it's the referee's job to get it right.
"If it's a dive, you book the guy, you play on," he added. "If it's a penalty you call a penalty. But that decision lies with the referee."
This is abandoning the concept of self-determination, or even the warrior, against-all-obstacles, overcome-even-unfair-tactics approach that Americans are taught to celebrate. It's not enough for Americans to win. We need to be the underdog even if the hurdles are invented. This is a pass-the-buck, trick-the-ref taking of a passive position in the hope that a subjective decision goes your way.
"Referees have to get those things right," Howard said. "It's big moments."
This is a great disconnect, one that Americans need to bridge for soccer to continue to expand beyond its core – albeit quickly growing core – of fans.
It's not that diving and flopping doesn't happen. It's not that American athletes don't do it, whether it's basketball or football or soccer. It's just that they are generally met with scorn and mockery as the charade is shown repeatedly in slow motion on TV. They gain reputations they never really live down.
Fred saw no such local backlash. He was praised, excused and even supported in Brazilian media coverage on Friday. There's no shame in the dive when the press is hailing it as anything from a smart tactical play to (cough, cough) a legitimate foul.
Croatians players and coaches, meanwhile, essentially declared Thursday's match fixed for Brazil, the popular host country, because handing them a penalty kick that late in the game is all but determining the result.
"If this continues, I think no one should play against Brazil," Croatia's Vedran Corluka told Yahoo Sports. "We can just give them the World Cup and everyone can go home."
Officials have tried to outlaw acting, including the assessment of stiff penalties against the diver, but little has worked. It's not just penalty kicks that are so valued. Even an indirect kick from a favorable advanced location at any point is critical since goals are just so hard to come by at this level, which is why you see it all game long, all over the field.
The stakes are too great not to risk it.
Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley used to rail on diving in soccer. "I hate to see players act like they've been hit and get away with it," he said back during the 2010 World Cup. "I would be ashamed if I was the one doing it. … I like to see real competition."
That was then. Times change. Coaches, too. The Americans know that the game isn't bending for them.
U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones said referees met with the team a couple of days ago and went over the rules, emphasizing "to look out for hands in the box and on corner kicks."
When that's a point of emphasis – essentially something against the defense that refs are more likely to whistle – it makes taking a dive around the goal so enticing that Jones said everyone has to be cognizant of it.
"We have to be careful," he said.
Maybe, in Howard's terms, that "sucks," especially in an American culture taught early on to condemn such behavior. It's also reality, especially here on the biggest and most pressurized of stages.
This is the world's game, after all, no matter how it's viewed through an American prism.