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The Greatest US Sports Upset? Hint - It Happened in Brazil

The Game of Their Lives

By Geoffrey Douglas

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Henry Holt

146 pp., $23

In a time when everyday life is painstakingly planned out so nothing is left to chance, sports remain an oasis of complete unpredictability.

Indeed, sports capture the imagination most when it forsakes expectation - when the events that unfold border on the unbelievable. Often these events become a part of culture: Kerri Strug's Olympic performance, Cal Ripken's ironman streak.

Forty-eight years ago in a rickety old wooden stadium in Brazil, the United States national soccer team - composed of postmen, bricklayers, and dishwashers who played soccer in their spare time - beat England, then the most dominant soccer nation in the world, 1-0, in the World Cup. It was a transcendent event in world soccer - but north of the Rio Grande nobody cared.

Geoffrey Douglas's book chronicles the game - since called the single greatest upset in the history of American sports - and the lives of those who played in it. The victory is the equivalent of Cuba beating the Chicago Bulls.

About two-thirds of the book is riveting reading. Douglas's account of the game is remarkable in its detail. His narrative flows beautifully, richly recreating the atmosphere of the match and the events that led these players to the fields of Brazil.

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For the remaining third, however, employing a practice of "soft focus" biography now integral to Network coverage of Olympic athletes, the book strains to incorporate stories about the players that have almost nothing at all to do with the game. In another context, these stories might be appropriate, but here, they seem out of place and tangential. Much of this portion of the book also becomes slightly morbid, retelling the fate of team members who have since died.

This is not a book just for soccerheads. It is a story of an amazing achievement, the very essence of team competition in balance with striving for one's personal best. Largely unknown until now to the people who should embrace it most, the story will appeal to anyone who is inspired by sports.

*Mark Sappenfield is on the Monitor staff.

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