Football: The eagle has taken off: Richard Williams sees the host nation bask in the glow of an unexpected triumph

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IT ARRIVED right on cue, just as the players in red, white and sort- of greyish blue were coming to attention and placing their hands on their hearts while the military band struck up 'The Star-Spangled Banner'. High above the Rose Bowl on Wednesday afternoon, the big bird wheeled slowly in the bright blue air, peering down as it drifted on the warm thermals created by the anticipation of 93,194 people sitting below it in the open grandstands of one of the world's great sporting arenas.

From ground level, a hundred feet below, the bird looked to have a six-foot wingspan. If it wasn't an American eagle, it was the nearest thing central casting could find in answer to the call for an emblem of the national spirit. Or maybe it was a virtual-reality eagle, constructed at the behest of the US Soccer Federation, a body which would go to virtually any lengths to boost its team's chances of survival in a competition on which the future of soccer in the United States is reckoned to rest. Well, whatever its ornithological basis, the big bird certainly did its talismanic job.

As the referee blew his whistle to start the game, the bird turned and flapped lazily away towards the hazed outline of the San Gabriel mountains, which fence the northern side of Pasadena and give the Rose Bowl its incomparable backdrop. And then the players of the US fell upon the carcass of Colombia and ripped it to shreds.

'This is the greatest day in the history of soccer in the United States,' Alan Rothenberg was saying a couple of hours later, while the players wrapped themselves in the folds of Old Glory and fell on each other's necks in celebration. As president of the US federation, chairman of the board of World Cup USA '94 and chief executive of Major League Soccer, Rothenberg had pretty much everything riding on this one game. His can-do reputation. His career in sports administration. His

million-dollar bonus if the World Cup goes into profit. 'With all due respect to the players of the 1950 side,' he continued, referring to the famous US defeat of England in Belo Horizonte 44 years ago, 'that result came and went in a flash. This is going to have a permanent impact.'

Maybe it will, and maybe it won't. Maybe one good result will not be enough to embed the taproot of soccer deep in the soil of the American heartland. Even in their hour of greatest triumph, you would have been hard put to find a mention of the US team's win on Thursday morning's TV news bulletins, where the latest on OJ and a scandal over lesbian mothers held sway. But the 2-1 victory over Colombia - the side recently described by Pele as 'the best in South America' - was more than anyone could have expected.

In the afterglow, Alexi Lalas put it most affectingly. Lalas, the 6ft 3in rock 'n' roll centre-back whose orange moustache and goatee make him look more like a member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band circa 1968 than anyone's idea of a professional footballer, saw the historical point.

'I'll be 80,' he fantasised a couple of minutes after leaving the pitch, draped in the Stars and Stripes, 'and some punk reporter'll come up to me and say: 'Hey, didn't you play in that great game back in '94?' And I'll say, 'Sure, kid,' and I'll embellish everything. I'll tell him I dribbled through half the team and won the game by myself.'

Probably the only credible judge who would have predicted the result was Bora Milutinovic, the US coach, now established as one of the great World Cup tacticians thanks to his achievements in taking Mexico to sixth place in 1986, Costa Rica to the second round in 1990 and, this year, the no-hopers of the US past the resplendent talents of Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and the rest of the widely favoured Colombians.

No one described Milutinovic's hold on his players better than Eric Wynalda, the gifted forward who earns his living in the Bundesliga. Wynalda spoke after his magnificent free-kick had salvaged a point for the US in their disappointing opening match, a scrappy 1-1 draw with Switzerland which misleadingly put both teams's destinies in doubt. 'When things don't go your way,' the 25-year-old Wynalda reflected, 'Bora says, 'Don't worry, the next play is the most important play.' For me, those are words to live by. I've come to the conclusion that Bora knows everything.' From a one-time bad boy whose petulance in the face of adversity got him sent off in the 1990 finals, this was a considerable tribute.

Bora's decisions in advance of the Colombia match included replacing Cle Kooiman, the cumbersome defender who had played against Switzerland, with Fernando Clavijo, who, at 37, is the quickest player in the squad. Kooiman's measured reaction to the disappointment of being dropped illustrated the high state of the squad's morale. 'The man's a miracle worker,' he said of Milutinovic after the game. 'He knew exactly what to do. If he can keep doing it, more power to him.'

The Uruguay-born Clavijo, a former illegal immigrant who, with his wife, worked in restaurants while struggling to establish a career in his new country, was detailed to mark the fast and strong Asprilla, frequently touted as the potential new superstar of the competition. Along with his fellow forward Anthony De Avila, Asprilla was pulled off at half-time by his furious manager, Francisco Maturana, who said he would have substituted all 11 players if the rules had let him. 'Asprilla didn't do anything,' Clavijo said afterwards. 'He should be ashamed of himself. Not only did he not play well, he didn't even try.'

Clavijo's accurate criticism leads us beyond the wholly praiseworthy nature of the US performance and into an investigation of the mysteriously inept showing of the Colombians. Where did their co-ordination and continuity go, not to mention their competitive instinct? Why did the legendary precision of their short-passing game desert them so utterly? Why did even Valderrama find himself unable to play a perfectly straightforward ball out to an unmarked wing-back with any certainty of hitting his target? Valderrama's subsequent tantrums were ostensibly aimed at the hapless recipient, Luis Herrera, but the Colombian captain seemed to be raging at himself.

Bora's other tactical switch, with which he moved Thomas Dooley from a creative midfield role into a defensive position at the base of a midfield diamond, had something to do with Valderrama's frustration, but by no means everything. The real problem seemed to be in their heads.

Maturana realised months ago that his team's 28-game unbeaten run - and that astonishing 5-0 defeat of Argentina in particular - was liable to raise the nation's hopes to an unrealistic level. Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Brazilian manager, said as much to me earlier this year, when he picked Colombia to do well, but added that it all depended on how well they coped with the unfamiliar pressure of being among the favourites.

On the basis of their two games so far, the answer has to be that they could not cope at all. Against Romania they played brilliantly for 45 minutes, enjoying more possession than some English league teams get in a month, smuggling their passes through Romania's mob-tackling and looking certs for the quarter-finals at least. But they lost, to the fleeting genius of Gheorghe Hagi, and the effect now seems to have gone deeper than it should.

The effect on the collective mood of the death threat against Gabriel Gomez's family, faxed to the team's training camp at Cal State University, is hard to estimate. Where did the threat come from? The Colombians at the Rose Bowl didn't seem to think it mattered. 'This is Colombia,' one of them said, shrugging. At any rate, Maturana complied with the demands by leaving Gomez out of the side and slotting Hernan Gaviria into the defensive midfield position, but the consequent destabilisation probably went beyond a mere change of personnel. Other factors mentioned by those seeking to find a non-footballing reason for Colombia's collapse included the country's recent elections, during which President Cesar Gaviria made use of Valderrama on his TV commercials, and an allegation that Maturana had mysteriously threatened to resign just before Wednesday's game but had been talked out of it by officials of the world governing body - something which the manager himself categorically denied afterwards.

There was nothing to applaud in the Colombian performance, and Maturana didn't avoid the issue. 'It's very clear that our participation has been a disaster,' he said, through an interpreter. 'This is not what people had expected of us. We've let everybody down. The burden of being among the favourites was tremendous, but even if we'd gone out and tried to play as badly as possible, we couldn't have played as badly as this. Losing isn't so bad. It's the way we lost.'

Where all Milutinovic's gambles paid off, all Maturana's blew up in his face. His decision to use De Avila in place of Adolfo Valencia proved counterproductive, as he admitted by bringing Valencia on at half-time. Freddy Rincon offered only a marginally greater threat, his last-minute shot bringing the parry from Tony Meola that led to Valencia's consolation goal. Long before the end the Colombians were bringing to mind Rashidi Yekini's vivid description of the mental state of the Bulgarians after Nigeria had finished with them: 'They were goose-eyed,' he remarked.

The Americans, by contrast, played with the eyes and appetites of eagles, taking full advantage of the Colombians' sudden weakness. Meola had his second fine game in a row, while in front of him Marcelo Balboa again gave an immaculate performance as the defensive linchpin, with the enthusiastic Lalas at his shoulder. Balboa deserved to be rewarded with what would have been one of the greatest World Cup goals ever, had his ferocious 20-yard bicycle- kick direct from Tab Ramos's late corner not whistled an inch or two past the post. On the flanks, Ramos and John Harkes kept the team's shape in a way that Brian Clough or Bill Shankly would have admired, Harkes's umpteenth cross from the left luring Andres Escobar into opening the scoring with an agonising own goal.

Milutinovic, as he had done against Switzerland, brought on Roy Wegerle for Wynalda after an hour and Cobi Jones for Ernie Stewart, the delighted scorer of the second goal, shortly afterwards. This suggests a coach who has his plans very clearly laid out in his own mind. Soon, perhaps, we shall see what he does when faced with a crisis.

Meanwhile, his team will return this afternoon to the stadium in the shadow of the San Gabriel mountains, searching for the victory over Romania that would put them in with a chance of winning Group A and thus of playing all their remaining games in the welcoming warmth of the Rose Bowl. After last week's victory, Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard was soon a mass of chanting, flag-carrying fans and hooting cars. Stepping warily out of Our House Antiques, Goldstein's Bagel Bakery and the Clearwater Cafe into a soft, violet- tinged southern California evening, the locals seemed to decide that this World Cup thing was pretty neat, after all. For now, at least, soccer in Lotus Land seems like a terrific idea.

(Photograph omitted)