Big day for mixed-up Benny
Sunday will be a special day for all 23 USA players here in South Africa as the CONCACAF champions contest their first-ever men's final at a FIFA competition. However, for one of the young Americans it will have extra meaning. Benny Feilhaber, who started the opener against Italy and has come off the bench in the Stars and Stripes' three other games, was born in Brazil and on 28 June in Johannesburg, he will line up against the country of his birth with the FIFA Confederations Cup title on the line.
"Just being a part of history here with the USA and reaching our first final makes it a special day," Feilhaber, born in Rio de Janeiro, told FIFA.com. "But since the game is against the country were I was born, the country of my parents and where I still have many friends and a lot of family, it's going to be extra emotional for me."
A naturally creative midfielder, Benny's ascent in the US was decidedly fortuitous. Moving with his family to the New York City suburbs at the age of six, he didn't hit the US national team radar until he was discovered in a trial game while enrolled at University in Los Angeles. He was invited to join the high-power UCLA Bruins and shortly after he was included in the American youth team that travelled to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands in 2005. His impressive showings in the Low Countries brought a contract with German giants Hamburg. He later moved on to England and Derby County and is now regrouping with AGF in Denmark.
USA might not even be here at the finals in South Africa were it not for Feilhaber's interventions two years ago. He scored the winning goal, a scorching volley from distance against Mexico, to seal the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the region's qualifying tournament for the Confederations Cup.
He was a surprise starter in that final against the Mexicans in Chicago in June 2007, on for Michael Bradley who saw red in the semi with Canada. It is a fate that may well repeat itself again in Johannesburg on Sunday, as Bradley was once again dismissed in the last four, this time in the 88th minute of an historic win over European Champions Spain.
Whether he plays from the start or comes off the bench, it will be a magical day for young Benny, who played 30 minutes against the Brazilians in a 3-0 loss in the group stages. When talk turns to historical meetings between his two beloved countries, Benny's mixed feelings become apparent. "I remember the 1994 Round of 16 FIFA World Cup game when Bebeto scored the winner against the US," Feilhaber, a die-hard fan of Botafogo who hopes one day to play his football in Brazil, recalls with a grin. "I watched that game at my grandmother's house in Brazil. I was on summer break from school in the States and I was surrounded with my whole huge family, and everyone around was just mad about Brazil. They all went crazy when Bebeto scored."
Feilhaber's rise has been slowed recently by serious knee injuries, two surgeries and nearly a full year out of the game. But national team coach Bob Bradley has shown faith in the 24-year-old, and may well have to rely on the midfielder. When asked which side his family would be supporting in this particular game between the USA and Brazil, the player half smiles. "I'm pretty sure my parents will be supporting us, the US, but some of my other relatives will still be cheering for Brazil. It's their passion and I don't blame them."
Feilhaber was a surprise call-up for Bradley's team here in South Africa, but it has been a welcome opportunity to play himself back to fitness in a bid to revive his career, so promising before injuries and lack of form took a toll. "I've had some problems recently," Feilhaber remarked, before changing languages from perfect English to perfect Portuguese and a chat with the Brazilian media. "But I've been feeling good and happy to come in off the bench and try to add some spark and help the team. He came on with 21 minutes to go in the semi-final win over Spain. "When the final whistle went against Spain it was one of the happiest moments in my life," he said with a smile.
Looking forward to the clash on Sunday, the Americans' Brazilian man in the middle might just offer that little spark they need to make more history here in South Africa.