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In Calcutta, an American keeps his eye on the ball

When Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA play the Belgian Red Devils at 1.30am on Wednesday for a spot in the quarters, an American supporter in Calcutta will be rooting for his team several thousand miles away from Salvador, Brazil.

Metro on Monday caught up with the supporter — Greg Simkiss, the vice-consul of consular affairs, US consulate general in Calcutta.

A football, er soccer, enthusiast who has captained the consulate team at a recent tournament, Simkiss is an attacking midfielder who shifts to a striker’s role “if he is scoring goals”. “But if I am missing them, I like playing farther back.”

Isn’t his choice of sport a tad misplaced in the American context?

Simkiss laughed. “A lot of Americans play soccer. It is growing more and more popular. A lot more people are tuning in to the sport now than 20 years ago (when the US hosted the 1994 Fifa World Cup). Then, people didn’t understand why the US was hosting the sport.”

He earned his soccer stripes in Britain, learning to kick the ball at age four. He is a Liverpool fan because “that was the best team when I was growing up in the UK”.

His soccer skills and enthusiasm for the game earned him the Jibran Tayyabi Memorial Trophy for most sporting participant at the recent The Telegraph Cup Football for Corporates at CC&FC.

So far so good is how he would describe Team USA’s progress in World Cup 2014, given the tough group they were in with fancied Portugal and three-time champions Germany for company. He said not many expected USA to make it to the knockouts, but not only did they come through, they did it quite strongly.

Simkiss said his team has highly talented players now because the game has been gaining popularity in the US and kind of getting infused in its culture. “It is more than just something you do for a couple of years in your childhood. They have got the whole support of the US now, much more than they had 10 or 20 years ago.”

“Clint Dempsey is making things happen and Tim Howard is a great goalkeeper.”

Coach Klinsmann is another thing working for USA. He is a “great coach” not just because he has played at the highest level and won the World Cup (for Germany) but because he is tuned to American culture, he said.

A “good marriage” it is because Klinsmann knows “US culture and US methods and how US sportsmen work”.

“He has very strong ideas and knows exactly what he wants. He has been successful and he gets a lot of respect from the players. The team has done well before but now he is trying to take them to the next level.”

Simkiss said the one thing that could go against the players was their lack of exposure to the high-voltage football of European leagues.

Not all the players in the team have the technique or get the scope to hone their talent week-in and week-out playing for top clubs. Major League Soccer, the American equivalent of La Liga and English Premier League, is not at the same level as club football in Europe.

He said the game against Belgium would be tough but “you’ve got to look at opportunities” since injured Belgian star defender Vincent Kompany could be sitting out the match. “Every team has shone (in this World Cup) and every team has had moments when they looked vulnerable… so anything is possible.”

Simkiss has been catching only the early games because he has to report to work by 7am. “The next few days are going to be difficult.”

His football hero is Kenny Dalglish, the former Liverpool and Scotland star.

Among the current crop, he likes Liverpool’s Uruguay striker Luis Suarez. “I won’t let him get within an arm’s length to me but I enjoy watching him play!”

“(Arjen) Robben and Neymar have terrific speed and are having a good game.” Messi, he said, could get the Golden Boot if Argentina go the distance.

Simkiss has played football in many corners of the world — places where he had lived, such as his homeland, Britain, Mexico and Japan. He was delighted to learn about Calcutta’s passion for football before he joined the consulate here.

“I knew about the cricket and I had heard that Calcutta had some soccer teams but I hadn’t expected this!”