Paul Marcuccitti


 
Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Four days to mark down in your diary



    If you're like me, you will be doing everything within your power to make sure you don't miss a minute of the 2002 World Cup. But it can be hard work - 64 matches spread over one month in which you may have distractions. It might be difficult to keep your boss happy; you might need to complete assignments or study for exams; you might have to devote time to your wife/girlfriend (and that's especially difficult if you have both).

    So you might need to be selective about which matches you watch. If you're a fan of a particular team - and you're not really worried about anyone else - being selective won't be a problem. But if you want to see as many good games as you possibly can, especially in the first couple of weeks, here's my tip - remember the following dates: June 11, 12, 13 and 14.

    Why these dates? Because the 16 matches in those four days are the last for each team before the tournament enters the knockout phase. And most of those matches will decide something - who advances; who goes home; who wins the group.

    For many of the competing countries, success and failure is going to be defined by whether or not they advance to the Second Round. Most of the teams that go to the World Cup don't have a serious chance of winning and you'd expect that most of their supporters would know that.

    Take Denmark as an example. The Danes have a reasonably good squad and they are capable of an upset or two. But, surely, even the most one-eyed Danish fan does not expect to see the national team knock over three or four giants of the sport on its way to lifting that beautiful solid gold trophy?

    Now don't get me wrong. I'd love a surprise victory and if the Danes - or any of the other less likely nations - upset the form guide and won the World Cup, I'd be delighted.

    But back in the real world, Morten Olsen and co will know that, if they make it to the last 16, they are unlikely to face much real criticism. Anything beyond that will be a bonus. On the other hand, if the Danes are on the first plane home after losses to Uruguay and France, and an unconvincing performance against Senegal, they will be rated as one of the big disappointments of the tournament. (Or "flops" if you like to read the tabloids.)

    Often you'll see a full range of emotions when many of these decisive group matches are completed. Players and fans are acutely aware of that line between success and failure so knowing that they're on their way to the knockout phase is cause for great joy. Equally, the knowledge that you're going home at the earliest possible opportunity ... well ... it can be devastating. It's especially devastating if you're one of the fancied teams (just ask Spain) or a country that regularly falls at the first hurdle.

    Think back to France '98 and ask yourself, what did we know after each team had played twice?

    We knew that Brazil had won Group A and Nigeria had won Group C. We also knew that France, the Netherlands, Romania, Argentina and Croatia had already qualified for the Round of 16. Finally, we knew that Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the USA, Tunisia, Japan and Jamaica were eliminated.

    At first glance, that might seem like a lot for us to know but it isn't really. We have only accounted for 13 of the 32 competing countries. The other 19 teams went into their last match facing both possibilities - survival and elimination.

    And five of the seven countries already assured of a last 16 spot had victory in their group to play for - and that's relevant to whether you face a group winner (in the Round of 16) or a runner-up.

    If we accept that group leadership was worth having (and more often than not it was), there was only one match, of the 16 played in those four important days, which counted for nought. That was the match between Jamaica and Japan in Group H. Both had already been eliminated.

    But the other countries that were already eliminated faced a team which had something to play for. So that's 15 out of 16 matches that meant something.

    Now, I can already hear some people saying that, in some cases, teams had a theoretical/mathematical chance of advancement without having a realistic one. Iran weren't going to beat Germany were they?

    Well, you just never know. You've heard of (or remember) USA-England in 1950, North Korea-Italy in 1966 and Algeria-West Germany in 1982. And how many of you can seriously tell me that you had money on Costa Rica advancing ahead of Scotland and Sweden in 1990? Come on, you know it can happen. And if you're watching when an almighty shock does happen, so much the better.

    One of my favourite memories of France '98 came from this four day period - Norway stunning Brazil with a 2-1 victory. Because the match was kicking off at 6.00 am (my time) there wouldn't be quite enough time for me to see the end of the game before I left for work. So I woke up early and got to the office before the match started (surprising a few building attendants in the process!) and watched it there.

    I was glad I did. The Norwegians looked like they were on their way out after Brazil went 1-0 up in the last quarter of an hour. (Morocco was comfortably leading Scotland in the group's other game and that meant Norway simply had to win to survive.) However, in the last 10 minutes, the Norwegians put the Brazilian goal under siege - a kind of terror not seen since Viking days. [In fact, I reckon Junior Baiano and Roberto Carlos spent the next few mornings waking up in a panic after recurring nightmares of Tore Andre and Jostein Flo.]

    Brazil wilted. Tore Andre Flo equalised and, with injury time approaching, the Brazilians were panicked into conceding a penalty. Kjetil Rekdal slotted it home and Norway went through to the Second Round.

It wasn't pretty. But was it exciting? Definitely.

    And there was Mexico's late comeback against the Dutch in Group E (from 2-0 down to 2-2). That didn't prove to be decisive in the end but if Belgium hadn't surprisingly been held to a draw by South Korea, the Mexicans would have needed the point.

    Both the Norwegians and Mexicans were overjoyed. Why? Because getting to the last 16 was a reasonable goal. Going home on the first plane? That's a failure for teams of their ability.

    The 2002 World Cup should also provide moments/matches like these. Some groups look extremely tight and they're likely to be decided on those four potentially fabulous days. I've mentioned the Group A teams (France/Denmark/Uruguay/Senegal) and you'd expect there's a good chance of a grandstand finish to Group F (yes, you know who). Indeed, which groups won't be going down to the wire?

    So much will be revealed between June 11 and 14 and, because most teams will have something to play for, you can expect plenty of excitement and all kinds of joy and despair - possibly some of the first real instances of both.

    On June 10/11, I'm planning to have a column ready which will go through all the permutations for those four days. What will your team have to do (in its last match) to make it through or win its group? Will it be relying on other results? Will it need to win by a certain number of goals? Will it be out already?

    In some groups the equations will be straightforward; in others they might be complex. For instance, in 1998, nearly anything could have happened in Group B. After each team had played twice, the table looked like this:


              P  W  D  L  F-A Pts
Italy         2  1  1  0  5-2   4
Chile         2  0  2  0  3-3   2
Austria       2  0  2  0  2-2   2
Cameroon      2  0  1  1  1-4   1
    Italy-Austria and Chile-Cameroon were the final group matches so you can see that every team faced both possibilities - qualification (for the Round of 16) and elimination. And only Cameroon couldn't win the group.

    Look out for that column but, more importantly, if it's going to be difficult for you to see the whole show, mark those four days down in your diary - June 11, 12, 13 & 14.

I can't wait!


 

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