Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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I love the World Cup

    Korea/Japan 2002 is going to be a disappointment. How do I know? Because all World Cups are disappointments. I'm a football fan, which means I live in a world of ideals, where every game is an incomparable display of skill and artistry, where every player is committed to the highest ideals of sportsmanship, where every referee is letter-perfect, where every team is Brazil 1970. Moments before the kickoff of France-Senegal, I'll know, absolutely KNOW deep in my heart that I'm about to witness a month of the most magnificent sport ever seen on the planet, culminating in a Final of such transcendent beauty that the world -- every single person in the world -- will be left breathless with joy.

    And I'll be disappointed. But you know what? I won't care. Because I love the World Cup. I love it despite all its shortcomings, despite the cynical coaches, the cheating players, the incompetent referees, the ridiculous tournament structures, the incredible stretches of dull or violent play, the endless lurch from one desultory performance to the next. When the completely exhausted champions raise the trophy after yet another dour, dreadful, noncompetitive Final, I will smile in supreme bliss, having passed through one of the greatest experiences of my life.

How do I love the World Cup? Let me count the ways:

    I love the opening game. Oh, yes, most of the time it's pretty awful (although Brazil-Scotland four years ago was a cracker), but you can't beat the script: the defending champion against a lesser team, all the pressure on the big boys, the other guys with absolutely nothing to lose. Show your stuff, champs. This year's opener is perfect: mighty France, better than ever, against little Senegal, probably the most unlikely qualifier of the 32. Sure, Senegal can beat them; that's football! And you know what? I even love the tiresome preliminary speeches by all those fat, rich, and very very corrupt bureaucrats -- because I know once they're over the tournament will start. Who'll get the first touch? Trezeguet? Diouf?

    I love the colors. When France plays Senegal, each team will play in a distinctive strip. What will it be? France is usually blue shirt, white shorts, and red socks. Senegal -- well, I've only seen them in their all-whites, but if France wears white shorts Senegal will have to wear some other color. I know they've worn strips with yellow and red; we'll just have to wait and see. And there are 30 more teams to look at, all of whom have brought two full strips to the competition. The USA has changed their second strip from red to blue. Nigeria has changed their traditional green to a much lighter, almost yellow green. (And speaking of green, why is Germany's second strip green?) Important: how many times will I get to see my very favorite strip, the classic blue-white-blue of the azzurri? Well, let's figure it out: Croatia has that checkerboard pattern, Mexico the green, Ecuador yellow -- maybe all three group games?

    I love the tactics. Before the tournament starts, it is absolutely essential for me to know how all 32 teams will line up. 4-4-2 (Belgium, Sweden, Ecuador, England, China, Poland, USA, Saudi Arabia, etc.)? 3-5-2 (South Africa, Mexico, Cameroon, Italy, Costa Rica, etc.)? 4-5-1 (Russia)? 3-3-1-3 (Argentina)? 3-1-2-1-3 (I've never seen it, but hey, it could happen)? Plus I have to know exactly who's going to play where. Davor Suker has been switched from the front line to attacking midfielder. Nwankwo Kanu probably too. Bill Tchato of Cameroon has been listed on the roster as a midfielder -- but doesn't he usually play on the left side of the back line? Fan Zhiyi has been a central defender for China, but Bora's been experimenting with him at defensive midfield. Will Luis Marin play at libero or stopper for Costa Rica?

    I love the lineup speculations. Batosz Karwan of Poland is out -- who will replace him on the right side of midfield? Jacek Krzynowek is probably better on the left, but maybe Marek Kozminski can switch to the right. Can Joe Cole somehow dribble his way into England's starting 11? Owen Hargreaves seems likelier. Is it Kais Ghodbane or Riadh Bouazizi at defensive midfielder for Tunisia? Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo, Pablo Aimar; there's no way Bielsa can find a way for all of them in the same side. (Not to mention the whole Batistuta-Crespo business.) A shame about Talal Al-Meshal, the injured striker for Saudi Arabia, but maybe Abdullah Bin Shehan's pace can make a difference. The call is going out for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to start for Sweden, because they need the inspiration in attack. And of course there's the it-started-in-the-Stone-Age battle between Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller to be the #1 American keeper.

    I love the statistics. Let's see, through 24 games, the teams are averaging 2.87 goals a game, higher than usual, good. Italy are up to their old tricks, averaging less than a goal per game but somehow getting away with it; in fact, could Group G break the all time record for fewest goals? Germany just came from two goals down to draw with Ireland; gotta check how many times they've done that. Eight penalties so far, all of them converted; six red cards (didn't that same referee hand out two reds at France '98?); two goals directly off free kicks, six off corner kicks. Brazil wins the group stage for the 9th time in 12 tries; if Cameroon can beat Germany that'll be 5 tournaments in a row with an African group winner. No goalless draws yet; this might be the first tournament since 1954 without one!

    I love the upsets. China over Turkey? OK, so they played 11 men in their half of the field and won on their only counterattack of the game, but still! Tunisia over Russia -- well, sure, a surprise, but when was the last time the Russians looked good at the World Cup? South Korea over Portugal, home advantage does it again. Slovenia over Spain, well, that's not really an upset anymore.

    I love the outrage. Brazil is dull, dull, dull, oh, Scolari's really in for it now. "Disgrace!" as Uruguay go down 0-3 to Denmark. "Romantsev must go!" "Where is Baggio?" "Troussier has deceived us!" They're out to get Maldini, he'll never last the tournament, and I wouldn't bet on Jomo Sono either.

    I love the goals. My God, I love the goals. Vieri muscling the left-footer from 8 yards out, Bierhoff crashing in a header, Beckham with a spectacularly curving free kick, Hong Myung-bo from 35 yards (shades of Arie Haan)! Batistuta with style, Owen with speed, Inzaghi with sheer luck (or is it positioning?), El Hadji Diouf with a two-and-a-half somersault in the pike position off the high board. The toe-poke, the half-volley, the downward header, the chip, the deflection, the blast, the bicycle kick (please, just one!). And the celebrations: Julius Aghahowa, 4, 5, 6, 7 backflips, breaking his own record! (Too bad Finidi George isn't around to do his doggy bit.)

    I love the crowd shots. How many Danes have painted their faces red and white this time? There's Manolo with the big drum again. Are those guys from England watching the game, or just singing and swaying? Lennart Johanssen looks like he just ate all the meatballs in Stockholm, and Platini's asleep. There's the obligatory shot of Pele in the press box. Hey, it's that same crazy Nigerian from 4 years ago! And does anyone, anywhere, have more fun than the Brazilians?

    I love planning my schedule. Of course I'm going to have to watch EVERY game, are you crazy or something? Let's see, the games tomorrow are on at 2 AM, 4 AM, and 7:30 AM. I'll set the VCR to tape the first two games, then I'll wake up, watch the third game live, and...but wait a minute. If I watch the third game before the first two, they'll show the scores of the earlier games and I'll know the results. OK, maybe I can stay up and watch the first game live, then sleep until 10, and watch the other two on tape in the proper order. But my sister-in-law (can you believe this?) is coming for lunch, and I have to help my wife with the cooking (I mean, can you absolutely believe this?). OK, here we go: I watch the 2 AM game, sleep from 4 until 8, get up, walk the dogs, help Louise until 10 while the other games are taping, watch the first half of the 4 AM game, eat lunch, watch the second half, wash the dishes, spend an hour talking with my totally useless in-laws who know absolutely nothing about football, walk the dogs again, watch the last game, collapse. Then the next day...

    I love the mathematical permutations. OK, if Paraguay can beat Slovenia by more than 3 goals, and Spain gets only a draw with South Africa, then Paraguay wins the group and Spain has to play Cameroon next. If Brazil beats China, then they've clinched first place in the group and can rest their stars against Costa Rica, but if it's only a draw, then Rivaldo has to risk the knee again. If Japan beats Tunisia 2-1 and Russia and Belgium play a 0-0 draw -- oh no, we have to go to lots! And England absolutely has to win by at least two goals against Nigeria, because otherwise they'll finish second in the group and have to play France in the Round of 16, whereas if they finish first, they'll get maybe Denmark, and then an easy game with maybe Japan.

    I love penalty shootouts. No, really, I do. Oh yes, of course I hate them, and of course there are better ways to decide a game (just ask me, Sepp, you too, Issa, I've got about fifteen good ideas), but there is nothing, absolutely nothing in sport that compares to the drama of penalties. The desperate/hopeful/scared/tranced faces of the men in the center circle; the agonizingly slow walk to the area (watch the body language); the soft, careful, placing of the ball, like a priceless vase that might shatter; the let-it-all-hang-out preparatory gymnastics of the keeper vs. the tight, taut (terrified?) expression of the shooter; the absolute total uncertainty of what will come next -- soft shot? hard shot? left, right, middle, high, low? And the catharsis, every shot an explosion: a hammer buried in the right corner, a spectacular leap to the left to fist it away, the woodwork denying yet another nation's hope. The grateful looks to the sky, the heaving gulps of relief, the sinking to the ground, the faces covered in shame and horror. Admit it: you love it too. You know you do.

    I love the third-place game. Yes, it's meaningless, but that's why it's so wonderful. No pressure, no fear, no caution. Just football. Just pure, blessed football.

    And I love the Final. No, wait a minute, maybe I don't, because it's the last game, and after that there won't be any more. Not for four years, four impossibly long years. But -- in two years the qualifiers start. Well, I can last until then, sure, there's the Euro Championship to tide me over, and Copa America. And I've got my tapes of all 64 games (although the electricity went out during Tunisia-Japan, so I'll have to buy that one from someone online). Think of all the free moments I'll have when I'm not mowing the lawn or trying to fix the air conditioner or working at the office or sleeping or eating. Think of that unmistakable whirr and click as the tape slides in, and I get ready to watch...oh, it doesn't matter. Any one of 64. Any one.

    So there it is. The World Cup will be a disappointment. The Argentines will dive, the Italians will bore, the Brazilians will yet again fall miles short of greatness, the strikers will put half their shots into row G, no one will even try to score in the first half and most of the goals will come off set pieces anyway, the referees will call at least five bogus penalties and miss who knows how many more, the most exciting team will lose early in the knockouts, the team I really want to win will lose in the semis, a couple of plodders will contest the Final and someone will win, accidentally, on a dubious goal. And I'll be in heaven -- no, not in heaven, someplace better. I'll be watching the World Cup. I love the World Cup. I LOVE the World Cup. I LOVE THE WORLD CUP!

Which makes me one of, say, two billion...?



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