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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Continental drift

    Day 3 of the World Cup, and already it's hard to remember much about France-Senegal. There was an upset, right? And some guy with Z's in his name didn't play, right? Oh, never mind -- just keep your head forward and your eyes on the set. Thinking's too much trouble right now. Three more games tomorrow, and what more do you need to know?

    Four of the five African teams have opened their accounts (Tunisia follows in a few days) and it's time to take stock. At the moment the confederation is dead even: 1 win, 1 loss, 2 draws. Not bad, but nothing really exceptional: remember that in 1982 Cameroon and Algeria together actually had a plus score, and neither qualified. So with Senegal already ancient history, let's look at the three teams that played on Saturday and Sunday.

    Cameroon first. The Indomitable Lions have the greatest burden of expectations: as continental champions and experienced World Cup warriors, they'll settle for nothing less than the quarterfinals. Judging from their performance against Ireland, they still have work to do. They were brilliant in the first half, their pace and power allied to superb technique, and they looked like they might steamroller an Irish squad not yet adjusted to the loss of Roy Keane. Geremi was particularly effective on the right wing, and Samuel Eto'o, who set up Mboma's goal, was looking like the man of the match.

    But Eto'o's fine performance underlines the Lions' major weakness: the lack of a true playmaker. Notice how often he fell back to help set up play; at times he did it brilliantly, but you can't rely on a striker to be your main creative force. In the second half, Cameroon was getting the ball forward, but had little idea what to do in the attacking third. Crosses from Pierre Wome went for nothing -- Wome is not really an attacking player -- and there was little possession in the middle of the field near the penalty area. Marc-Vivien Foe, the central midfielder, is not a playmaker: he's really an all-rounder, who chips in at times on both attack and defense. Perhaps the best hope for a creative attacker is Laurent Etame-Mayer, a tricky player with good ball skills and vision who plays inside right. He may have to see more of the ball against Germany.

    There were several other danger signs for Cameroon. First was the condition of Patrick Mboma. He took his goal nicely, but was clearly not match fit, and is unlikely to go 90 strong minutes any time soon. Patrick Suffo played energetically as a substitute; he and Pius Ndiefi will have to be in good form if Mboma fades. Another worry was the play of Salomon Olembe, who went missing throughout much of the game. He's needed to provide punch on the left side of attack. Perhaps most important was the general second-half drift, as if the team as a whole had lost focus. The Irish were superb -- and Matt Holland had the goal of the tournament so far -- but a team with ambitions for the quarterfinals isn't supposed to get pushed against the wall that way. Cameroon are at their best when forcing the issue, and they'll have to rediscover their aggression soon.

    Unfortunately, the game against Saudi Arabia is almost a no-win situation. If the Saudis roll over like they did against Germany, it won't be much of a test; on the other hand, if they're really aroused, Cameroon could find themselves in a fight they don't expect. Nothing but a win will do, and the Lions can't afford to take anyone lightly. The good news is that they get Germany last. If the Germans defeat Ireland, they'll have clinched qualification, and will need only a draw to win the group. In that scenario, a draw will put Cameroon in second place, ahead of Ireland and into the knockout rounds.

    Now to Nigeria, where there's plenty of good and bad news. Start with the good: they stood up to an outstanding Argentine squad, and if Argentina were deserving winners, the Super Eagles made them work for the victory. In the final minutes the attack had a shaky Pablo Cavallero in trouble several times. Jay Jay Okocha started very slowly, but after the Argentine goal, when allowed more space, he showed that he's lost none of his skill and playmaking vision. Pius Ikedia, who came on for Nwankwo Kanu, may have earned himself a starting spot: playing on the right side of midfield, he showed pace, technique, and lots of attacking energy. Bartholomew Ogbeche was all over the field at striker, and if he still seems a rough diamond he looked as if he'll make a mark before the tournament is over. Best news of all was the performance of Ike Shoronmu, one of the big doubts before the tournament began. Although once or twice he seemed to have communication problems with his defense, he was brilliant on his line, evoking memories of great African keepers like Nkono and Bell.

    There were some worries, though. Festus Onigbinde chose Joseph Yobo for the trouble spot at defensive midfield, and Yobo, normally a right back, looked uncomfortable. He was out of position several times, and ineffective in the transition from defense to attack. When in the second half Justice Christopher took his place, and Yobo went to his natural position, the team looked more solid as a whole. (To be fair, Argentina had backed off on the pressure.) Christopher is very young, but he might be the right call in the slot against Sweden. Another problem was at left back, where Celestine Babayaro struggled both in attack and defense. Look for Ifeanyi Udeze, coming off a one-game suspension, to take his place. One more worry is Kanu, who was hurt early and was never a factor.

    But on the whole I'd say Nigeria's outlook is fairly positive. Neither England nor Sweden look like world-beaters, and England may get a lot taken out of them by the battle against Argentina. If Cameroon was drifting out of focus, Nigeria seems to be drifting in, and they have a certain amount of momentum coming into the Sweden game. Onigbinde was upbeat after the loss, and has a right to be so.

    Finally, South Africa. After the heavyweight Argentina-Nigeria clash, their game with Paraguay had the air of a second division fixture, with a lot less skill and intensity. But in the end it may be this game which will be remembered as the most important of the three -- and even of the four, including Senegal's win over France.

    Jomo Sono confirmed his reputation for unpredictability by fielding a totally unexpected lineup. He went with only one true striker, Benni McCarthy; both Siabonga Nomvete and George Koumantarakis started on the bench. Then he put star midfielder Sibusiso Zuma on the left, instead of his more natural right side. He started Cyril Nzama, more often a defender, in right midfield. On the whole it was a surprisingly defensive setup for a team that was supposed to be ready to attack.

    The first half was drab. Only Quinton Fortune showed any signs of life; his left-sided runs at times troubled the Paraguayan defense, but nothing really came of them. Paraguay seemed uninspired in attack as well: only the fine play of Roque Santa Cruz lifted them out of mediocrity. Santa Cruz fittingly scored the Paraguayan goal, appropriately enough on a set piece abetted by a keeper error. When Arce rammed home his free kick early in the second half, there seemed nothing left but for Maldini's men to play careful defense and walk out with a vital, not particularly well-deserved victory.

    But then something happened. South Africa, instead of folding, as so many African teams in the past have done, came to life. Zuma spent more time on the right side and became more dangerous. Fortune seemed to tire a bit, but Teboho Mokoena emerged as a force at attacking midfield. Paraguay went passive -- remember, Maldini has made a living with these tactics -- and just nine minutes later, paid the price. South Africa's goal, an own goal, was lucky, but it was a fitting reward for all the pressure in the Paraguyan area.

    Twenty-six minutes later, the score was still 2-1. South Africa had thrown everything into the attack: substitute MacDonald Mukasi was causing problems on the wing, Mokoena was creating in the middle, Koumantarakis was on as a target man. And still it wasn't going to be enough. In the final minutes the starch had gone out of the team, and Paraguay were ready to pick up the three points. How many times had we seen it -- an African team with plenty of verve and creativity held off by a well-organized, uninspired team from the big confederations?

    And then the world changed. Zuma took a through ball on the left side of the area, and Ricardo Tavarelli made a horrible mistake. Although Celso Ayala appeared to have the play covered, Tavarelli flew out low and Zuma hit the turf. Penalty? To be honest, I didn't think so (although the Latin American announcers did). The replay wasn't definitive. But the call had been made, and Fortune scored from the spot. Full time 2:2.

    A lucky draw, you say? Chilavert wouldn't have been caught out like Tavarelli? True, but South Africa fully deserved to share the points. And consider this: it was the first time in World Cup history that an African team had come from behind in the final few minutes against a team from a major confederation. (Remember Cameroon-England 1990, Nigeria-Italy 1994, Cameroon-Austria 1998? It had always gone the other way in the past.) Senegal over France was a great victory, but we've been there before. Here, Africa looked South America (Paraguay) and Europe (Maldini) in the eye at the death, and the big boys blinked.

    I'm probably making too much of one game. But in the long run South Africa-Paraguay may be more important than Senegal-France. It's the second-line teams in the low-profile games that show a confederation's true strength, and maybe, just maybe, Africa is drifting decisively in the right direction. In the columnists' prediction poll for this website, I actually picked South Africa to finish second in Group B (I also picked Senegal for last in group A, but we won't go into that). They're not an exceptional side -- Nigeria and Cameroon definitely have more talent -- but with the experience from France '98, and the grit they showed today, I think they have the right combination. In the past I've suggested that organization is the key to top-level African advances, but this second-tier success seemed to come from something more intangible, something like "character." Bafana isn't a strong tactical team, like Senegal or Cameroon. But watch the tape of Fortune's penalty kick, a classic power job: that's the finish of a team that knows how to win. Imagine that -- an African team getting a result on character!

    Looking ahead, they have the right schedule: Spain last. I expect Sono to start two forwards against Slovenia and press the attack from the start. With a genuine chance at qualification now, they figure to go for the three points. Mokoena should stay at attacking midfielder, but I'm guessing that Nomvete will get the call at striker from the start.

    That's plenty for one weekend. Tunisia's up soon, but the rest of Africa gets a rest for a while. So file this all away and turn your attention to some of those other continents. My next column will be on CONCACAF and South Korea: turn on, tune in, and go with the drift.



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