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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The Eastern Front



    When you saw South Korea-Poland 2:0 come across the wire, you probably thought something like: "Hey, the Koreans finally won one -- good for them." And you might have speculated on how they pulled it off: maybe a lucky goal or a dubious penalty, maybe one inspired moment, maybe just adrenaline from the home advantage.

    Forget it. The Koreans didn't pull it off, they blasted it out. This was a full-dress, 90-minute, hide-the-children crusher. They beat Poland on defense, in midfield, in attack; they did it with speed, technique, intelligence; they ripped down the curtains, busted the furniture, and went to the cast party afterwards. The game was played in Busan, but they would have won it in Kobe, in Warsaw, in Greenland, in the Sea of Tranquility. You were left wondering, not how the Koreans had failed to win a game before, but how they hadn't won the World Cup itself.

    Starting tomorrow, check out the Korean calendar. It'll be divided into B. H. and A. H. -- Before Hiddink and After Hiddink. For 40 years, Korean football had been fast, energetic, full of desire and stamina but little else. It was 11 players running, fouling, taking spectacular long shots, largely ineffective and plenty primitive. Now it's intelligent, technically fluent, full of vision and inspiration, a futurist's delight. Poland, with its physical style and long-ball counterattack, looked not only four levels inferior, but four decades out of date.

    How to describe such a comprehensive victory? What impressed me most was the tremendous variety in the Korean game: long passes from sweeper Hong Myung-bo and defensive midfielder Kim Nam-il; short and precise passes from midfielders Lee Eul-young and Park Ji-sung; number-10-style playmaking from Yoo Sang-chul; crosses from right winger Song Chong-gug; runs from forwards Ahn Jung-hwan and Seol Ki-hyeon; penalty area play from target man Hwang Sun-hong. Their best chances came from the wings, but Yoo and particularly Park showed themselves dangerous in the middle as well. Korea even managed to hold the Poles in the air; Kim, Hong, and right back Choi Jin-Cheul battled for every ball, and were never overmatched. And of course there were the Korean staples: speed, conditioning, desire.

    Although Hiddink talked a lot about Total Football in the runup, this wasn't really Holland 1974. Inside midfielders Park and Yoo swtiched sides a lot, and Seol was working both wings agressively in attack. But for the most part the players played their positions. Particularly impressive was left winger Lee Eul-young, spare and intense: he delivered superb two-way football all game, finding spaces with runs and passes, breaking up attacks whenever necessary, setting up Yoo's superb strike for the second goal. Although left back Kim Tae-young struggled early with the pace of Olisadebe, the defenders as a whole did their job admirably: rarely out of position, winning every ball that mattered.

    I'm trying to think of something negative to say, a warning sign for the games to come. The only thing I can think of involves Hwang, who scored on that marvelous redirection from Seol's pass. He's 34, extremely injury-prone, and left early with what appeared to be a thigh strain. I haven't heard any reports of his condition, so I don't know if that'll be a problem. But when he came off, Ahn came on, and was absolutely dazzling. If for some reason Hwang can't go, that'll leave the team without a true centerforward, but with so much intelligence and variety in their game, they won't need one. They may not even need a keeper.

    I live in the USA, and for months the talk has been of how we'll do our best against Portugal and take three points from Korea. But right now I'd rather play Portugal. Maybe this was a fluke, and it's hard to imagine Korea playing this well -- it's hard to imagine any team playing this well -- next time out. But make no mistake: with the possible exception of Italy against Ecuador (Germany-Saudi Arabia was a training exercise), this was the best performance by any team so far in the World Cup. The sign, in English, read "Hiddink! Make our dream come true!" But "dream" is much too mild a word. Try "fantasy," "ecstasy," "rapture."

    Then cross the water and come down to earth. Japan, the other host, was in action as well, and along with Belgium delivered a game that gave new meaning to the word "archaic." If South Korea-Poland was fantasy, this was paleontology. For an hour the teams delivered some of the worst football in World Cup history. Japan had only two ideas: when in doubt, foul; and send long balls as far down the field as possible, hoping to take advantage of superior speed. Belgium had only two ideas: when in doubt, foul; and send high balls into the box, hoping to take advantage of superior height and strength. Belgium was getting the better of it, but it hardly mattered: all you wanted was to see the game end as quickly as possible, so you could do something enjoyable, like unstop the toilet.

    Then some Belgian sent the 4,346th cross into the box, and as millions prepared to yawn, Marc Wilmots (that's Marc Wilmots, folks, not Pele) executed a perfect bicycle kick. Really, a 100% pure perfect bicycle kick. (Has there ever been a pure bicycle kick goal in the World Cup? I'm thinking back 30 years and can't remember one.) And all hell broke loose. Takayuki Suzuki latched onto a long pass and poked it beautifully past De Vlieger. Junichi Inamoto blew by the Belgian defense and finished superbly. Peter van der Heyden beat the offside trap and sent an elegant lob over Narazaki. The play was furious, breathless, mesmerizing. The garbage had turned into diamonds, the dog food into filet mignon.

    But the aftertaste was still dog food. You couldn't help feel that the first 60 minutes were the reality, the last 30 some tortured invention. Orange shirts aside (and wasn't THAT bizarre), do you really think Belgium is going to turn into Holland? And do you really think Japan is going to turn into South Korea?

    I don't. And in thinking about what's next for Japan, I find it hard to be optimistic. Once the action revved up, Inamoto was a revelation: fast, deft, inventive. His apparent game-winning goal, disallowed for a prior foul, was a little miracle of close-quarters play. But there wasn't much else to be pleased about. Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono, the two supposed wizards of midfield, obviously forgot their wands: Ono was pedestrian on the left wing, and Nakata rarely saw the ball. Japan has the speed, true, but their lack of strength and size was exposed by a very ordinary Belgian team. The one piece of good news is that they seem to match up fairly well with their other group opponents. Tunisia doesn't have the size to take advantage, and while Russia's a bit bigger, they're very slow in defense, like Belgium. Any other group and Japan would be sure of an early exit, home advantage notwithstanding.

    Another bad sign is that Troussier complained about the referee after the game. Maybe that's just a coaches' reflex, but you don't have to be Guus Hiddink to know when your team delivers a stinker. Japan had no one to blame but themselves. Troussier's behavior has been fairly odd all along, actually; he was absent from the press conference when the final 23 was announced, and has refused to answer reporters' questions as often as he can get away with it. Japan expects, and now that Korea has suddenly turned into Italy and Argentina combined, they'll expect, demand, even more. The point for the draw, Japan's first at the World Cup, was a nice reward, but all the headlines are going to go to the guys in red. I wonder whether Troussier can keep his and the team's cool.

    It seemed like a stupid idea to have co-hosts; it still does. But given the long-time antagonism between the two countries, it's a great story for the press. The ticket rows, the empty seats, the organizational nightmares, are now and forever old news. The football is here, and the war is on -- even if at the moment it's missiles against rocks.


 

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