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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CON-CA-SMASH!



    Uh -- I'm not quite sure what I'm supposed to do right now. My home team, the USA, has just beaten Portugal 3-2 at the World Cup for the biggest win in its history. I guess I should join the throngs dancing in the streets, and I would, I really would, except there aren't any throngs. When the USA wins an important soccer game, they don't dance in the streets, they call people up on their cell phones -- and talk about something else entirely.

    I don't mind it that much. When I was growing up, practically no one in the USA knew the World Cup existed, and when the national team played, no one heard about it. Newspapers didn't send anyone to the games, because 99 out of 100 of them didn't even know the games were taking place. Nowadays soccer may not be big news, but at least it's news, and the World Cup is on live television, which is about all you can ask for.

    Besides, there are some advantages to living in a country where soccer is unimportant. For one thing, Jeff Agoos, who scored that own goal, won't have to worry about being shot when he comes home. (Although if he does it again, Bruce Arena will probably shoot him right then and there.) And because soccer fandom is relatively small, when you meet a fan, you know he's a real fan. There are few casual supporters in the USA; almost all the soccer fans you meet really care about the game. So you can talk about whether we should go with a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2, or discuss exactly where Landon Donovan should play, or commiserate about the disaster area at left back. Find another fan, and you've got years of great conversation ahead of you.

    Of course, you have to find one first. But that's where that wonderful thing called the Information Age comes in. At FIFA's official World Cup website, you can register as a fan of your national team. The team with the most registered supporters is England, and second is Argentina. Third is the United States of America. Because we're the most affluent nation on earth, a large percentage of our population has Internet access. USA national team fans tend to come from the middle class and upward (poorer supporters are mostly ethnic, and support the team of their national origin). So when we want to talk about the team we go online. Chat rooms and forums flourish, and with a few clicks of the mouse you can be connected with a discussion as knowledgable as anywhere in the world. You don't have to dance in the street when your fingers can dance on the keys.

    As for the game itself, I can't think of much to say. The USA was without its two irreplaceables, midfield general Claudio Reyna and attacking wonder Clint Mathis, and still got the win. Supposedly we played Portugal, but that couldn't have been Portugal out there. It couldn't even have been Moldova. The only thing I can think of is that Sepp Blatter got together with his good buddy Jack Warner and paid the Lisbon Quality Department Stores Select XI to impersonate the Golden Generation. Figo, Rui Costa, and the rest are probably tied up in a laundry room in some rundown Suwon apartment building. (I suspect Matthew Monk is working on that theory right now.)

    The USA-Portugal result, as important as it is to the boys in the chat rooms, is only part of a larger story: the 100% record of CONCACAF at the World Cup so far. Yes, CONCACAF, the most despised and rejected of all the confederations (Oceania isn't considered important enough to despise and reject). Even Asia has its advocates: every once in a while you'll hear some sheik or bureaucrat make noises about how Asia should have more World Cup berths, and FIFA somehow saw fit to give them 3 for France 1998 and 4 this time around. Poor little CONCACAF got only 3 for each, and no one raised a peep.

    I admit we're a modest lot at best, but check the record: we're better than Asia. Noticeably better. Over the years, CONCACAF teams have consistently won more games and advanced farther at the World Cup than Asian teams; this is true even if you discount the host team's advantage in 1970, 1986, and 1994. Moreover, CONCACAF and Asian teams have gone head-to-head 5 times at the World Cup, and CONCACAF has won 4: Mexico-Iraq 1986 (at home), Mexico-South Korea 1998, Jamaica-Japan 1998, and Costa Rica-China 2002. Asia's only win is Iran-USA 1998. No, I'm not stumping for more berths; like any kid who's always the last to be picked when they choose up sides, I just want to remind you that I haven't done all that badly when called upon.

    Which brings me to Mexico. It's about time Mexico got some respect. In World Cup terms, they used to be strictly a local side: quarterfinals at Mexico 1970 and 1986, second round at USA 1994, but only one victory in 20 games outside North America (vs. Czechoslovakia in 1962, when the Czechs had already qualified for the quarterfinals). But four years ago they put on a spirited performance, coming from behind in all three group games (twice from two goals down!), getting a win over South Korea and draws with Belgium and Holland. In the round of 16 they led Germany deep into the second half before succumbing, and went home with honor.

    And now they're at it again. Despite predictions of an early exit, they took out Croatia, a respected European side and last year's bronze medalists. The game was just what you'd expect: tight marking, no space, few chances, a real war of attrition. But after the first 15 minutes or so, it was Mexico's match: the older Croatians were sluggish, defensive, half a step behind. Aguirre made some surprise choices: up front, Jared Borgetti, strictly a penalty area operator, instead of the more active Francisco Palencia; at right wing, Sigifredo Mercado, less of an offensive threat than Alberto Rodriguez; at left wing, Ramon Morales, more talented but less in form than Rafael Garcia.

    Just about everything worked out. Borgetti missed a sitter in the first half, but his neat backheel sent Cuauhtemoc Blanco through for the key chance. Mercado held Robert Jarni off all game. Morales had a bad first half against Niko Kovac but was one of the men of the match after the interval. In the back line, Rafael Marquez was his usual commanding self, and Manuel Vidrio had one of his best games ever. Blanco was rumored to be out of condition, but we should all be so rusty. When Zivkovic was rightly sent off for pulling him back, Mexico mopped up.

    The basic deficiencies remain -- little creativity in the side, a pedestrian midfield -- but the outlook for qualification is pretty good. Ecuador won't go down easy, and they showed a lot of heart against Italy, but at the moment the men in green look up to the task. Particularly encouraging is the fine form of keeper Oscar Perez, who made three great saves against Croatia. Aguirre faces an interesting choice on the right side of midfield, where Jesus Arellano and Joahan Rodriguez return from suspension. Arellano, the most talented of all the midfielders, will almost certainly play in his usual right wing position. Mercado was excellent in that spot against Croatia, and he might move to inside right, replacing Gabriel Caballero, while Rodriguez stays on the bench. Rodriguez is the more gifted attacker, Mercado the better two-way player; Aguirre's choice will say a lot about how he'll approach the game.

    And then there's Costa Rica. In the qualifiers the ticos were easily the best team in the confederation -- although I admit you wouldn't have known it from the first hour against China. The forward line, normally the strength of the team, looked woefully off form. Needing a win against the minnows, coach Alexandre Guimaraes started his three attackers: Paulo Wanchope, Rolando Fonseca, and Ronald Gomez. Wanchope, coming back from injury, seemed at half strength all the way through; Fonseca, who had been struggling in recent friendlies, was ineffective again; and Ronald Gomez, the man supposedly in form, looked nothing like his real self. The midfield was holding its own, and the defense kept China away from the goal, but the team bore scant resemblance to the side that had breezed and dazzled in the qualifiers.

    Then something snapped. The first goal was a beauty: Gomez drew the defenders and sent Wanchope through, and when Xu blocked the shot, Gomez smashed home the rebound from outside the area. The second, a few minutes later, was a neat piece of training ground work: a low corner to Gomez on the left side of the box, who turned neatly and chipped to the near post for sweeper Mauricio Wright to head home. The rest of the game was absolutely all Costa Rica, creative and spirited, looking every inch the team that had steamrollered the opposition last year. Wright (for some reason spelled "Wrigth" on the jersey) was a particular revelation: a replacement for injured captain Reynaldo Parks, he marshalled the back line flawlessly and broke up every counterattack that came his way.

    When we made our predictions for this site, my heart chose Costa Rica to advance, but I'm not so sure now. China is one thing, Turkey very much another. The Turks had a great game against Brazil, and their quickness and technical skill make them a natural favorite in the game for second place. Wanchope still won't be match fit, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Guiamares play more conservatively, dropping Fonseca and adding Wilmer Lopez as an extra midfielder. Costa Rica are natural attackers, but the Turks are natural counterattackers, and the team may need the extra support tracking back.

    One advantage, though: Turkey have lots of skill, but they're very close to losing their minds. They were right to be upset at the penalty that handed Brazil the win, but they don't seem to be able to shut up about it. Now they're demanding that FIFA replace the scheduled referee for the Costa Rica game because he's from Benin, and whoever heard of Benin? Relax, guys, that's football. Go out and play your game, and you'll win, right? Right?

    But we all know why they're worried. Brazil will be worried when their time comes, not to mention Italy, and even mighty South Korea. You'd be worried too. Say it with me: it's because they'll be playing a team from (tremble at the sound!) CONCACAF -- the confederation with the perfect record.


 

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