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
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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 3½ for France 1998 and 4½ this
time around. Poor little CONCACAF got only 3 for each, and no one raised a
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
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
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
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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