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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Africa, Round 2

    The Indomitable Lions continue to look relatively domitable, and their supporters are casting around for explanations. Well, I've been in their camp from the beginning, and after considerable thought, I've come up with the reason they've looked so ordinary. Ready?

They're not playing well enough.

    This is actually quite profound. Fact is, in the last three World Cups there have been ready-made reasons for the Lions' exits: in 1990, the lack of discipline cost them in the quarterfinals; in 1994, they collapsed due to internal bickering; in 1998, they were shafted by the referees. But this time there's no reason, or rather, no excuse. The other day Lauren Etame-Mayer blamed their mediocre showing on all the organizational foulups during the infamous plane trip. Today coach Winnie Schaefer accused FIFA and the organizing committee of bias against Africa for changing training schedules to favor the Germans. I'm not buying it. This team is disciplined, looks comfortable on the field, is playing the game the way they played it in the African Nations Cup. And it's just not working.

    The 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia was particularly ominous. Knowing that the group might be decided on goal difference, Cameroon decided to go out and play their regular game, figuring they could tally a few goals on skill alone. And for the most part the Saudis played right into their hands. You would have expected the minnows to close down the game, but the Saudis let them play. And Cameroon played and played and played, but the goals never came. Saudi Arabia was much more focused than against Germany, looked sharp on the counterattack, and generally gave a good account of themselves. But you felt that a really first-class team, such as Cameroon is supposed to be, would have created many more clear chances. They were unlucky when Lauren's first-half header was ruled offside; it looked like a passive offside to me. But those things happen. More significant was that after they took the lead, they never looked like increasing it.

    In my last column on Africa I outlined the main Cameroon shortcoming: no playmaker. As a result, they don't have enough variation in the attacking third; everything comes from the wings. It's no coincidence that the goal against Saudi Arabia came from a long-range pass. The only way to change this is to get someone in the middle of the field controlling the ball, and that's just not in the Lions' repertoire. Samuel Eto'o can only do so much. It doesn't help that Patrick Mboma is largely immobile. (I thought Schaefer stayed with Mboma way too long against Saudi Arabia, but to be fair Pius Ndiefi wasn't much better when he came on. Maybe Patrick Suffo again, as against Ireland.) Against a Germany content to draw, Cameroon will need to be flexible, alert, and inventive, and I don't know if they've got it in them.

    Of course, they could get lucky: the Saudis could figure out a way to draw with Ireland, or the Irish might win 1-0 while Germany and Cameroon drew 1-1, and second place could actually go to lots. But they can't rely on the other game to go their way. No excuses: it's put up or shut up time for the Lions. If they want to be in the top tier, they have to be able to beat teams like Germany. If they can't, they might as well go home anyway. I've been touting them all along, and I won't desert them in their hour of need. But right now they have to raise their game.

    Senegal against Denmark was really fascinating. In the first half Metsu's men stayed with the tight, disciplined, 4-5-1 defensive layout from the game against France. But down 0-1 they inserted the Camara boys, not one but two extra attackers. And suddenly they were chanelling Cameroon 1990. They were dark and brilliant, rough and spectacular. They committed enough hard fouls to last several tournaments, and El Hadji Diouf spent more time complaining than creating. But they also turned in by far the most beautiful team goal of the tournament, and at one point looked like they would run Denmark out of the stadium. They'd have won had they taken their chances. (That's been a consistent problem with the Camaras, by the way: exciting approach play, inconsistent finishing.)

    So it's now onto Uruguay, and Senegal needs a draw to advance. Salif Diao, their best defensive midfielder, is out after the red card, and captain Aliou Cisse, who missed the Denmark game with injury, is still uncertain. It's a tough choice for Metsu: the logical move would be to start with the 4-5-1 again. But without Diao and maybe Cisse, the personnel might not be there. I'd like to see them try a more orthodox 4-4-2 with Pape Sarr alongside Bouba Diop as defensive midfielders, and Diouf and Henri Camara (or Pape Thiaw) up front. That should allow for more counterattacking options. Uruguay may be a bit desperate after the scoreless draw with France, and a lineup like that would be well positioned to hit them on the break. I think Diouf will have to be the key man; if he's on form, as against France, I have the feeling they'll pull it off.

    Nigeria must be wondering exactly what happened. They put up a good fight against Argentina, and after a few shaky moments early, found their stride against Sweden. As expected, Justice Christopher moved into defensive midfield and Joseph Yobo went to right back, and the attack clicked. Yobo delivered a beautiful cross for Julius Agahowa's header, and seven backflips later (of course I counted them!), they looked headed for a showdown with England. But even at their best, Nigeria is never strong on defense, and the Swedes, who have been known to do this sort of thing before (remember USA 1994), picked up their game in style. Larsson beat Yobo for a fine goal, and at halftime things were even.

    Nigeria started quickly in the second half, with Jay Jay Okocha particularly strong in the middle. But then came one of the weirder sequences in recent World Cup history. Taribo West was hurt, started to bleed from the forehead, and was taken off for treatment. It seemed to take forever -- aren't doctors supposed to know how to do this sort of thing? I mean, exactly how many bandages do you need? For a while it seemed he might be substituted. Then he was coming back on -- but they couldn't find a spare shirt. After what seemed like an hour, he finally came back on the field, and a moment later Ike Shoronmu made the mistake that cost them the game.

    It's hard to know how to account for their early exit. At base, it was the same Nigeria we've seen a million times: exciting on offense, loose on defense. In the past, that's been enough to get them into the second round, even to win their groups. But because Onigbinde revamped the squad, a number of the players had little international experience. Maybe this is a side that's a few years away. Or maybe the critics were right to complain that the coach didn't settle on a starting 11 soon enough. Or maybe, in a tough group, their luck just ran out. It's a shame they won't be sticking around, because they were fun to watch. The game against England will be a interesting test; as a rule, the Nigerians don't play particularly well when they don't have anything to play for. But they've also got their honor to protect, and I'm guessing they don't roll over.

    South Africa continued their improbable adventure. As I predicted, Jomo Sono moved Sibusiso Zuma back to his normal right midfield and added Siyabonga Nomvethe to the attack. (I shouldn't really brag about it, though; reading Jomo Sono's mind is an act of the borderline deranged.) He was rewarded in the 4th minute on a rather comical would-be-header that Nomvethe kneed into the goal. But the rest of the game was drab (one news report, not unjustly, called it the worst game of the tounament so far), and the team was largely unimpressive. Teboho Mokoena, who had looked so good against Paraguay, was barely in evidence. Benni McCarthy squandered some excellent chances. Zuma and Quinton Fortune had their moments, but on the whole the team looked off balance, unable to put passes together, making odd decisions in the attacking third. Against a very disappointing Slovenian squad, playing without Zlatko Zahovic (the Slavic Roy Keane), it was enough.

    Once again, Bafana Bafana look like a second-tier side -- and yet there's something about these guys you can't put your finger on. They get results. The draw against Paraguay was a remarkable comeback effort, and against Slovenia today they held on neatly for the win, looking much the stronger team in the final minutes. They have some quiet strengths: Bradley Carnell at left back is solid and unfussy, Macbeth Sibaya (great name!) is a good defensive midfield pivot; Andre Arendse showed today that he's a worthy man between the posts. Last column I suggested that they might have this nameless something called "character," and although the overall performance against Slovenia was mediocre, nothing happened to suggest otherwise. Lucky? Of course they're lucky. They're in one of the weakest groups. (Imagine what Nigeria must be thinking.) But you have to take advantage of your luck, and that's just what they're doing.

    But the biggest test is yet to come. Spain has already clinched qualification, and they're going to rest some of their stars. A draw would suit both teams, leaving the Spaniards in first and moving South Africa along. But it won't be easy at all: Spain, even a second-string Spain, has quality, more quality than a first string Bafana. Whoever plays for Spain will be looking to impress in a bid for playing time during the knockout rounds. Sono's men won't be able to freeze the ball. They'll have to get a draw against a superior opponent, an opponent with real football pedigree. And they can't assume they'll get help from the other game. Slovenia looks like a team going under: they spent a good part of the game today moaning about fouls, and Srecko Katanec was kicked off the bench for insulting the officials. Paraguay is nothing special, but they'll be going all out for the win. South Africa will have to show that character one more time. Yes, it's a weak group. But if they do get the draw, they'll fully deserve to advance.

    I haven't yet had the chance to write about Tunisia. Less was expected from the Tunisians than just about any team in the tournament -- and they still managed to disappoint. Against Russia, after a few good-looking attacks, they settled into a defensive shell for most of the first half. The Russians had plenty of space, but without playmaker Alexander Mostovoi they couldn't find a way through. After the interval, Tunisia decided to play, and looked quite dangerous for about 15 minutes, but a bad error by the keeper and a penalty a few minutes later did them in. It's a classic pattern: you play just well enough to show potential, then self-destruct. That's what happened to the USA four years ago. It's the pattern of a team not ready to win.

    The Tunisian press was uncharacteristically optimistic after the game, focusing particularly on the play of the new generation. Almost all the good stuff came from the younger players: Hatem Trabelsi forged up and down the right flank effectively; Ziad Jaziri, fast and tricky, was a handful in counterattack; best of all, Slim Ben Achour looked like the playmaker Tunisia has lacked for so long. But the veterans, particularly on attack, showed little life. Striker Adel Sellimi was nowhere near as effective as four years ago. Hassen Gabsi, once a feared dribbler and creator, was invisible, and eventually gave way to Zoubeir Baya, who wasn't much better.

    It's still possible for Tunisia to get results in their last two games; after all, this is Group H. Maybe Ali Zitouni can take over for Sellimi up front, and keeper Ali Boumnijel, who replaced surprise retiree Chokri El Ouaer, may have got the one big mistake out of his system. The team actually looked quite attractive on attack: fast, with lots of short passes, in the typical North African style. But Japan can beat them for speed and Belgium for muscle, and it'll take special inspiration to bring home a win.

To sum up: we're almost two-thirds done, and Africa is still in the balance. Nigeria is out, and Tunisia is doubtful, but Senegal, South Africa, and Cameroon all have a very real chance to qualify. I've suggested all along that this is a crucial tournament for CAF, where they can show their quality or confirm how far they still have to go. Never before has Africa put more than one team in the second round; now they can have as few as zero or as many as three. They can even have three group winners, or none at all. In a week we'll know. There's all to play for: don't you dare miss a minute!



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