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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A quick trivia question: what do the five teams that will feature in this
column -- Costa Rica, Mexico, USA, South Korea, Japan -- have in common? OK,
the title gives it away. They're undefeated so far, and who would have bet
on that? The home teams have been stalwart, and the CONCACAFers have taken
on everyone in sight and are ready for more. All five will get it on
Thursday and Friday, when their fates in this most unpredictable of World
Cups will be determined.
Hey, you guys on the other side of the water: THAT's the Costa Rica we know
and love. The game against Turkey was riveting: two teams showing top-class
commitment, inspiration, and technique. The Turks had the clear advantage in
the first half, and fully deserved their go-ahead goal. But then the ticos
turned it on. They play the Latin American style, and how: attacking
football, with short passes on the ground, imaginative combinations, plenty
of ball skills and individual flair. They created a hatful of chances but
somehow couldn't finish; then Winston Parks, only 21 years old, the last of
the four (that's right, four!) forwards on the field at the end of play, got
the equalizer and just missed the winner. The Turks can't complain about the
officiating this time: they got no less than three disgraceful offside calls
from a blind Zimbabwean linesman, and still barely escaped with a whole
So it's on to the final round in Group C, and a tricky scenario. Turkey will
undoubtedly run up the score against China, so Costa Rica has to get at
least a draw with Brazil. Brazil themselves need a draw to top the group,
and since the second place team will probably have to play Japan while the
first place team gets Russia or Belgium, they'll want to finish first. Costa
Rica has only beaten Brazil once, back in 1960, but they're comfortable with
the way the Brazilians play (coach Guimaraes is Brazilian by birth, too),
and should have no fear of them. Look for the ticos to stick with their
lineup from the Turkey game, with attacking midfielder Wilmer Lopez in place
of forward Rolando Fonseca. (It's a shame about Fonseca; he's the team's
all-time leading goal-scorer, and deserves a role at the World Cup, but he's
just not in form.) Lopez is just the sort of creator who, along with Walter
Centeno, should have plenty of space to distribute with danger. Look for
lots of open action, lots of pure football.
Unless. Scolari has said he's going to rest his stars, and why not? There's
absolutely no reason to risk Ronaldo or Rivaldo in a game like this.
Denilson and Ronaldinho both have yellow cards. It's a break for Costa Rica,
but Turkey let them off the hook, and have no right to complain. The real
danger is that the teams will settle for a quiet draw. I'd be very surprised
if they do, because it's not really in their nature. If I know the Costa
Ricans, they'd prefer to lose with honor than go on to the next round in
disgrace. In the first few days the home press hasn't even brought up the
issue. Still, if a hard-fought game is tied with, say, 15 minutes to go, it
would be hard to resist the temptation to let the air out of the ball. We'll
Now to Mexico, who have to be cursing their luck. Just what do you have to
do to qualify around here? Two fine wins, and they still may need a result
against Italy to advance to the second round. After an early Agustin Delgado
goal for Ecuador, the Tricolores put on a stylish show, perhaps not as
spectacular as Costa Rica's, but every bit as effective. Despite a subpar
Cuauhtemoc Blanco (he looked a bit tired), they played their best game in
many a month. The goals were both beauties, and the team showed the sort of
clever combination passing that's been absent from their games for some
time. Particular kudos to Gerardo Torrado, normally a pure defensive
midfielder, for the winning goal and his contributions to the attack. The
left side of Ramon Morales and Braulio Luna were also stellar. Jesus
Arellano at right wing came off that much-debated suspension to have a good
game; Joahan Rodriguez at inside right was less involved.
With Croatia's defeat of Italy, the group remains wide open. A draw with the
Italians will suffice for Mexico to finish first, but even a loss may
qualify them if Ecuador holds Croatia. Their big advantage is that they've
already beaten Croatia, so if the teams wind up even on goal difference and
goals scored, Mexico gets the nod.
The main question for Aguirre is when or whether to play Francisco Palencia,
the versatile forward who teams well with Blanco. Just about everyone
expected Palencia to see some action by now -- at halftime against Ecuador
the Latin American commentators were calling for him to be put in the game
-- but Borgetti has done the job so far. Borgetti is a more European-style
forward; on the other hand, Palencia's style might provide more creativity
against a top-flight defensive team like Italy. Blanco's condition will have
to be taken into account as well. It's been a superb World Cup for Mexico; I
confess I'm not a neutral where they're concerned, but I hope the neutrals
out there will recognize their achievement and pull for them to advance.
And before I forget, let me be the first to say I was wrong about Group G. I
thought it would be the dullest of the groups, filled with negative and
violent play; instead it's turned out to be a real winner. Two comebacks,
some superb goals; even when the games have been played at close quarters,
it's been real football, not a kicking match. Special credit goes to
Ecuador, the minnows who could have gone physical from the start. They're
not high-flyers, but they've been playing and letting the opposition play.
Amazingly, they can still qualify, and with nothing to lose maybe they'll be
rewarded with a point against Croatia.
For those who have followed the teams closely, the USA-South Korea game was
particularly revealing. They met in January in the Gold Cup, with both teams
fielding a little more than half their starters; the game was close and
even, decided on a DaMarcus Beasley goal in stoppage time. Five months
later, the Koreans have moved ahead of the Americans, with a more consistent
and cohesive attack. But the USA didn't have a healthy Clint Mathis then.
Mathis is that rarest and most valuable of players, a match-winner. He had
only one chance against the Koreans, but he took it, took it like Vieri, or
Batistuta, or Pele. He still isn't completely match fit -- Bruce Arena had
some scathing remarks in recent days about his lack of conditioning -- but
without Mathis, Korea wins the game.
And, of course, without Brad Friedel they win as well. It's a great story
for Brad, who has been just behind Kasey Keller for ages, and with a great
season at Blackburn Rovers has finally caught up. Up until the very last day
no one knew who the number one would be, but a mild injury to Keller gave
Friedel the spot, and he's delivered like the world-class player he is.
Some of the fans and press are criticizing Arena's tactics against Korea:
too defensive, too early in a shell. Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien, the two
central midfielders, almost never came forward. When they did, good things
happened: O'Brien's pass set up Mathis, and in the second half Reyna set up
Donovan for a good chance. With more counterattacks the USA might have won,
they say. True, but with a 1-0 lead against a quicker and more skilled
team, playing before 60,000 insane people in red who hate you because 1)
your idiot president has called their relatives to the north part of the
"axis of evil," and 2) your corrupt Olympic judges robbed their star speed
skater of a medal, playing it close isn't such a bad idea. Plus, the point
means that all the USA needs against Poland is a draw.
At first glance that seems like a straightforward order. Poland is out of
the competition, and never in the history of the group stage has a team that
lost their first two games beaten a team that needed only a draw to advance.
Moreover, despite a spirited effort against Portugal, they couldn't put the
ball in the net. But the USA's defensive weaknesses have begun to show.
Particularly vulnerable is centerback Jeff Agoos, who at 34 still plays with
a lot of heart but declining skills. Agoos is appearing in his first World
Cup: in 1994 Bora Milutinovic left him off the team, and he famously burnt
his national team uniform in disgust; in 1998 he made the squad but never
got into a game. He's a good guy, and everyone likes him, but he may be a
liability now. He was beaten by Ahn Jung-hwan for the tying header, and
knocked in the own goal against Portugal. (He was also whistled for the
penalty foul on Hwang Sun-hong, but that was a doubtful call.) I don't think
Arena will sit him down, but he'll need considerable help against the pace
of Emmanuel Olisadebe.
As for Korea, it was another strong game, even if they couldn't duplicate
their epic performance against the Poles. They fully deserved the draw, and
probably more. Against Poland Lee Eul-young on the left wing was a star;
this time I was impressed by Song Chung-gug on the right. He passed well in
close quarters, and decisively took over the space that Beasley left behind
when going forward. Ahn was again superb in relief of Hwang. The team now
faces its biggest test: they need a point against a suddenly rampant
I think two things will determine the result: attitude and the striker
corps. The Koreans have come to believe in themselves, but they've never
been in this situation before. So far, Hiddink has been a master motivator,
giving his tradition-bound players far more freedom to express themselves
individually. It'll help, too, that Japan looks like they're ready to
qualify from Group H. But they have to come out thinking they can win, not
just draw. Because Portugal will go all-out in attack, the Koreans will
almost certainly need a goal, and that's where the striker situation comes
in. Hwang could only last halfway against the USA, and word from camp is
that Ahn isn't ready to go a full 90. The old Korean weakness, finishing,
was underlined when substitute Choi Yong-soo missed a sitter at the end.
Seol has had his moments, but hasn't found the target yet. Someone will have
to step up.
Speaking of Group H (do we have to?), Japan has matched South Korea with a
win, and good for them, but they still have a way to go to match the Koreans
in quality. It was another dire first half against Russia: with three points
already in the bag, Romantsev's men played defensively, and although Junichi
Inamoto and Hidestoshi Nakata showed their quality, the Japanese never
looked like scoring. Nakata saw a bit more of the ball than in the first
half against Belgium, but in a tight game the hosts don't have enough
variety in attack to make their mark. Shinji Ono, in particular, has yet to
justify his reputation as a hot young prospect.
Still, Inamoto's second-half goal was neatly set up and well-taken, and the
Japanese held on gamely for the win. The standout in defense was the Masked
Man, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, subbing for injured captain Ryuzo Morioko in the
middle of the back three. Let's also not forget striker Atsushi Yanigasawa,
who had few chances to score himself but made the precise pass that led to
With the Belgium-Tunisia draw, Japan is practically in the second round
already; all they need is a point against the North Africans. That shouldn't
be too hard. Tunisia has been tentative in the extreme, and aren't physical
enough to push the Japanese around the way Belgium did. If Group G has been
a pleasant surprise, Group H has really lived down to its reputation. With
the exception of that psychedelic half hour between Japan and Belgium, there
hasn't been much to watch. But Japan-Tunisia may be an entertaining match:
since a win can qualify them, Tunisia should come out more aggressive, and
both teams are fast. In any case, it has to be better than Russia-Belgium; I
wouldn't be able to look myself in the mirror if I didn't watch all 64, but
it's tempting to accidentally forget to set the VCR.
At the beginning we noted that our five teams -- Costa Rica, Mexico, USA,
South Korea, and Japan -- are all undefeated going into the final game of
the group stage. They have something else in common: each needs only a draw
to qualify for the second round. Now consider this: France, Argentina,
Portugal, and maybe Italy all need to WIN to qualify for the second round.
European teams have lost as many as they have won; South American teams have
lost more. I suppose I'm biased, but this can only be good for football. The
next few days will be unbelievably exciting; whatever the outcome, the
Mighty Five (not to mention other undefeateds like Senegal and South Africa)
have earned our thanks.
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