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 Undefeated

    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 skin.

    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 see.

    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 Portugal.

    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 Inamoto's goal.

    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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