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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Dakar or Bust

    In the end, it was humiliation. There were other ways Cameroon might have exited: frustration, as brilliant shots hit the woodwork or the keeper's fingertips; anger, denied by a referee's doubtful decision; honor, valiant combatants in one of the toughest groups in the tournament. But instead, it was humiliation: open, unmistakable, devastatingly final. The Indomitable Lions, standard-bearers of Africa, by ambition challengers not merely for the second round, but for the World Cup itself, were exposed as second-raters. They were given an unforgettable lesson by the great World Cup masters, Germany: a lesson in what it takes to win football games.

    The course the game would take was clear from the 13th minute, when Salomon Olembe was sent in alone on goal. In situations like this, sportswriters like to say "he had the keeper at his mercy," but this time it was clearly the other way around. Oliver Kahn came out all the way, and Olembe was helpless. He shot weakly at the keeper, and then, in control of the rebound, with plenty of space at the near post, and the far post too, he sent a half-hearted cross across the goal mouth, and Kahn fielded it easily. Forty minutes later, Marco Bode, in a similar situation, would finish coolly and clinically: a simple low shot into the far corner past Boukar Alioum. It was the difference on the scoreboard, but more fundamentally it was the difference between a team that wins and one that doesn't.

    Cameroon was never really in this one. When Carsten Ramelow was sent off late in the first half, one had visions of the 1998 quarterfinal, when Croatia took the lead soon after gaining the extra man, and mopped up. But the Lions created only one chance -- only one -- the rest of the game. And Lauren's 73rd minute header off the post was just window dressing. A few moments later Suffo was sent off, and Klose immediately put the game away. It was as inevitable as Greek tragedy.

    After the game, Franz Beckenbauer blasted Cameroon for their second-half play, calling them "lazy" for failing to create options for the player who had the ball. But he's wrong, and doubly so because he's perpetuating a pernicious European stereotype of African footballers. This wasn't laziness, it was inadequacy. It wasn't a deficiency in personality, but in sporting ability. It was an utter failure to do what is necessary to win football games at the highest level.

    Germany, of course, understand this better than any team in the world. They won the way it seems they always win: with determination, cohesiveness, hard work. They did what had to be done. It wasn't always pretty -- there were a boatload of fouls, some of them pretty cynical - but it was all with a purpose. And they took their opportunities with arrogant ease: Bode's shot, Klose's header, were textbook finishes.

    Cameroon's loss was all the more significant because against Germany they seemed to correct many of their tactical and physical deficiencies. They went up the middle as well as the wings; Patrick Mboma showed more movement and pace than he had at any time in the tournament. But that's only what shows on the outside. On the inside, in the heart or soul or whatever organ is the seat of championship football, what needed to be there just wasn't.

    So what now for Cameroon? All along I've argued that they were following the natural path to success: talent allied to discipline and organization. That's why I thought they'd do it. But in the end, they just weren't good enough. Champions of Africa, they weren't good enough to be champions of the world. There's really nowhere to go now; this team is on the whole fairly young, and revamping the squad would serve little purpose. The next step is the 2004 Nations Cup in Tunisia. Who knows, they might even win it; there's no reason they won't be one of the favorites. But, as Germany showed them, their ambitions for the moment will have to stop at the edge of the continent. They came, they aspired, they were brushed aside. And the result is a pain as large and lasting as the joy of 1990.

    South Africa's exit was drama on a smaller scale. Bafana only wanted to reach the second round, and they almost did it. They showed a tremendous amount of heart against Spain, coming back twice with outstanding goals. Andre Arendse, who early on made a truly dreadful blunder, recovered to make two world-class saves. But the third goal was a bridge too far, and in the final minutes they ran out of gas. No shame: in the end, they were beaten by a better team in excellent form. A remarkable comeback against Paraguay and an historic victory against Slovenia leave them proud, but one goal short. Benni McCarthy, who scored a beauty against Spain, may remember better the two he missed at the end against Slovenia. Paraguay, who had shown little desire so far, matched South Africa with their own remarkable comeback, and fully deserved to advance.

    Which brings us to Dementia 2002, or, as it will appear in the official FIFA archives, Senegal vs. Uruguay. Six goals, three of them that shouldn't have counted; 37 yellow cards (yes, I know I'm exaggerating); a second half that started out as football and ended as something more like Brownian motion. The final few minutes had nothing to do with tactics, or skill, or luck, or even character: it was mere survival. One of the teams had to survive, and when Richard Morales' header missed the open goal, it was Senegal.

    The refereeing blunders make it very difficult to discuss the merits of the game, and more crucially, of Senegal's qualification. There is simply no way to know what would have happened had Diouf's first-half dive or Morales' second-half dive been spotted, or had the assistant referee seen that Diop was centimeters offside on the third goal. You can't say Uruguay would have won 2-1, because the circumstances of play would have been entirely different. Football fans can go on about this sort of thing for decades; just start a conversation about the Hand of God game and see what you get. Because referee mistakes are so frequent, and their consequences so drastic, we have a way of falling back on whether the teams "deserved" a result, as if abstract justice were a substitute for the inescapable perversity of the game we love.

    By those standards (and you may differ), I think Senegal can be said to have deserved qualification. They beat France fairly, if well against the run of play, and came from behind to earn a fine draw with Denmark. They showed both disciplined defense and spectacular attacking play. If El Hadji Diouf showed a reprehensible propensity for diving, players on many other teams were no better. I'd say they were worthy of qualification, certainly not unworthy -- which is not to say Uruguay weren't as well.

    We don't know how far Senegal will go in the tournament. But so far, by any standards, this World Cup has been a significant disappointment for Africa. The five teams have a combined record of 3 wins, 6 draws, and 5 losses. Tunisia still has a game left to play, but I'm assuming they won't beat Japan, and so it'll be the first time since 1982 that no African team has won their group. And for the fifth straight time, only one African team will go to the second round. Africa's representation has increased from 2 to 3 to 5 teams, and we have been waiting for some time now for their performance to match their allotment. Their failure here says quite distinctly that they have not yet justified their status.

    The biggest failure is, of course, Cameroon. The flagship team, they were the first African side to be seriously touted as a candidate for the semifinals. But there are other failures as well. Cameroon, a top team, failed to advance from a difficult group, but South Africa, a middling team, failed to advance from a fairly weak group, and Tunisia, a weak team, (and I'm assuming again) failed to advance from the weakest group of all. Nigeria picked up a worthy point against England, but when they were still in the competition they came up empty.

    I've been following African football closely for the last year, and I've tried hard to come up with a precise, easily comprehensible reason for the overall failure. But the circumstances of the teams are so different. Champions, contenders, and rank-and-file alike went down to defeat. They failed with European coaches (Cameroon) and local coaches (South Africa, Nigeria, Tunisia). They failed with the strictly organized approach (Cameroon) and the loose approach (South Africa). Elsewhere on this site you can see my pre-cup discussion of Africa ("Africa at the World Cup"), and decide for yourself whether the ideas there make sense. Africa suffers from a lack of infrastructure and the difficulties of placing players at top European clubs. Senegal advanced with a combination of skill, organization, cohesiveness, and luck -- but that's the winning formula for any team from any confederation. True, the Lions of the Teranga may yet bring glory home to the continent. But Africa's dream of rivaling Europe's football prowess seems as far away as ever.

    And so, barring a miracle from Tunisia, the African experience at Korea/Japan 2002, which started in Dakar, will end there. Can Senegal beat Sweden? Sure they can; the Swedes are a fluent and competent team, but hardly unstoppable. They may be missing their most creative player, Freddie Ljungberg, and their number one keeper, Magnus Hedman, who had such a magnificent game against Argentina. On the other hand, Senegal will go in without their two best midfielders, Salif Diao and Khalilou Fadiga, both serving suspensions, and right back Ferdinand Coly, who has a knee injury. It's likely to be a cautious game, although I expect Metsu to go with a counterattacking 4-4-2, as opposed to the bunker 4-5-1 against France. Knowing Senegal's skill on the break, Sweden can't press the attack too ambitiously. It probably won't be a feast for neutrals. But without any doubt it'll be the most thrilling game in the history of Dakar, where they know that their heroes now represent not only themselves, but all of Africa.



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