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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Matters of Honor



    There's a wonderful commercial running on the Spanish-language World Cup broadcasts here in the USA. With stark, heavy, portentous music in the background, we see what looks like a stage of sorts, with a canvas backdrop showing a varied landscape of mountains, plains, etc. Standing in front of the backdrop are players from the Mexican national team, in full uniform, with proud, set, determined faces, completely silent. Behind and to the side of them appear and disappear figures from all walks of Mexican society: women, men, business people, farmers, workers, and a magnificent peasant woman in native dress. An announcer intones: "el honor del pais esta en juego" -- the honor of the country is at stake.

    It doesn't matter what the commercial is for (it's beer -- isn't capitalism wonderful?) What matters is the powerful way it expresses what football means in Latin American countries. "Honor", a word which has had many meanings over the centuries, is an integral part of the Latin American world view. But you can't really define it; you have to feel it. For the most part it's a male ideal, something to be fought for as a man protects his home and family. In Latin America, football players speak of honor as an essential part of their profession. It's what they do. The team embodies not merely the success or failure of the country, but their access to an overarching mythic ideal. The players in the commercial, dignified, mute, intense, are the outward form of the inner impulse, the expression of a single-minded transfiguring pursuit.

    And that's the way this Mexican team plays. They'll never win any awards for beauty, but for purpose and fortitude they are unsurpassed. In 90 minutes against Italy, engaged in the most beautiful sport in the world, they managed only two moments of magic. The second, a superb ball-playing combination between Jesus Arellano and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, evoked gasps of wonder, but no goal. But the first, a simple cross by Blanco and a marvelous twisting header by Jared Borgetti, brought home the game. That's all the beauty this team needs. The rest is basic attack and defense, hard work, competitive spirit, total focus. The fans in the stands were singing the sweet and soulful folk song "Cielito Lindo," but the beat to which this team plays is the stark and heavy music from the commercial.

    Javier Aguirre is a master psychologist, and it showed. Having already deserved qualification with two wins, Mexico had to go out against one of the world's great teams and do it again. And they were completely unafraid. Italy lay back in their usual counterattacking pose, so Mexico said: all right, we'll attack. They battled all over the field, rarely looking dangerous, but rarely giving up opportunities behind. Against far more celebrated players from far more celebrated clubs, they fought for every ball and won the ones that mattered. Nothing sensational about it, really: just unwavering commitment, doing the job you're sent to do, playing for your honor. Then, about a half hour in, after a typical series of patient passes, Blanco launched his cross and Borgetti his header, and the game was over. Italy fought back to draw, but Mexico had what they wanted, and never once looked like giving it up.

    For those who have followed this team, what's most striking is the fine showing by the more obscure players. Blanco, Borgetti, Marquez, Torrado, Arellano are supposed to lead the team, but then you get superb performances from people like Salvador Carmona, the man on the left in the back three, who was my man of the match along with Torrado. Against Croatia it was defender Manuel Vidrio, against Ecuador it was inside left Braulio Luna, and so on. Everyone on the team seems to be rising to the challenge, playing with the requisite drive and commitment.

    I have no idea how far Mexico will go, but they have the air of a squad that refuses to be beaten. And should they get by the USA, they'll probably face Germany in the quarterfinals. No more perfect opponent could be imagined. Germany plays with the same determination, the same total focus. And Mexico won't need reminding that in 1986 and 1998 it was Germany who knocked them out of the tournament. It will most certainly not be a beautiful game. But for Mexico, it'll be football at its best, football in its essence, football as honor.

    Costa Rica, another Latin American team, play for honor as well, even if at times they seem to be engaged in a different sort of activity altogether. For the ticos, honor involves not only hard work and fighting spirit, but beauty. Costa Rica-Brazil was football circa 1954, or maybe 1854. No one seemed to care much about defense; what mattered was attack, beautiful attack. The teams were vying for spectacle: Edmilson with a gorgeous side volley, Wanchope with back heels and toe pokes, Ronaldo with solo moves and runs, Centeno and Lopez with spins and passes. At heart Costa Rica are devotees of the jogo bonito, and against the masters they had no hesitation in opening up. It was a lot of fun to watch, although admirers of defensive football must have been shuddering in horror. (Ruud Doevendans, our resident connoisseur of defense, rated Brazil-Costa Rica a 7, Mexico-Italy an 8.) Costa Rica could easily have won the game, and when Gomez' header brought them back to 2-3, I really thought they were going to do it. But as against Turkey, they couldn't finish all those wonderful chances. Brazil could and did, and so Costa Rica goes home.

    And they go home, yes, with honor. Their goal had been to qualify for the second round, which means they failed, but the Costa Rican papers were unanimous in their praise. The operative words were "dignidad" (dignity), "orgullo" (pride), "coraje" (courage), and "honor." To a man, the players said they were disappointed in the result, but satisfied with their effort. Paulo Wanchope: "We gave our all, and had a good World Cup, with good football." Mauricio Solis: "We left a good impression." Carlos Castro: "I'm content with our showing. We never gave up." They were true to themselves, true to what football meant to them and their countrymen.

    Honor is also important in traditional Asian societies, but Japan and South Korea have been playing for an honor of a less exalted kind. This isn't about ancestor worship, or being worthy of your elders, it's simply making sure you justify your privileges. This was the first time Asia had the World Cup, and neither Japan nor South Korea had ever won a game at the tournament. So with the world watching, it was imperative to make it to the second round.

    Both did it with something to spare. Japan was fortunate to find themselves in a weak group, but their play improved with each game. Against a deeply disappointing Tunisia, they waited their customary 45 minutes to get going, then produced their best football of the tournament. For the first time they varied their attack, using long and short passes, pace and trickery, the center and the wings. Inamoto had an off game, but Nakata was excellent, and took his goal in fine fashion. Substitute Hiroaki Morishima brought plenty of attacking aggressiveness, and Tsuneyasu Miyamoto was again marvelous in central defense. Striker Takayuki Suzuki didn't score, but he had his most active game, creating all over the pitch. I know, you have to consider the level of the opposition, but this was the first time I really thought Japan were worth their qualification.

    Their good luck continues as well. After Group H comes the easiest quarter of the bracket, with Sweden, Senegal, and Turkey. (Had they finished second in their group, it would have been Brazil, England, and Denmark.) The Turks will be very tough, and I'd be surprised if Japan wins, but it's not absolutely out of the question. Much will depend on the Japanese attitude: they've accomplished what they came for, and won the group to boot. With honor satisfied, they may not have the necessary edge.

    On the other hand, South Korea is through as well, and the last thing they want is for the Koreans to go farther in the tournament. That's a matter of honor, too. South Korea matched Japan by winning their group, playing impressive football throughout. And against Portugal they displayed yet another kind of honor: although a draw would have been enough to qualify, they played for a win. When the sides were even, they were clearly the more creative and enterprising team. At the beginning of the second half they could easily have sat back with their extra man, but went straight for goal, as if they were the ones who needed the three points. Park Ji-sung was particularly impressive, and fittingly he got the clinching goal. And let's save a word for keeper Lee Woon-jae, one of the unobtrusive members of the squad, who made a couple of superb saves to keep the Korean lead.

    South Korea finds themselves in one of the difficult parts of the bracket, with Italy on Tuesday, and Spain likely in the quarterfinals. But this team has the talent to do it -- and, as with Japan, there's the very real desire to outdo the other host. The rivalry means more to the Koreans, former victims of Japanese occupation, and they'll know the result of Japan-Turkey, which will have taken place earlier in the day. I don't think Guus Hiddink will need to give his team a pep talk; history will be quite enough motivation.

    The United States has never cared much about honor: what matters to us is success. So when they write the American story at Korea/Japan 2002, you won't hear about how we were thrashed by the Poles when only a draw was needed to go through. Nor will you hear how we failed to create chances against a second-string defense. You'll hear about Brad Friedel's second penalty save, and Donovan's nice goal, and how we made it to the second round for the first time away from home. No one will apologize.

    Nor is it clear that they should. The USA had a rotten game, but they didn't really lose their nerve: they just found their level. They're a modestly talented side, with a weak back line, and if everything went right against Portugal it was all due to go wrong against Poland. One win, one draw, and one loss is all that one could reasonably expect from this team, and if it turns out to be good enough to qualify, hey, that's the luck of the draw. It was good enough for Paraguay, and Turkey, and Italy. Arena and his men, Americans to the core, will sleep well tonight.

    But honor has a way of showing up unannounced. In the round of 16, the opponent will be none other than Mexico. The USA hasn't been a CONCACAF power for very long, but if we have an old enemy, it's the Tricolores. They're on our southern border, and they're our only rivals for influence in the region. They're also the confederation aristocrats, the standard by which all the other teams measure success. The USA first emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the 1991 Gold Cup, with a 2-0 semifinal victory over Mexico. Costa Rica ran rampant through the 2002 qualifiers, but the victory they cherished most was the one in Mexico City. When the USA qualified for France '98, their most celebrated effort was a 10-man 0-0 draw in the great Azteca stadium. We want to beat Mexico, not because it'll get us to the quarterfinals, but because we want to beat Mexico. It may not quite be Rangers and Celtic, or Real Madrid and Barcelona, but there's no doubt at all: we really really hate to lose to those guys.

    So I'm trying to imagine Claudio Reyna, Clint Mathis, Eddie Pope and the rest, strong and silent, standing on a stage with stark and heavy music, Americans of all types behind them, driven by "el honor del pais." It's a stretch. A big stretch. But allow us our pale, feeble, insubstantial honor too, will you? Watch Mexico-USA on Monday, June 17. Every kick will be a drama, every goal a parable. We will seek the ideal, and like a real football nation, leave our hearts and souls on the pitch.


 

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