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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Less Like Lennart



    On the eve of the Gold Cup, at the gala kickoff press conference (I assume it was gala--for some reason I never get invited to these things), CONCACAF President Jack Warner proclaimed proudly that the 2005 tournament was bigger than ever. Bigger it certainly was: an all-time record 25 games scheduled in an equally record 7 cities. And listening to Jack extol the tournament, you might have thought that the 25 games made up a silver jubilee and that the 7 cities were the fabled Seven Cities of Gold.

    But bigger isn't necessarily better--just look at Lennart Johansson. (Can't get enough? Look here and here.) And as Warner sat in the VIP press box at the Final, next to none other than Sepp Blatter himself, watching the USA and Panama lurch through 120 minutes of scoreless football, maybe even he might have thought, for the briefest of moments, that the tournament had swelled just a bit too large.

    Fat chance. The Gold Cup exists to make money, and if the final receipts (undisclosed, of course) show the tournament well in the black, we'll be lucky not to find ourselves next time with 50 games in 14 cities.

    A shame, too, because the Final had all the earmarks of a classic, with the powerful Yanks against the upstart canaleros. And in a way it was a classic, with Panama playing the home side not-quite-even-but-remarkably-bravely before going down on penalty kicks. But in a way it was also a disaster, with the action in fits and starts, the teams blowing chance after chance, and the 90-degree heat draining whatever life was left out of the players. Jaime Penedo, the Panamanian keeper, was chosen man of the match, but the real star was gravity.

    In fact, the teams had run out of energy, drama, and heroics in the semifinals, three days before. The USA had somehow survived an inspired performance by Honduras, scoring twice in the final minutes to pick up an out-of-nowhere 2:1 victory. Panama, who if you go far enough back was once a province of Colombia, had upset their former masters 3:2, with all 5 goals of highlight-reel quality. This was the real climax of the competition, a stirring evening which didn't quite erase the silliness of the past few weeks, but at least made the long journey worthwhile.

    Up until then the Gold Cup had been like most Gold Cups, only more so. This year's model meant less than ever, because the winner wouldn't even qualify for the next Confederations Cup. Less than half the teams were near full strength, and three of those that were, Guatemala, Cuba, and Trinidad & Tobago, went home early. True, there had been some exciting play--Group C, with Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, and South Africa, had produced a boatload of goals, and Mexico's 1:0 win over Jamaica had been a cracker. But there had been some pretty dire play as well: Group B, with the USA, Costa Rica, Canada, and Cuba, produced exactly one memorable moment in six games, a rocket from Atiba Hutchinson. There had been some pleasant surprises: the strong showing of South Africa, the enterprising play of Honduras, and of course the success of Panama. But there had also been some major bombs: Guatemala, who made you wonder how they'd ever qualified for the Hexagonal; Mexico, who moped around and went out meekly at the quarterfinals; even the USA, who had maybe one convincing game out of six.

    And then there was the schedule, which in its haste to get more out of less put several teams in a ridiculous position. Both Group B and Group C were scheduled to play their first two games in one place (Seattle, Los Angeles), and their third well across the country (Foxboro, Houston). So in order to catch the planes, they had to play the second game less than 48 hours after the first. Bruce Arena exposed the idiocy to perfection: in a record that seems unlikely to be broken, he replaced all eleven of his starters from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon.

    Of course, it wouldn't be the Gold Cup without the "guest teams." Colombia didn't even try to field a strong side, saving their regulars for the stretch drive in the qualifiers. South Africa seemed genuinely interested, but almost didn't get a team together at all. It wasn't a FIFA date, so the Euro clubs refused to release their players, and even the South African clubs held back--they had a local tournament they figured was more important. So Colombia brought a B minus side, and South Africa more like C. The joke was that they both beat Mexico, in Colombia's case on one of the freakiest goals you'll ever see--a random 40 yard-whack from Abel Aguilar that somehow hit the target with the keeper off his line. The other joke was that Panama, in their run to the Final, didn't beat a single team from the confederation. In fact, they had a minus score against CONCACAFers, drawing with T&T and losing to Honduras.

    Oh, and speaking of guest teams--when Colombia eliminated Mexico, that made the fourth consecutive Gold Cup, and 5 out of 6, in which a team from outside the confederation had knocked out the USA or Mexico. Maybe I'm missing something, but if Mexico and the USA are your flagship teams, maybe you kind of want to keep them in the tournament? If only, um, for the gate and the TV ratings? Can someone do the math, please?

    Which brings us to attendance. Except the Final, every day was a doubleheader, so there was plenty of football to see. In Seattle and Foxboro, where the USA played its group games, they averaged only 15K per date. In Miami, home to Honduras, T&T, Panama, and Colombia, even worse, around 13K. On the brighter side, Mexico, always the big draw, lured big crowds in Los Angeles and Houston, including a whopping 60K for the quarterfinals in Reliant Stadium. But after Mexico's exit, the semifinals in New Jersey drew only 40K, and the Final only 30K. Most telling of all: the quarterfinal doubleheader USA-Jamaica and Honduras-Costa Rica drew less than 25K in Foxboro, while on the same day over 50K showed up in Chicago for a meaningless friendly between a couple of teams named Real Madrid and Chivas. We may not be the most sophisticated of fans, but we know when we're getting star quality.

    A word or two about the refereeing, which I freely admit is just an excuse to bash Peter Prendergast. Prendy has a decent game now and then, but he's best known for his high-profile mistakes. You saw him in action at the 2002 World Cup, where he disallowed an obviously legal goal for Marc Wilmots in the Belgium-Brazil match. In the Gold Cup he was in fine form, handing Costa Rica a win over Canada with a truly horrific PK call, and missing an obvious penalty when Victor Coello brought down DaMarcus Beasley in the Honduras-USA semifinal. But let's give equal time to Rodolfo Sibrian and his crew for the Panama-Colombia semi: Colombia had two legal goals disallowed and Panama had a man ejected for a second yellow on a play in which absolutely no contact occurred.

    But we're football fans, which means we're expert at finding that pinpoint of light in the all-devouring darkness. So let's also note that Carlos Batres of Guatemala refereed a solid Final. And let's thank our stars there was no third-place game. And let's close our story with some good memories indeed: first-class goals from Chris Birchall, Jared Borgetti, Jermaine Hue, Atiba Hutchinson, Jairo Patiño, and Ricardo Phillips; the unbounded joy of the Panamanian players and fans; Landon Donovan's truly weird narcissistic labial pre-penalty-kick ritual (I won't even try to describe it--get a tape). And let's look resolutely forward, shall we? to the 2007 Gold Cup, to be held we're not sure where, with we're not sure what teams, under we're not sure what rules--and hope that next time we get something that looks and walks a little less like Lennart.

And now capsule reviews of the teams:


Canada


    Went largely with youth, and were largely disappointing. They were unlucky to lose to Costa Rica, but the ticos fielded a B team, and Canada never looked like scoring. Against the USA they showed no initiative at all, and against a clearly inferior Cuba they couldn't put the game away. (The whole world was rooting for a 3:0 victory over Cuba so that Canada would go to lots against Colombia to advance--just check your Gold Cup history.) The only real standout was Atiba Hutchinson, who played well in both midfield and defense, and scored one of the best goals of the tournament. On the dribble Dwayne DeRosario looked like Ronaldinho, but when he had to set up a teammate or score himself it was more like Ronald McDonald.


Colombia


    Mostly youngsters and retreads, and despite making the semifinals, a very ordinary showing. They missed a lot of chances, and only in the first half against Mexico did they look convincing. Two losses to former province Panama is about as humiliating as it gets. Tressor Moreno got on the all-tournament team, and Jairo Patiño scored a couple of nice goals in the semifinal, but I doubt whether anyone significantly improved their chances with the big squad.


Costa Rica


    Brought the fewest regulars of all the Hexagonal teams, and it showed. They played solid defense, but if they produced a single good chance from open play in all three group games, I didn't see it. Instead they scored on three penalty kicks (one bogus, one iffy, one legitimate) and one corner kick (nice header from Randall Brenes). The 0:0 draw with the USA snapped the Yanks' 18-game win streak in Gold Cup group play, but the game itself was a dreadful bore. Ironically, it was the defense that failed in the quarterfinal against Honduras, with two horrible giveaways for goals. When the team finally discovered that attack was an option, it was too late. Michael Umaña played well on defense until the quarterfinal, and Brenes had a few moments. But no one really helped themselves.


Cuba


    Not a disaster, but nowhere near what had been hoped for. This was supposed to be their breakout tournament--after almost eliminating Costa Rica in the qualifiers, the program seemed to be on the way up. But coach Miguel Company left last year, and his replacement, Armelio Luís Garcia, lacks international experience. They got close to a draw against both the USA and Costa Rica, but those were C and B squads respectively. Against Canada, with a mathematical chance to advance to the next round, they were lifeless. Key man Lester Moré scored an early goal against the USA, then by and large disappeared. Strike partner Maikel Galindo made the biggest headlines when he defected.


Guatemala


    The chapines are famous for flopping at the Gold Cup, but they outdid themselves this time. Down 0:2 to Jamaica after 5 minutes, down 0:2 to Mexico after 14 minutes, most of the time they just looked unprepared. (And this was almost the full squad, too.) The defense, long a problem spot, was embarrassing. No one emerged at any spot on the field as a future contributor. Striker Edwin Villatoro, who had looked so good in the Hexagonal against Costa Rica, was invisible. Even Carlos Ruiz, despite a hat trick against Jamaica, seemed subpar. Before drawing the final group match against South Africa, Guatemala had lost an incredible 7 straight games, counting the Hexagonal, friendlies, and the Gold Cup--and one wonders now if their WCQ semi performance was a fluke. Still, home games against Panama, the USA, and Costa Rica give them a big Hexagonal schedule advantage. They'll need it.


Honduras


    Maybe even a bigger surprise than Panama (and beat Panama in their group game). The catrachos came without most of their stars, but played within themselves, were dynamic and creative, and probably deserved to beat the USA. Old-timers Tyson Nuñez and Wílmer Velázquez rolled back the years, prime players Danilo Turcios and Ivan Guerrero showed their stuff, and young wingbacks Oscar Garcia and Mario Berrios showed promise for the future. Best of all was the return of centerback Samuel Caballero, formerly one of the best in the region, absent forever with knee injuries. He played three games and looked a lot like the Caballero of old. Add David Suazo, Maynor Suazo, Amado Guevara, and Edgard Álvarez, and this would be some team. How did they miss the Hexagonal?


Jamaica


    Under new head coach Wendell Downswell, a mix of local boys and legionnaires, lively but undisciplined. Went on the attack consistently, and were a lot of fun to watch, but after a brilliant effort against Mexico got exposed against the USA. Ricardo Fuller may be an exciting dribbler, but still needs to learn to combine with his teammates. Jermaine Hue scored two marvelous goals but was inconsistent in the playmaker role. Khari Stephenson is a comer in the middle of the park, and 20-year-old Luton Shelton has possibilities at forward. But their best midfielder was Andy Williams, and by far their best defender was Tyrone Marshall, and neither of those guys is getting any younger. There's still lots of rebuilding to do.


Mexico


    You probably heard about last week's kidnapping of Ruben Omar Romano, head coach of Cruz Azul. Word is the captors originally planned to take Ricardo LaVolpe, until they realized no one would pay the ransom. (Hey-ho! What's Spanish for "rimshot"?) But Mexico was simply following the pattern: when they take the Gold Cup seriously, they win it; when they don't, they get eliminated early. LaVolpe actually brought four starters (Jared Borgetti, Sinha, Ricardo Osorio, and Carlos Salcido), which was four more than expected. But after the epic Confederations Cup you could hardly expect them to stay interested. Salcido in fact tried unsuccessfully to beg off the team. Borgetti feasted on some inferior defenses, but when he was suspended for the quarterfinal, they had no replacement, and went down. No worries--they'll be back in the saddle come August.


Panama


    A week before the tournament, top striker José Luís Garcés and substitute keeper Oscar McFarlane were thrown out of camp for disciplinary reasons. Regular starting keeper Donaldo González, told he would be kept mostly in reserve, refused to make the trip. When the competition opened, they were last in the Hexagonal and confirmed also-rans. Three weeks later they were national heroes. Keeper Jaime Penedo was easily the player of the tournament, quick, aggressive, and precise. Luís Tejada was tireless up front, showed he could pass as well as finish, and finished joint topscorer with 3 goals. The superhuman Dély Valdés brothers, combined age 236, came out of retirement to provide leadership, inspiration, one assist, and two goals. Alberto Blanco was indispensable in midfield. And the lads came within a lottery of taking the whole thing. They're now a popular pick to finish fourth in the Hexagonal--but let's be cautious. Without taking anything away from their effort and achievement, remember: 1) they didn't beat a single CONCACAF team; 2) the USA had fewer than half their regulars in the Final; 3) the Hexagonal is much more intense than the Gold Cup. They're back at their March level, when they excelled against Costa Rica and Mexico, but they've given away a lot of points, and will have to continue in top form. They're at Guatemala in August and home to Costa Rica in September, and anything less than 4 points will be fatal. My advice to Cheché: keep Garcés out and the Dély Valdés brothers in. Chemistry is vital to this unit, and at the Gold Cup they showed how far it can take you.


South Africa


    If any team looked like a loser, it was Bafana Bafana, whose "preparations" had been the far side of nightmare. But they acquitted themselves well, beating Mexico and only going out on PK's in the quarterfinals. Star man was 2002 World Cup scorer Siyabonga Nomvete, who lost his starting spot last year, but whose pace and trickery could get him back in the lineup for the final WC qualifiers. Phillip Evans was useful at holding midfielder, Lucky Legwathi showed well at right back, and Lungisiani Ndlela, winner of the Tallest Player Out There By Far award, showed he was more than a beanpole, scoring two goals. Whether anyone besides Nomvete can make an impact in the WCQ stretch is doubtful. But it was a nice tournament for the boys anyway.


Trinidad & Tobago


    Started fast, with Chris Birchall's classic 25-yard strike against Honduras, but faded even faster, and in the end were a disappointment. For a wizard and savior, Leo Beenhakker made some very odd choices. He started Stern "Coldest Striker in the Universe" John all three games. He started Cyd Gray at right back all three games, too, although it was clear early on that Gray was overmatched. And he put Cornell Glen, a born striker, at left midfield against Colombia. T&T had some excuse--their two most creative players were missing (Dwight Yorke, club commitment; Carlos Edwards, injury). But no one stepped into the breach. Best news was the continuing solid play of Marvin Andrews and Dennis Lawrence in the back. Kelvin Jack had his moments in goal, but I confess I'm not convinced yet. The August game at the USA is a freebie, but by September they'll have to be back in form.


USA


    Rarely has a tournament winner looked so uninspired. The USA likes to talk about their depth, but it was shallow paddling all the way at the Gold Cup. The attack was Beasley and Donovan, or perhaps Donovan and Beasley, and if they were absent or off their game, there was nothing doing. At the moment the team has no third striker. The back line looks very slow, and the highly touted Oguchi Onyewu is still way too raw for prime time. Two pieces of good news: midfielder John O'Brien is back (at least until he gets injured again) and Kasey Keller is still alive (and if you missed the post-Final interview on Univision, speaks a pretty decent brand of Spanish, too!). The USA is sitting pretty in the Hexagonal, but goes into the second half with lots of injuries--Steve Cherundolo, Eddie Johnson, Pablo Mastroeni, Eddie Pope, Steve Ralston. Four years ago, under similar circumstances, they collapsed. That's unlikely to happen again, but the road home might be a stagger rather than a breeze.



 

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