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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What We'll Miss
Check the brownish-orangeish box on the home page of this site, and you’ll see exactly how many days we have until the World Cup. It’s not many. That means we’re gathering our scouting reports, figuring out formations, making sure we know as much as possible about the teams and the matchups. We’re salivating at the thought of seeing Ronaldinho do what he does best, not to mention Ibrahimovic, Terry, Drogba, Messi, etc. etc. We’re wondering whether Costa Rica will play 3 or 4 at the back, how many attackers Brazil will field, whether Zidane has anything left, how far Guus Hiddink can take Australia. We’re crossing the border into World Cup Country, where the only reality is the ball, the goals, and the 32 sides who have earned the right to thrill us for a long, glorious month.
All this is as it should be. And the football riches that await us are almost incalculable. But with only a few weeks before the tournament, let’s take one last thought for what we’ll miss. Wayne Rooney, I know. And maybe Andriy Shevchenko. But I’m talking about teams. Even with 32 in the tournament, some very good, very worthy, very interesting sides are left out, teams that have given us a great deal of pleasure either recently or in the past. And since they’re going to be completely forgotten while we devote ourselves to the magic 32, it’s only right that they get a salute, if only briefly. Of course, with over 170 teams sitting on the sidelines, we could still be talking when 2010 comes around. So let’s pick two teams from each region.
In Europe, number one on the left-out list is Denmark. Has any team, anywhere, ever put together that special combination of efficiency and style? In 1986, 1998, and 2002, Denmark gave us fluent, precise football, the kind that we play in our dreams, if we’re lucky. Remember how they cut apart Scotland, Nigeria, Uruguay? They play with wingers, too! And don’t forget the “roligans,” some of the best fans in the world. When Denmark were eliminated from the qualifiers, red paint manufacturers mourned all over the universe.
The other European team I’ll pick is Greece, and yes, you heard that right. After their stunning win in Euro 2004, all you heard was how they had ruined the game, how their approach was anathema to all we love about football. Bull. Defense is one-half the game, people. I like attacking football as much as the next man, but clean, spirited defense deserves just as much praise, and Greece played it beautifully. For three weeks, Traianos Dellas was my hero. Every time you see some team at the World Cup play anti-football (and you know you’ll see it plenty), remember Greece, who played fair and hard, and won on the merits.
Now to Asia/Oceania. All the big teams made it, so we won’t miss any familiar faces. So my first pick is Uzbekistan. They so totally got shafted when FIFA ordered them to replay their game against Bahrain. I got to see one of their qualifiers, an 11-man all-out heroic effort against South Korea. They were up 1:0, ready to score a key victory to keep them in the race, when Korea scored in stoppage time to get the draw. The replay showed the goal was offside. Unhappy Unlucky Uzbeks. I vote to give them a bye to the final round of qualifying in 2010, or to send them oil money so next time they need a FIFA ruling, it comes down on their side.
Second choice here is--who else? Solomon Islands. OK, I suppose we really don’t want to see them at the World Cup, where they’d get humiliated. But just the fact they beat out New Zealand and got to the Oceania finals puts them in minnow hall of fame. It should be mandatory for all footie fans to be able to 1) find the Solomons on a map; 2) name their home stadium (it’s Lawson Tama); 3) recognize Commins Menapi (scroll down), the man who got the goals against Australia to put them through.
Now to Africa, where it’s not just minnows who are sitting out. First pick is Cameroon. I realize fans are tired of seeing the Indomitables show up and foul up. Since 1990 it’s been nothing but dreariness and disappointment. No argument here. But Cameroon have the one and only Samuel Eto’O, and it’s hard to believe the World Cup will be held without the world’s best striker. Did you see him in the group stage of the Nations Cup? Breathtaking. Of course, if he’d been willing to take the last-second penalty against Egypt in the qualifiers, we’d be missing Didier Drogba instead. But number 9 should be spending his summer in Germany, not Saudi Arabia.
Let’s add Nigeria. They were unlucky that FIFA changed the first tiebreaker from goal difference to match result; under the old system, they’d have finished ahead of Angola. But they knew the rules in advance, and if they hadn’t conceded the tying goal to the Palancas in the second half they’d have nothing to complain about. The real reason we’ll miss them is their boatload of exciting young talent. There’s spectacular keeper Vincent Enyeama (23, but that’s very young for a keeper), freewheeling attacker Obinna Nsofor (19), even the amazing how-many-more-lawsuits-would-I-cause-if-I-could-do-anything-with-my-left-foot John Obi Mikel (19). These guys are going to be fabulous in 2010, but would have been even more of a sensation this time around.
Now on to CONCACAF, where we’ll start with Guatemala. If you didn’t get a chance to see these guys during the qualifiers (and if you lived anywhere outside the region, you didn’t), boy did you miss something. No, they weren’t that good--but they were totally off the wall. Plenty of attack and not so plenty of defense, they lived on the thinnest possible edge. At one point they had a four game streak in which two games were decided by injury-time goals, one was decided by two goals in the final five minutes, and one finished as a draw when a 90th minute shot hit the post. They also scored some miraculous goals, headed by Fredy Garcia’s 360° pirouette and 30-yard crasher into the upper corner. And coach Ramón Maradiaga (since dismissed) is, in his own way, the most photogenic man in football.
We’ll follow that with Panama. They were one of the great stories of the qualifiers, coming out of nowhere to make the Hexagonal. This is a country that didn’t care much about futbol, never had been near the World Cup, and had embarrassed themselves two years ago hosting the Central American championships. But under Cheché Hernandez they were a team of wild men, never knowing when to quit. Their Hexagonal 0-2-8 record looks pretty pathetic, but they came oh-so-close in a number of games. They were beaten twice on injury-time goals. And if you think Garcia of Guatemala had a spectacular goal, you should have seen Luis Tejada’s against Mexico. Standing at the penalty spot back to goal, tightly marked, he trapped a high ball on his chest, bounced it on his right thigh, bounced it on his right foot, then blasted a screaming bicycle kick into the net. If Panama had made the tournament you’d have seen the highlight about 50 times--and never tired of it.
Finally to South America. First I’ll pick Uruguay, and again, I’m not kidding. It’s a team with a well-earned reputation for hard, sterile play--but that wasn’t the Uruguay we saw in 2002. In fact, if you wanted excitement, the celeste were your best buy at the tournament. They opened with a pleasing 1:2 seesaw with Denmark. A few days later it was a breathless scoreless draw with France, maybe the best 0:0 the World Cup has ever witnessed. They finished with a phantasmagoric 3:3 against Senegal, where even if you saw it you didn’t believe it. Not to mention those magnificent long-range goals by Dario Rodríguez and Diego Forlán. Like most people outside South America, I was glad to see Australia finally make it, but I wish they could have found a space for Alvaro Recoba and friends.
My last team is Peru. They’re not very good, really, and were never in serious contention for a berth. They have a few exciting players: Jefferson Farfan, Claudio Pizarro, Roberto Palacios, and Nolberto Solano. But what they really have is history. The first World Cup I watched in depth was 1970, with the marvellous Cubillas and Chumpitaz. Remember when they came from two goals down in the second half to beat Bulgaria? In 1978 they had Cueto and Muñante, Cubillas got five goals, and they came from behind to spank Scotland. In 1982 they weren’t much, but it was still nice to see Cubillas in his swan song. Peru were the first South American nation outside the big three to make an impact at the World Cup; they’re still the last South American nation besides Brazil and Argentina to make the final eight. That red diagonal stripe is recognizable anywhere: like very few emblems it absolutely identifies the team. Peru is nostalgia. Who says the World Cup is only about wins and losses?
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