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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Watch This Space, 2006
Hello--my name is Peter Goldstein, and I’m a staff writer for Planet World Cup. I’m from the USA, but don’t hold that against me: I’ve been a fan of the game for forty years, I’ve never met Malcolm Glazer, and I didn’t vote for Bush. For the next month, like every other sensible person on the planet, I’ll be watching every minute of the World Cup. But I’m one of the amazingly lucky ones who gets to write about it as well. My primary focus is on the teams from CONCACAF and Africa, so that’s what you’ll see the most of under this byline. I’ll also do some statistical pieces when time allows. So with the tournament less than a week away, let’s look at the current state of affairs in my bailiwick. The team entries below should be used as supplements to the team previews linked on the home page of this site.
The 2002 tournament was CONCACAF’s finest hour. They became the first of the lesser confederations to have an overall plus score in the group stage, and also the first to notch a plus group stage score against Europe. All three teams, Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, did themselves proud, and the USA came very close to reaching the semifinals.
Can they repeat the performance? Not likely. Last cycle the confederation had its strongest lineup ever. Costa Rica was as good or better than the USA and Mexico, and Honduras, who didn’t even qualify for the tournament, was in the same class. Now not only is there a significant dropoff from the Big Two, but CONCACAF will be going four-deep at the tournament for the first time. After Leo Beenhakker arrived, Trinidad & Tobago were clearly the fourth-best team in the region, but even as such they’re major longshots. The third-best, Costa Rica, look notably weaker than last time, and might struggle even in a weakish-looking Group A. As for the USA, they’re stuck in the very tough Group E. Only Mexico seem to have a relatively clear path to the second round, but they’ll have to face the Group of Death if they want to get to the quarterfinals. On paper, it’s not our year.
Costa Rica --The ticos have had a nightmare buildup, dropping friendlies right and left, rarely looking competitive. Even the subs embarrassed themselves against a German amateur team. And so Alexandre Guimaraes, one of the great exponents of attacking football, has thrown in the towel. He’s gone back to his favorite 3-man back line, with a libero and two stoppers, but the resemblance to 2002 ends there. Douglas Sequeira, previously a defensive midfielder, will take the libero spot, probably flanked by Luis Marín and Michael Umaña. That means the wingbacks will be two fundamentally defensive players, Gilberto Martínez and Leonardo González. Even worse, the midfield will probably have two more defensive types, Mauricio Solís and Danny Fonseca. That leaves only three attackers in the whole lineup, playmaker Walter Centeno and strikers Paulo Wanchope and Ronald Gómez. That’s not Costa Rica football, and unless Guimaraes changes his mind, the side just isn’t going to score goals, except maybe on set pieces. Let’s hope he takes a chance and goes back to his roots.
Mexico --Ricardo LaVolpe is as usual doing well with the home folks, calling one newspaper “retarded” and being referred to by a club owner as “drunk, insecure, and paranoid.” On the pitch, the biggest problem is still the lack of creativity in midfield. Sinha has recovered from his injury, but isn’t in form, and there’s no replacement in sight. In the friendly against Holland, LaVolpe tried a completely new 3-3-3-1, with all four of his strikers on the field, but got nothing from open play. At the moment there are few certainties, but the guess is he’ll go back to the tried and true 3-5-2, with Rafael Márquez in the back line, Pavel Pardo as anchor, and Sinha and Luis Pérez attacking in the middle. A big surprise is the resurgence of defender Claudio Suárez, known as “The Emperor,” 37 years old, second in all-time world caps. He didn’t figure at all in the qualifiers, but is now a good bet to see some time, and might even start in LaVolpe’s most conservative lineup. Up front “Kikin” Fonseca has slipped down the depth chart, maybe even behind Omar Bravo. Guillermo Franco is by no means sharp, but is still likely to partner Jared Borgetti when the tournament kicks off.
Trinidad & Tobago --The buildup has been an education for the Soca Warriors. Their standard slow possession game has been effective at times, but the speed of European play has exposed the back line. The usual lapses are costing the team big time, and losses to Wales, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic have Leo Beenhakker trying all sorts of combinations. At the moment the guess is he’ll stick with the regular back four of Cyd Gray, Marvin Andrews, Dennis Lawrence, and Avery John, and cross his fingers. Russell Latapy could be a calming influence in midfield, but since he probably can’t go the full 90, to start him is a gamble. At least Chris Birchall is in form, smashing home a 25-yarder against Slovenia. Also good news, if your blood pressure prescription is up to date, is the return to fitness of the one and only Kelvin Jack. He’s running neck and neck with Shaka Hislop for the spot--if he wins out, get ready to watch one of the most exciting players at the tournament. One more note: Densil Theobald, who had been ineffective in the qualifiers as a wide man, is challenging for Aurtis Whitley’s spot in central midfield.
USA --The team took a significant blow when centerback Cory Gibbs was injured. Now youngster Oguchi Onyewu and oldster Eddie Pope may have to go it alone, unless Carlos Bocanegra finds his form. The Battle of the Giants between Onyewu and Jan Koller should be particularly absorbing. In midfield everyone looks healthy, even Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien (!), but that just makes Bruce Arena’s job more difficult. Even this close to the tournament, it’s not clear which way he’ll jump. How often will he use Pablo Mastroeni, the team’s one true destroyer? Will DaMarcus Beasley, ineffective of late, lose his spot on the left to Bobby Convey? Will the untested Clint Dempsey start on the right, or will it be Beasley? Up front, Eddie Johnson has closed with a rush, and now has a chance to start alongside Brian McBride. But if Mastroeni starts with Reyna, the best place to put Landon Donovan is withdrawn forward, which would leave Johnson out. Set pieces could be a weakness: the USA got killed there in 2002, and right now have no consistent free kick or corner kick man.
The stakes are particularly high for Africa this year. In 2010 they finally get to host the tournament, and the confederation wants desperately to be in position to demand an extra berth. Unfortunately, so far they’ve done little to justify the ones they have. Yes, Senegal made it to the quarterfinals last time, but with their allocation now up to five, Africa still has yet to get more than one team in the second round.
Unfortunately, the odds are against improvement this year. It’s all well and good to place four debutantes, but once the games start, experience is a big advantage. Moreover, as we’ve noted elsewhere, the draw has dealt Africa a very difficult hand. On paper, their two best teams, Côte D’Ivoire and Ghana, have been drawn in the two toughest groups, where even their best may not be good enough. Togo and Angola drew relatively easy groups, but unfortunately they’re the weakest entries. Only Tunisia, a solid team in a weak group, seems well suited to their spot.
Angola --Luis Oliveira Gonçalves took along six strikers, so it’s a bit of a disappointment that he’s only using one. After some poor defensive performances in the runup, it looks like he’s decided on a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1, with Akwá the lone gunman up front. Mateus will probably start as well, but in an unfamiliar role in attacking midfield. The back line is still a weakness, with neither Marco Abreu on the left nor Locó on the right convincing, and in the middle only Kali looking consistent. The team had its best showing in a 2:3 loss to Turkey, with some good ball movement and effective pressure, but can they master the new system in time? Although nominally playmaker Figueiredo is the leader in midfield, Mendonça is coming to the fore as a two-way player, and may be the key man.
Cote D’Ivoire --The Elephants have impressed some people in friendlies, and Henri Michel seems to be getting closer to his starting eleven. Right now the betting in midfield has Didier Zokora and Yaya Touré in the middle, with dribbler Kader Keita on the right and pace man Kanga Akale on the left. It’s a conservative setup, but that may be necessary against tough opposition. After a scintillating performance against Slovenia, Aruna Dindane looks like the probable partner for Didier Drogba. Unfortunately, that may leave Bonaventure Kalou on the bench, but there are only eleven spots on the field. In the back line, Blaise Kouassi seems to have taken the spot as Kolo Touré’s partner. Overall, little has changed in the last month: it’s a good team in a difficult group, and they’ll have to be at peak efficiency from the opening whistle.
Ghana --An important question was who would replace the suspended Laryea Kingston at right midfield. The apparent answer: nobody. In an inspired move, Ratomir Dujovic has recalled Eric Addo, off the team for many years, and put him in the anchor spot, allowing Michael Essien to join the attack. With Sulley Muntari on the left, that means either 1) Matthew Amoah will play on the right in a 4-5-1, with Stephen Appiah in a free role; or 2) Amoah will play striker in a 4-4-2, with Appiah starting on the right, roaming and guiding the attack. Either way it’s a formidable lineup, with chances and goals flowing freely in the last few friendlies. If Dujkovic chooses number 2, right back John Paintsil may have to restrain his natural urge to go forward. The strike force is still thin, with erratic finishing from both Amoah and Asamoah Gyan. There’s another worry at keeper, where regular Sammy Adjei has been off form, and is being challenged by Richard Kingston. On the whole, though, the Black Stars seem to be peaking at the right time.
Togo --Miss Togo won the Miss World Cup pageant, but right now the Hawks are hardly a thing of beauty. From illness in camp (chicken pox, flu) to internal dissension (Emmanuel Adebayor criticizing johnny-come-lately Robert Malm, a typical bonus flap) to just plain disorganization (the team forgot to take its uniforms to a friendly), the buildup has had all the earmarks of a disaster. The performances haven’t been terribly good either, with a loss to Saudi Arabia and a 1:0 win over Liechtenstein the only full internationals. Bayer Leverkusen teenager Assimiou Touré has been a bright spot, apparently grabbing the right back position; Alaixys Romao has looked good in defensive midfield. But central defense has been a predictable weakness, and the midfield isn’t creating much. Back home the fans are losing heart, hoping only to avoid embarrassment. Give Otto Pfister credit for sticking with a 4-4-2 so far, where many other teams (and not just in Africa) are going more defensive. But right now the Hawks seem a longer shot than ever.
Tunisia --When Slim Benachour missed the squad with fitness doubts, Tunisia was left without a playmaker. It looks like Roger Lemerre will switch Hamed Namouchi from right midfield to the spot behind the strikers in the 4-3-1-2. This would finally free Namouchi to use his full talents, and he looked the part in a convincing win against Belarus. Good news has midfield anchor Mehdi Nafti nearly at full fitness; the question is whether he and the similar Riadh Bouazizi can play in the same lineup. Anis Ayari seems to have won the spot at left back, and Hatem Trabelsi remains a big hope on the right. But the centerback spot is still unsettled--although Radhi Jaidi looks set, there’s a chance he’ll be joined by David Jemmali. As with Cote D’Ivoire, though, there are no dramatic developments. Namouchi aside, it’s a question of whether solid, unimaginative play will suffice in a weak group.
OK, so they’ll be playing a bunch of games in Germany this summer. But we all know the only reason they play is to generate statistics for the terminally obsessed. Here are a few of the infinite things we’ll be staying up all night calculating:
In a recent column we looked at the effect of rest days, both in the group stage and the knockouts. At the moment that effect appears to be small, but there may be a trend in favor of more rested teams in the group stage. By my count, there will be ten group stage games in which one team has an extra day’s rest. Let’s also look to see if for the sixth straight time, the team with more rest loses the Final.
Another recent column explored the effects, or lack thereof, of the switch from 2-1-0 to 3-1-0. There we noted that games which are at one point tied 1:1, but then produce further goals, are on the upswing. Let’s see if that trend continues. Also we’ll look for one of my hobbyhorses: the difference between goals scored in the group stage and goals scored in the knockouts. For many years knockout goals were significantly higher than group stage goals, but recently the situation has reversed, with 2002 the prime exhibit. If once more knockout goals are lower than group stage goals, we have a very significant trend.
Another perennial favorite is the advantage which defensive teams have over attacking teams. The teams that allowed the fewest goals have topped their groups more often than the teams that scored the most. Expect more of the same in 2006.
Speaking of the group stage, there’s a new kid on the block: the match result tiebreaker. Since 1962 the first tiebreaker has been either goal average or goal difference, but now it’s match result. First we’ll see if any of the standings change accordingly--but more importantly, we’ll see how many games are rendered meaningless. The match result tiebreaker has a lot of advocates, but there are many scenarios in which final-round games will no longer matter, because the tiebreakers are already determined. I was hoping to do a piece on this before the tournament started, but didn’t have the time; nevertheless, there’s a real chance the final round of the group stage will be rendered less interesting by the change. We’ll see.
[Stop the presses! As readers Joe Grocott-James and Michael H. Smith wrote in to tell me, the first tiebreaker is in fact still goal difference! I did the research, and they are absolutely right. In the initial set of rules, published in 2003, it had been officially changed to match result; however, in the later set of rules, published in December 2005, it was changed back to goal difference. (An excellent move, too.) Why this didn't get more publicity I don't know, but I completely missed it. Thanks to Joe and Michael for the correction.]
These are only a few of the many numerical World Cup treasures; by my count, there are 1,340,847 meaningful stats generated every tournament. Let’s draw the curtain for the moment, but I call on all the number-hungry hordes--and you know who you are--to buy new calculators. We are strong, we are invincible, we are anoraks.
So that’s it for the moment. June 9, 2006 is near at hand. Watch this space, and all the other spaces you can find, for developments. And feel free to write with your comments. In the last month I’ve received e-mails from all five continents (plus Australia!), and I’m still hoping for a few from Antarctica and the Moon. I’ll be busy, but so will you, and I promise to answer every e-mail. Dickens said “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but he never saw the World Cup. In fact, it’s the best of times, and the better than best of times. It’s World Cup time. Embrace the madness!
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