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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A Berth Too Far?

    There's a very old saying: "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it." Who said it first we don't know--probably Og the Neanderthal, hoping for a meaty dinner, spotting a sabre-toothed tiger at the mouth of his cave. But over the years there have been plenty of World Cup fans who have felt exactly the same way.

    That's because every four years we all wish for the greatest of World Cup gifts: more berths for our confederation. Our representatives go to Switzerland laden with statistics, charts, and suitcases filled with 100-euro notes, and make their sincere appeals to FIFA. And if we are among the lucky ones, the lords dispense their blessing, our allocations rise, and we are all so very very happy.

    And then the trouble starts. Because berths are awarded on past performance, and the World Cup is played in the present. And confederations who were oh-so-proud of that star team that made the quarterfinals suddenly find that their third- and fourth-best teams can't play their way out of a paper bag. Africa got all the way up to 5, only to discover they still couldn't get more than one team past the first round. Asia even threatened to boycott the whole tournament four years ago if they didn't get 5--as it turned out, even 4 was complete humiliation.

    Which brings us to CONCACAF, my home confederation, the stars of the show in 2002, who were rewarded for their efforts with a tiny little extra half-berth. From 3 to 3½--what joy! And we cashed it in like champs, Trinidad & Tobago beating Bahrain to swell our contingent to an all-time high of 4. But well before the qualifiers ended it was obvious this wasn't a vintage CONCACAF year. The USA and Mexico looked OK, but Costa Rica were plenty shaky, and Trinidad & Tobago--well, we were all proud of the Warriors, but the thought of the journeymen islanders going up against the Euro big boys was a just a little bit distressing. You had to suspect that 4 was a berth too far.

    And after the opener, Germany-Costa Rica, it sure looked like we'd have been better off with 3. Or maybe just 2. After a marathon up-and-down qualifying season (three coaches, two narrow elimination escapes) and a simply dreadful buildup (every game lost, even against amateur sides), Costa Rica coach Alexandre Guimaraes forgot about football and opted for survival. Against Germany he started a 5-3-2, and the 5 was really 5, not an attacking player in the lot. One of the 3 was Walter Centeno, supposedly a playmaker, but when Germany had the ball, which was about 70% of the time, he went to the left of midfield and played defense. And when Costa Rica had the ball, he mainly held it up, passed square, watched his back.

    Of course, when you're playing Germany, you can score even if you've got only six men on the field. And Paulo Wanchope, although he's no track star, showed he can still finish with the best of them. And let's give Centeno credit for the pass for the second goal, too. But you couldn't help feeling the hosts could have been had if the ticos had just been willing to go for it. Instead they relied on set pieces-- Danny Fonseca right now is banging his bald, inefficient head against a wall--and didn't bring in an attacker until Christian Bolaños in the 78th minute. At 2:3, they never looked like equalizing, and Torsten Frings' wonder goal was no more than justice.

    Perhaps the most revealing thing about the game was the reaction at home. Costa Rica has performed well in past World Cups, and have a respectable history to live up to. Plus, their fans are used to attacking football, and let you know in no uncertain terms if you don't go for goal. But the supporters were content, even happy--the team had scored twice, fought all the way, and hadn't been embarrassed. That's the way the Maldives are supposed to respond, not Costa Rica. How the semi-mighty have fallen.

    At least the toughest opponent is out of the way. Neither Ecuador nor Poland are unbeatable, and Ecuador may be a bit overconfident after their rousing win on opening night. But now Costa Rica have to risk. To start with, they need Bolaños or Carlos Hernández to support Centeno in midfield. Then they need some action on the wings. Gilberto Martínez is out for the rest of the tournament with tendonitis--but as much as I hate to say it, that's good news. He had a dreadful game at right wingback against Germany, and he adds nothing to the attack. Harold Wallace or Jervis Drummond will at least push forward, and right now that's all you can ask from your third-best team. I confess I'm not too confident.

    But maybe it doesn't matter if your third-best flops, when your fourth-best is a gang of miracle makers. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Trinidad & Tobago, coached by a guy with more wrinkles than a thrift-store suit. They've got a second-string goalkeeper, a striker who plays defensive midfielder, a bunch of players you haven't heard of, and an unconquerable spirit. On Saturday, playing a man down for virtually the entire second half, they held off an illustrious Swedish attack, and are now thinking about winning, oh, say three straight World Cups.

    Let's give first call on this one to Shaka Hislop, 37 years old, professional footballer extraordinaire. He's been T&T's best in the nets for well over a decade now, but for various reasons hasn't suited up for the Soca Warriors as often as you'd like. Going into the tournament he had a measly 25 caps--and didn't figure to get any more, having lost out to Kelvin Jack, a powerful youngster with much quicker reflexes. In fact, Jack's name was already down on the team sheet for the game against Sweden. But when the whistle blew, the kid was sitting on the bench with an ice pack on his calf, and the old man was in the lineup.

    And how. After the game Hislop said he hadn't made any difficult saves--modesty, of course, but the way he plays they're not difficult. No longer the brilliant shot-stopper of his youth, he compensates with inch-perfect positioning. In the 40th minute he was dead center to tip Christian Wilhelmsson's blast over the bar; two minutes later he was in range to snare Zlatan Ibrahimovic's half-volley. In the 58th minute he was face-to-face to stop Ibrahimovic point-blank; in the 80th he charged out to block Marcus Allbäck. You don't need to leap like a leopard if you're always in the right spot.

    As for the guy with the wrinkles, his name is Leo Beenhakker, but just call him Einstein. Coaching the biggest underdog in the pack, he never went negative--T&T did more attacking with 10 men than Costa Rica did with 11. Figuring a slow buildup was risky against the hard-running Swedes, Leo switched to the longball, with Stern John as target man. John didn't win every ball, and Sweden still got the majority of possession, but T&T's midfield was never under undue pressure. As for the defense, they had been mistake-prone even in the qualifiers, so Beenhakker pulled Dwight Yorke all the way back into a picket role in front of the back four. Yorke was magnificent all evening, and his mere presence seemed to steady the defense. Despite the all-out Swedish attack, and even with Brent Sancho in place of an injured Marvin Andrews, there wasn't a single serious back-line mistake. And when you don't make mistakes, you're very hard to beat.

    But Beenhakker's greatest moves came in the second half, after Avery John had been sent off. First he moved Cyd Gray from right back over to left, and pulled Carlos Edwards from right midfield to right back to shut off Freddie Ljungberg. Then he dropped the bomb. Down to 10 men and needing to hold off a superior opponent, Beenhakker yanked a midfielder and put on a striker. That doesn't even happen in Brazil. The striker was Cornell Glen, possibly the fastest man on the team. He didn't score, but he hit the woodwork, something Sweden never managed. More importantly, he had the opposition off balance every time he saw the ball.

    For all the excellence of Hislop, Yorke, Edwards, and Glen, this was a true team victory. (Yes, I know it was a draw, but tell that to the fans thronging the streets of Port-of-Spain.) It wasn't a fluke, either. In the first half, 11 on 11, not once did the Warriors look outclassed. In the second half, 10 on 11, not once did they look disheartened. Sure, play T&T-Sweden ten times and Sweden should win seven, but you only get one shot in the World Cup, and T&T took it.

    So what's next for our fourth-placed side, our 1000-1 heroes? Only England, who on their performance against Paraguay are down to two lions and falling. Still, I don't for a moment think T&T will get another result. And yet...I'm sure Einstein has a few theories he hasn't tried out yet. Shaka will still be in goal, Dwight will still lead the midfield. The lads now know they belong. If they play with the same poise and precision, why not?

    But if T&T can't keep it going, there's always Mexico. Remember when the Tri were perennial also-rans? Now they're one of the most reliable teams in the world, with a 9-game group stage unbeaten streak that's second only to Germany's 13. Against Iran they had a scary 45 minutes, then switched tactics, got more aggressive, and dominated. They may have needed a defensive error to pull ahead, but the 3:1 scoreline was just about right.

    The man who got two goals, and most of the headlines, was Omar Bravo. Even a month ago you couldn't have predicted it. He played a minor role in the qualifiers, and was the last of the strikers to make the team. But he came on strong in the buildup, and now may even be ahead of Guillermo Franco. His technical skills are limited, but he's fast, slippery, has a knack of popping up in unexpected places, and knows how to finish. Jared Borgetti limped off injured in the second half, but even if he's OK, Bravo looks set for the duration.

    As does Sinha, the naturalized Brazilian. LaVolpe started a curiously conservative lineup: three strikers, but no true attacking midfielders. On the right he even went with the solid Mario Méndez instead of the dynamic José Antonio Castro. About 20 minutes in it was clear he had made a mistake--even LaVolpe admitted as much after the game. But when the second half started there was Sinha where he belonged, and that was the difference. First he gathered in Rahman Rezaei's error and coolly slipped the ball to Bravo for the finish. Then he took charge completely, beating a defender, finding the open Méndez on the right wing, and heading home the return pass himself. He's by far the most creative midfielder on the squad, and at this level, he has to play if Mexico wants to win.

    In fact, except for the hopefully-soon-to-be-abandoned-forever 3-4-3, there were no surprises. The Tri scored on a set piece. They gave up a goal on a set piece. They controlled possession for long periods without making much of it. The back line was solid, and Rafa Márquez moved up and contributed to the attack. Against a weaker opponent, the team finished in style. That's the LaVolpe way.

    But in truth they were kind of lucky. For some reason Iran, after an inspired first half, decided to go passive. Mexico eats that sort of thing up. They won't catch the same break against Angola, who press, bang bodies, and counterattack. It won't be pretty, and the Tri, who have been known to lose their heads at times, will have to keep cool and pounce on mistakes. Expect Sinha, and probably also Luis Pérez, in midfield from the start. Bravo's pace will be important against an uncertain backline. It'll be a difficult 90 minutes, but pedigree should win out.

    Pedigree--a funny word to use for CONCACAF. After three days the balance is properly balanced, with one win, one loss, and one draw. Better so far than Africa and Asia, and the USA have yet to take the field. For the moment we're about where we're supposed to be. But there are plenty of sabre-toothed tigers out on the savanna: England, the Czech Republic, Ghana, Italy, Portugal, Paraguay. Don't start asking for five berths just yet.



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