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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Fun While It Lasted

    Ah, for the good old days of 2002, when men were men and every day brought a fresh surprise. Giants fell, minnows leapt from the water, and it didn't matter where your team came from, you really had a chance to win. It was truly a World Cup for the world.

    Alas, no longer. Now it's Europe and South America, South America and Europe, back to the old, old future. The best we can do is Ecuador, a nicely unexpected treat, but hardly the stuff of legends. Otherwise it's just the usual suspects and the usual outcomes. Even when someone repeatedly touches himself on world television, it's only Dwight Yorke. Dog bites man.

    I guess it was fun while it lasted. But the World Cup is serious business, and no place for children. A mere 76 years after its inception, everyone outside the two big regions is still struggling for a place at the table. Here in CONCACAF we're back where we started from.

    The failure of the USA is particularly appropriate. The 0:3 embarrassment to the Czech Republic provoked snickers abroad, howls of anguish back home, and large-scale discussions on What It Means For American Soccer. I'll tell you what it means. It means a decent team went up against a really good team, played poorly, and got spanked. That's all. It wouldn't be news if it hadn't been for the 2002 near-miracle, where a similarly decent team had both luck and pluck, and nearly fought their way to the semifinals. But as we've repeated at length on this site, when you overachieve one year, you underachieve the next, and it's the USA's turn.

    Again, it wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't for the American penchant for, to put it delicately, over-inflating ourselves. We really believe we're the only team in town. I usually avoid USA television commentators like the plague, cholera, and psoriasis combined, but I was switching channels just before the game and wondered how the home folks were playing it. I got former national-teamer and cult hero Alexi Lalas assuring us that Kasey Keller was absolutely THE BEST KEEPER IN THE WORLD, and you could hear the capital letters as he spoke. I also watched the anthem--one anthem only, because the network showed the USA's but switched to a commercial during the Czech's. Outrageous, despicable, and utterly, utterly predictable. 0:3 is much better than we deserved.

    On the field it was just a bad day, where the USA strengths were nowhere to be found and the weaknesses showed up in spades. Landon Donovan, as is his wont, drifted. Brian McBride looked too old to compete at this level. DaMarcus Beasley, who had been invisible for the past six months or so, stayed that way. And so on. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. If the opponent is the Czech Republic, and they're in cutting-edge form, you lose badly.

    The tournament isn't over, although it may be very soon. Italy looked vulnerable at times against Ghana, and remember that they lost their middle game back in 2002. But the USA will have to present a completely new face. Maybe Beasley on the bench, Eddie Johnson starting at striker, Donovan more centrally placed. That's on the field, of course. Off the field, it's hopeless. A few days ago Johnson referred to the upcoming game as "war." Hey, Eddie, you want to know what war is, go to Iraq. And read the paper: war isn't as much fun as it used to be.

    As for Costa Rica, they don't even have an army, which is just as well, because six armored divisions wouldn't have been enough to beat Ecuador. The truth about the ticos this year is simple: they're not that good. They tried passive against Germany and lost, and they tried aggressive against Ecuador and lost. It's unfair to single out one player, but Walter Centeno, the vital man in midfield, clearly wasn't up to the task. Still. it wasn't his fault he had no support in the middle. If you want to attack, you don't play Danny Fonseca, a purely defensive midfielder. A solo playmaker has to be both inspired and precise, and Centeno was neither. Ronald Gómez, another crucial figure in attack, never really got going either. The team had plenty of possession, and tried everything they knew. They just didn't have the horses. Eventually their defensive weaknesses did them in.

    Like the USA, it's not really a surprise. Lesser footballing countries like Costa Rica sometimes produce a great generation of players, but sooner or later they fade out, and there's no steady supply of replacements. The same thing happened to fellow eliminatees Poland, who were marvelous in 1974 through 1982, and haven't been competitive since. Big fish like Germany, even medium fish like Ecuador, swallow little fish like Costa Rica, and never more so than in 2006.

    Which brings us to the biggest little fish of them all, Trinidad & Tobago. For 82 minutes they had the world in thrall again, as an incompetent England flapped and floundered. Leo Beenhakker had bamboozled the opposition once more, starting two strikers and throwing on the speedy Cornell Glen as a late substitution. And if it hadn't been for a brilliant John Terry off-the-line clearance, the Warriors might actually have been ahead, ready to register the biggest World Cup upset since 1950.

    But let's get real. Although Don Leo has done a spectacular job with T&T, turning a ragtag bunch of individualists into a calm, measured, cohesive side, they're not quite a world power. Yes, they held off England with courage and aplomb, but it helped that Peter Crouch and Frank Lampard missed an ocean liner worth of chances. Yes, they started two strikers, but when England had the ball Stern John and Kenwyne Jones retreated to midfield like everyone else. This wasn't a revelation, it was a rearguard action. It almost worked, because T&T have grown into a special kind of team, a team that never seems to make a false step. But in the end it didn't work, because England are still a cut above.

    So now for game three of the great adventure. T&T are still in the running; if they beat Paraguay, and Sweden lose to England, goal difference will tell the tale. It's not at all impossible. Paraguay are dispirited, and the Warriors are in top form with nothing to lose. But in case you haven't noticed, they've played 180 minutes without scoring, without even mounting a sustained assault on goal. It's time to loose the reins a bit. First, move Dwight Yorke upfield (and tell him this is a family program, for crying out loud). Second, give Russell Latapy a chance. Maybe the Little Magician can't go 90 anymore, but he can still give you the little something extra in attack. Go for the gold--if you pull it off, and there's no reason why you can't, it'll be the one great story of the 2006 World Cup.

    I hope they do it, because otherwise it's business as usual. This is being written before Mexico play Angola; if form continues to hold, the Tri will win, and CONCACAF will at least have one team in the second round. Sort of like 1998, 1986, 1970, 1934. And 1930 too, when the USA topped their group but Mexico finished last in theirs. The more things change...



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