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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Clash Of The Not-Quite-Titans
In honor of the World Cup's first CONCACAF-Africa clash in 28 years (and in honor of the second, coming up Thursday), we'll consider the confederations together today. Mexico-Angola was the landmark battle, the first since Tunisia defeated Mexico 3:1 back in 1978. And if ever a game went almost exactly as predicted, it was Mexico-Angola. Almost, because Mexico didn't win. But everything else went according to form. The Palancas played only one striker, scrapped and bit, and never came close to scoring. Mexico, a finesse team that makes heavy weather against the Angolas of the world, never got going. The star of the show was the clubless wonder, João Ricardo, who occasionally looked lost on crosses but made some super stops to deny the Tri. Angola went home happy, Mexico didn't.
The game again showed up Mexico's most important weakness, the lack of midfield creativity. Sinha, who came on to such great effect against Iran, did nothing against Angola, and was eventually replaced by Jesus Arellano, who did less. There are no other options. Much was made of the absence of Jared Borgetti, although the way the game went I don't think he'd have made a difference. (Possibly on set pieces.) But the other strikers hardly distinguished themselves. Guillermo Franco continues to flounder, and even first-game hero Omar Bravo flubbed his easy chance. Right now this looks nothing like the Mexico team that was so effective in the Confederations Cup.
On the other hand, Portugal should be an opponent more to their liking. Felipão's boys, clever and technical, are a lot like Mexico themselves, and may not be at top speed, having already qualified for the second round. In any case, the Tri need only a draw to join them. How the match will turn out is anyone's guess: that's because both teams really want to avoid Argentina, but the Group C decider won't be played until later in the day. So neither team will know whether they need to win, and we could see anything from a waltz to a duel to the death.
As for Angola, players, fans, and press were ecstatic. It was Trinidad & Tobago all over again, a heavy underdog holding on with 10 men for a scoreless draw. With the Palancas, what you see is what you get, and what you get isn't terribly thrilling--but it's very tough to beat. Next to João Ricardo the man of the match was centerback Kali, not exactly pacy but vigorous and smart. The midfield did its usual harassment act. With gritty stuff like that, you can see how they overcame a much-more-fancied Nigeria, and how in 10 qualifiers they scored only 12 goals and allowed only 6.
But now it's time for the big game, the one Angola has felt all along they can win. Iran are skillful but a bit fragile, and that's meat for the Palancas. Unfortunately, they'll be missing André Makanga, their ultra-hard defensive midfielder, who was red-carded against Mexico. Miloy is a decent replacement, but not as physical. And one more time: let's hope Gonçalves plays a second striker. Akwá's been lobbying for a partner all along, and you can hardly blame him. Zero goals in two games should be more than enough for anyone to change tactics.
Mexico-Angola was on the whole a rather low-key encounter. Ghana-USA, coming up Thursday, should be a spectacle. As for USA-Italy, that was a spectacle too--but then so was the Hindenburg. The USA displayed their lack of skills, Italy displayed their world-class foul-exaggeration techniques, the ref threw cards in all directions (and then stopped calling fouls altogether somewhere around the 60th minute), and the linesmen thought everything in blue was offside no matter where on the pitch. For all the kvetching on both sides, a draw was the just result.
The game showed one of the central truths about the USA: they play best when least expected to. Up a man, they had no idea what to do; down a man, they were the better side most of the way. Against the Czechs, with the nation confident of the upset, they got creamed; against Italy, with pessimism rampant, they nearly stole a win.
Either way, this hasn't been an impressive World Cup for the Yanks. The attack looks sluggish, with Donovan improving but still to find his form, and everyone else on and off. Brian McBride isn't the player he was four years ago: in 2002 he would have buried that second-half chance. (Although he bleeds as well as ever.) Claudio Reyna has been excellent--it's a great swan song for the classiest player in USA history--but he's not an attacker. With Pablo Mastroeni suspended against Ghana, we might see John O'Brien in the middle, and that'll add a bit of punch. I also hope Eddie Johnson gets a chance to start; he's no sure thing, but McBride is a known quantity, and right now the quantity isn't large enough.
And speaking of large, how about those Black Stars? They did Africa proud--they did the world proud--in the thorough demolition of one of Europe's most respected sides. Dujkovic played it a bit more conservative than against Italy, keeping Michael Essien as anchor and putting Otto Addo on the right, but there was no holding back their attacking verve. They were lucky to find the Czechs without their top two strikers, but this was Ghana's night from the opening whistle. And it wasn't just in attack, either. Illiasu Shilla, replacing the injured Sammy Kuffour at centerback, was a revelation, quick and powerful. Essien played a Chelsea-class two-way game. If Petr Cech doesn't make about fifty Chelsea saves of his own, Ghana wins in a walk.
So finally Africa has a W on the board. Had the draw been more charitable, it would have come a lot sooner. But caution is in order. It was a glorious victory, but in the second half the bad old lack of control began to surface. Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan both got stupid yellow cards, and will be badly missed against the USA. (Right now Gyan is Ghana's only decent striker.) Moreover, in the final minutes, even with Cech doing his Baryshnikov impression, Ghana could have run up the score if they'd been able to stay onside. That could prove very costly if it goes to goal difference against the Czechs. And if the team has similar lapses against the USA, the Yanks are disciplined and experienced enough to take advantage. The race is not always to the skilled.
You can probably do the math yourself: if Ghana win, they're in; if the USA win, they almost certainly need Italy to beat the Czech Republic; a draw eliminates the USA, and Ghana goes to goal difference unless Italy beats the Czechs. Both the USA and Ghana will be pulling for Italy to win, and although Italy only needs a draw to qualify, they can't let up, because they may need a victory to avoid Brazil. So if you've got two television sets, put them side by side. And clone yourself.
Two other African teams played in the last few days. Tunisia, upset winner in that historic 1978 matchup, found themselves in the unaccustomed role of favorite--and promptly screwed it up. As we've said at length, they're a stolid, technically sound, physical side, and that should have been enough against the quick but modest Saudis. After Ziad Jaziri's acrobatic strike there looked like only one winner. But the Carthage Eagles don't have a knockout punch in their arsenal (it didn't help that Francileudo dos Santos was injured), and they seemed not to know what to do with the lead. In the end the Saudi quickness almost proved fatal, and only a last-minute bit of inspiration by Jaziri set up Radhi Jaidi for the barely-deserved equalizer.
So by far the best chance for a win has gone begging, and Tunisia will now have to beat someone from Europe if they want to advance. Santos may not be able to play at all, and although Jaziri was in fine form in the opener, he'll be facing much tougher opposition now. Plus, he has no partner. Youngster Yassine Chikhaoui showed some potential; he's big and technical, like Morocco striker Marouane Chammakh. But he's not likely to make a difference against the big boys. Unfortunately Roger Lemerre has ruthlessly pared most of the other imaginative attackers from his side, and it's a measure of Tunisia's limits that the man who came in after the Saudi equalizer was Kais Ghodbane, old, slow, and uninspiring. Knowing Lemerre, he'll continue to keep it as conservative as possible. But I'd like to see Chaouki Ben Saada given a chance, as striker or attacking midfielder. He's unpredictable, but right now everyone else on the side, Jaziri excepted, is as colorless as carbon monoxide. Without some inspiration somewhere, it'll be yet another early exit, and in a group like this there are no excuses.
And speaking of excuses, there's Côte D'Ivoire, already easy winners of the Unluckiest Team In The Tournament award. Good teams have made early exits before, but has a team ever played so well and been dismissed so summarily? The Elephants' few mistakes were pitilessly punished by two of the best teams in the world, and all their superb efforts to equalize fell short. It was worse against the Netherlands, because they legitimately earned a late penalty when Emmanuel Eboué was taken down in the box. The replay was absolutely definitive--but in this tournament you need to show the bullet holes before they'll call a PK. Even with a subpar Didier Drogba, Côte D'Ivoire were no worse than equal with Van Basten's boys. And with Drogba in form, they were Argentina's match as well.
There's no one really to blame, except the draw. But Henri Michel never settled on a stable lineup, and in the end it may have cost them. After a strong performance with a 4-4-1-1 against Argentina, he switched to a 4-3-3, with N'Dri Romaric in an unfamiliar central midfield role, and the Koné boys as strikers. At an individual level it worked OK: Baky Koné was outstanding, and although Arouna Koné had an off day (and should have been substituted earlier), Romaric was a pleasant surprise. But the constant switching can't have helped team stability, and in the Group Of Death2 there was no margin for error. But make no mistake: three to five teams that advance to the Round of 16 will be notably weaker than Côte D'Ivoire. I'm sure the Elephants would have been more than happy to play a CONCACAF team or two.
Anyway, the current standings: Africa 1 win, 2 draws, 5 losses; CONCACAF 1 win, 3 draws, 4 losses. Not much to choose from. In fact, if you start from 1978, the year they first met, and count the 7+ World Cups combined, the two confederations have the same overall group stage score. Unfortunately, that score is minus 14. A disgrace? Not really. We of the lesser confederations know that progress comes slowly, if at all. We can complain about the occasional Côte D'Ivoire injustice, but can also salute the teams that have beaten the odds. Four years ago it was Senegal, South Korea, and the USA; now, for the moment, it's Ghana. When the Yanks meet the Black Stars on Thursday, one or both will be eliminated, but they've made their mark. Why not be proud?
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