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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Black and White and Red All Over



    And so for the sixth consecutive tournament, Africa has only one team in the second round. Someone new emerges from the pack, a few teams fall short, a few disappoint. You can set your watch by it.

    This year, though, the result was partly unjust. As we've said at least 356 times, Côte D'Ivoire would have advanced with a competent draw. I don't want to hear about their defensive flaws, their midfield uncertainties, their inexperience at top level. You try getting a result against Argentina and the Netherlands. Put them in Togo's group, or Angola's, or Tunisia's, and they qualify, period.

    On the other hand, this was yet another disheartening year for Africa overall. In 1998 and 2002 their group stage balance was minus 3; this year it was minus 6, their worst ever. To some pundits this was no surprise: after so many big teams were knocked out in the qualifiers, a lot of people predicted disaster. Four debutantes are wonderful, but if your best teams aren't there, you pay the price. Winner-take-all in the qualifiers means loser-go-home at the World Cup.

    I don't buy it. It's true that Africa's numbers were poor, but then so were those of Asia (-6) and CONCACAF (-7). With the tournament in Europe, this was a European year, and remember Africa goes five-deep, while the other confederations go only four. As for the supposed weaklings, Angola did okay, better than Tunisia--in fact, better than Tunisia did in 1998 and 2002 as well. Togo obviously was a debacle, but you can't blame the qualifying system for that. When your coach and federation implode, you're just not going to be competitive. Remember how Cameroon collapsed in 1994?

    Under the circumstances, I'd say Africa performed OK. The top teams played well, the bottom team didn't, the middle teams were decent. On the whole they were unlucky with the officiating: Ghana got the breaks, but Côte D'Ivoire, Togo, and Tunisia were all denied clear penalties that might have changed the result. Tunisia lost a game on a bogus penalty for the other side. But we have to admit Africa didn't do anything to earn an extra berth. At the same time, they showed again that their best teams are competitive with Europe and South America. In four years they'll finally get the chance on their home continent. I'm looking forward to South Africa 2010.

(At this point I have to brag a little. Usually my predictions--and not just for the World Cup--are dreadful. But as PWC's Africa reporter, I predicted the exact finishing places for all five African teams. Bravo for me! (Just don't check out my prediction for Serbia & Montenegro.))

    As for individual teams, we've already said too much about Côte D'Ivoire. But if you want to know their quality, look what they did against the Serbs. Henri Michel started a second-string keeper and a second-string central defense, and they gave up two early goals. Whereupon the Elephants dominated the rest of the way, and became only the second team in World Cup history to come from two goals down to win a group stage game. This is a team with class, a team that played well, and if they didn't get the results they hoped for, you can't blame anyone except FIFA.

    The flip side was Togo, a team with potential that became a circus act. No need to go over the craziness; it's embarrassing enough. On the field they were a fascinating study. With an old-style coach, the sartorially unbalanced Otto Pfister, they looked like an old-style African team: athletic but tactically naïve. At times they caressed the ball beautifully, but they weren't always sure what to do with it. "When in doubt, cross," seemed to be their motto, and they were in doubt all too often. Only against Switzerland did they function effectively as a team, and even then only in spots.

    To make up for the lack of a playmaker, Pfister moved striker Emmanuel Adebayor back to midfield, where he could get the ball and make things happen. An intriguing idea, but it didn't work. Adebayor is a great talent, but his dribbling skills aren't quite world-class, and he was largely wasted. He earned a PK against Switzerland, unfortunately uncalled. Otherwise, he looked more dangerous the few times he was up front.

    As for the rest of the team, striker Kader Coubadja (also known as Mohammed Kader) was a pleasant surprise, always active, scoring a fine goal. The defense showed its weaknesses, although tall man Daré Nibombe on the whole played well. But midfield was a disappointment, with Moustapha Salifou, Cherif-Touré Mamam, and Thomas Dossevi all failing to create. You'd like to say Togo put up a brave fight, and I suppose they did. (Anyone who takes the field for a coach dressed like Pfister is brave.) But in the weakest group in the tournament, they got blanked, and deservedly so. Somewhere Stephen Keshi is smiling.

    Now to Angola. Boy, do I love the Palancas Negras. A working-class team with absolutely no glamour whatsoever, they just go out and play. They're not very good, but they're not too bad either, and they fight for every inch of ground. After conceding a goal only five minutes in, they could easily have collapsed, but they regrouped, played to their strengths, and didn't give up another one until their last 15 minutes. Of course, they only scored one themselves, but they picked up two draws along the way, and for a few brief moments on the final day they were in the hunt for second place. Just ask Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia, and Japan if they'd be happy with that.

    We've already talked about Angola's tactics in previous articles. Against Iran, Gonçalves finally loosened up a bit, letting Mateus play more like a real striker. To be honest, it didn't make much difference. The Palancas just don't have the creativity. Akwá, the famous veteran, was a mild disappointment. He didn't get much help in attack, but he didn't produce the something special his fans had hoped for. Zé Kalanga was an interesting study, a winger without speed but with good technique, and it was his cross that Flavio converted for the only goal. Keeper João Ricardo was a Wild West show, with a great save one moment and a horribly misjudged cross the next. On defense Kali was a standout in the middle.

    I suspect the Palancas won't be back in the tournament for a while. And perhaps we prefer our teams with a little more flair. But there's also a place at the World Cup for the lunchbucket crew, modestly talented guys who put in a full day's work without any fuss. Maybe we can reserve one slot each year for that kind of team. Call it the Angola berth--and be grateful for it.

    But don't be grateful for Tunisia. For the third straight cup they brought in a team without imagination, and for the third straight time they earned one draw, two losses, and no fans. They were unlucky to have Francileudo dos Santos out with an injury, and triply unlucky to get blind man Carlos Amarilla as the ref against Ukraine, but over 270 minutes in a perfectly manageable group they did nothing whatsoever to merit qualification.

    In fact, as we've elsewhere suggested, their fate was sealed before the games even began. Roger Lemerre brought in a squad bereft of creativity, and that's the way they played. Only Ziad Jaziri pulled his weight in attack, but that's because he was the only one who could. Angola just didn't have the horses; Tunisia did, and left them in the barn.

    Even so, you might have expected more. Against Spain it made sense to play one striker and go for the 1:0 victory. They came very close to pulling it off, too, with a heroic performance from Radhi Jaidi in defense. But against Ukraine, when you absolutely need a win, you don't use the same tactics. Lemerre again started Jaziri alone up front, and against an opponent that sleepwalked through the game, got nothing, nothing even close.

    It got worse after Jaziri was sent off for his second yellow just before halftime. The team was showing a little spirit and a little competence, and had played Ukraine at least even. Surely now was the time to gamble, to hit the opposition hard when they least expected it. But Lemerre left Hamed Namouchi, not even a striker, alone up front, and it was only in the 79th minute--the 79th minute!--that he brought in two attackers. Oh yes, everyone saw the handball except Amarilla, and everyone saw Shevchenko trip over his own feet except Amarilla (why didn't the linesman, who must have had a clear view, correct him?), but everyone also saw a Tunisia without ambition. For much of the game Lemerre looked frozen, too scared even to choose a pair of socks, much less lead his team on the biggest of stages. I'm a big Africa supporter, but good riddance.

    There's one team we're very glad still to have with us, though. As the riddle goes, "What's black and white and red all over?" The old answer was "a newspaper" (with the pun red = read), but now it's Ghana. Whether in their traditional black and white, or in red from top to bottom, the Black Stars are one of the great stories of Germany 2006. Dropped into one of the toughest of groups, they won through with style and grit, and left absolutely no doubt they belong among the final sixteen.

    What makes Ghana so special? Simple: they know how to attack and they know how to defend. Against Italy and the Czech Republic they let loose, going forward without hesitation, and created a hatful of chances. Against the USA they concentrated on shutting down the opposition, and the Yanks got exactly one chance from open play.

    Let's also talk character. Against teams with far more World Cup experience, they never once looked uncertain. OK, Sammy Kuffour made that one mistake against Italy, but that was at the end, when everyone was tired and Ghana were throwing everything into attack. A bit more troubling was the dark side they showed against the USA, with hard fouls and lots of unnecessary playacting. (Razak Pimpong has already been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars.) But name me another debutante at this tournament who so clearly knew how to win. Think about how they responded after the loss to Italy, which might have been a crusher. This is a poised outfit.

    Of course, attack, defense, and character may not be enough against Brazil. But we should be in for one of the great matches of the tournament. Actually, we've been waiting for this one for quite some time. Brazil have played a number of African teams over the years, but never in the knockout rounds. In 1998 the whole world was anticipating a Brazil-Nigeria quarterfinal, whereupon Denmark thrashed the Super Eagles and ruined our fun. Now, finally, we've got the best of both worlds.

    Can Ghana win? Well, why not? Brazil has been off and on, and weren't severely tested in the group stage. Having faced Italy and the Czech Republic, the Black Stars should have no fear. Obviously they'll miss Michael Essien, out with two yellows, who's had a fantastic tournament so far. But the Ghanaians all play excellent defense. I'm guessing that Eric Addo will play in Essien's spot. The Chelsea man's attacking contribution will be harder to replace. Asamoah Gyan has looked dangerous but is inconsistent, and Matthew Amoah is off form. A lot of coaches would go conservative here and play a 4-5-1. If so, Sulley Muntari might drop back and join Addo in a double pivot, with Haminu Dramani, Stephen Appiah, and either Pimpong or Derek Boateng in midfield. Another possibility is to move right back John Paintsil into a defensive midfield role.

    I'd say there are two keys to Ghana's success, and it doesn't take a genius to see them. The first is finishing. Brazil plays an open game, and that means Ghana should get a few chances. Asamoah Gyan took his first chance very nicely against the Czechs, and we'll need to see more of that. The second is goalkeeping. Richard Kingston (unless it's Kingson, as it says on his jersey) has been brilliant on his line, but bloodcurdling on crosses. If he keeps up the Dracula act, eventually he'll be punished.

    My prediction? Nah, you won't catch me that easy--after getting the five African teams right, I'm permanently retired. But I do think it'll be a competitive, exciting match. When Brazil is eliminated, the world (outside Argentina) usually mourns. But if it happens this time, there'll be a most popular replacement, and even Argentina may have something to fear. Good luck to both teams!



 

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