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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Passing the Test

    In many countries you have to take prescribed courses to get your coaching license. Presumably these courses have some sort of final exam, where you're plunked down in a room with pencil, paper, and a mean-looking proctor glowering from the blackboard. So it's possible that some aspiring coach has at some tense moment in his life faced this delicate little question:

    Your team is at the World Cup for the first time, and in the second round you're matched against Brazil. Your team has never played Brazil in a competitive match, and the only time they played Brazil in a friendly, they lost by 6 goals. What tactics do you use?

    Now you or I would launch into a 20-page dissertation including diagrams of play, down-to-the-minute training schedules, and breakfast/lunch/dinner menus for the three days preceding the game. But Ratomir Dujkovic, coach of Ghana, faced that question in Dortmund last night, and he answered it in three words: go for broke.

    It was some sight. First of all, he started two strikers. Quaint, really--England doesn't even start two strikers against Ecuador these days. Then, he directed his team to press and go forward at every opportunity. He even played a high line on defense, daring Brazil--that's Brazil, not American Samoa--to beat the offside trap. Add it all up, and it's enough to get anyone certified, not as a coach, but as a lunatic.

    But in a tournament increasingly barren of invention and risk (Switzerland-Ukraine--the horror! the horror!), it was a fine madness. And a beautiful exhibition of sophisticated modern football, by the way. The fullbacks, especially John Paintsil on the right, came up in attack. The strikers, Asamoah Gyan and Matthew Amoah, made slanting runs, came back to create play, drifted out on the wing if necessary. Defensive midfielder Eric Addo, subbing for the suspended Michael Essien, pushed forward in the middle. The whole thing was run by playmaker Stephen Appiah, who along with Sulley Muntari kept rotating positions, switching the attack, finding open space. For most of the 90 minutes, Brazil, the number one team in the world and the prohibitive favorite for the World Cup, were pushed to the wall. As for Ronaldinho, the Player of the Millenium, he was forced to defend like the rest of them. If you hadn't known, you'd have said the guys in white were the four-time champions. When was the last time you saw Brazil relying on the counterattack? Even when Brazil got their first goal--even when they got their second--the Black Stars seemed unfazed.

    But, as we've known for some time now, Ghana lack striking power. Amoah in the first half, Gyan in the second, even late substitute Alex Tachie-Mensah missed chances. None were sitters, but all were makeable, the kind of chances that quality strikers convert. As luck would have it, the best chance of all fell to a centerback, John Mensah, who with a free header off a corner had the whole goal to shoot at, but hit Dida's legs. It would have been the equalizer. A few moments later Adriano got the second for Brazil, and although the game was by no means over, for a team without strikers the mountain grew exponentially steep.

    That second goal, as everyone in the universe besides the linesman saw, was offside. Ghanaian supporters were naturally pretty angry (as was Dujkovic, who got himself red-carded for dissent), and the inevitable conspiracy accusations arose. The refs are pro-Brazil, they're anti-Africa, you know the script.

    It's true that refereeing mistakes tend to favor the big teams--just ask Australia. African teams, outsiders all, are less likely to get the breaks than most. But in this game I didn't see the bias. The referee seemed to call it pretty even; most prominently he booked both Adriano and Gyan for diving in the area. The near-side linesman was letter-perfect, calling both teams onside and offside correctly all night. That far-side linesman wasn't biased, just incompetent: he missed a total of four calls in the first half, one of which, less than a minute in, denied Ronaldo a clear one-on-one with the keeper. True, the other three, including the goal, favored Brazil, but when you play the high line you're always at risk on such calls.

    In fact, Ghana had their share of refereeing luck earlier in the tournament, most obviously when they got a gift penalty against the USA. More importantly, Adriano's goal had little effect on the game. Ghana played the same way as before the goal, and so did Brazil. Their enterprise and skill were remarkable, and I wish I could say that Ghana deserved to win. But they didn't, because they didn't get it in the net. If you play an open game, you know you have to score a few to win. Even Essien wouldn't have helped; he's a fine player, but not a natural finisher.

    Was it a mistake? Should Dujkovic have played it safe, stuck with the team's natural defensive skills, marked closely, tried for the counterattack himself? No. You can't sit back against Brazil and expect to win. It was a good gamble. After all, Brazil only scored one legitimate goal in the first 83 minutes. If the strikers do their job, Ghana likely wins.

    So once again it's over for Africa. Like Senegal in 2002, Nigeria in 1998 and 1994, Cameroon in 1990, Morocco in 1986, Ghana hit the glass ceiling. But it should be obvious by now that Africa have teams capable of playing at the highest level. In 2010, they play at home, and if all goes well, they can finally break through. As for Ghana in 2006, they didn't go as far as Senegal or Cameroon, but considering the opposition they may have registered Africa's best performance ever. They scared Italy, thumped the Czech Republic and the USA, and made Brazil go defensive during a World Cup. I'd say they passed the test.



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