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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The Quarterfinals



    Since the tournament expanded in 1982, the quarterfinals have been the traditional place for classic World Cup matches. By the Final everyone's exhausted, and the pressure in the semifinals is too great. But in the quarters the teams have just enough momentum and just enough energy, and sometimes the dice come up sevens. In 1982 there was the de facto quarterfinal Brazil-Italy; in 1986 Brazil-France; in 1990 England-Cameroon; in 1994 Brazil-Holland; in 1998 Holland-Argentina (and Brazil-Denmark wasn't too bad either). The matchups for this year's quarters certainly boded well for another classic.

    Alas, we didn't get one, at least not by purist standards. But Portugal-England was a gripping contest, one I wouldn't trade for many more conventional "great" games. And as this World Cup increasingly devolves into sterility and mediocrity (you know you're in trouble when Italy score as many goals as all seven other teams combined), we should be glad of the kind of drama England and Portugal produced. There are only three meaningful games left, and we'll be lucky indeed if we get another one as intense and entertaining. But as a World Cup fan, of course, I've perfected the art of hopeless optimism. So who knows? At least we have a chance now that Brazil's gone (ooh, that was dark).

Some thoughts on this weekend's action:


Germany-Argentina


    The most anticipated of the quarterfinals, it inevitably failed to live up to expectations. In fact, I'm not even sure they were actually playing during the first 45 minutes. I remember Michael Ballack missing a good opportunity on a header, and not much else.

    In fact, as Pierre Boisrond pointed out, Argentina completely contained the so-far-uncontainable German attack. You would never have known these guys had scored 10 goals, or even 5. But Argentina were tentative, unable to combine effectively in the attacking third. Pekerman has been rightly been taken to task by Pierre, Mike Gibbons, and the rest of the waking world for his second-half substitutions; I thought the initial choice of Tevez over Saviola was equally mistaken. Tevez is young, a bit immature, and an individualist on the field. Saviola has more experience, and combines better with his teammates. Whereas Tevez beats more people one-on-one, Saviola pulls the defense apart more efficiently, and that's where Germany can be taken. Tevez was bouncing and twisting for 120 minutes, but didn't get a lot accomplished.

    It was a good second half, though, although Argentina fans couldn't have enjoyed it much. Ayala's goal opened things up, David Odonkor brought some urgency to the proceedings (but does he need to learn to cross, or what?), and Air Klose's goal was nicely taken. Extra time was a bit hopeless, but at this level that's par for the course.

    Man of the match was without question Torsten Frings. In the least glamorous of football's positions, defensive midfield, he delivered the kind of master class that from a striker would produce 84-point headlines. He harried, tackled, bruised a bit where necessary, and slowed down every Argentine attack that swam into his ken. It was as oustanding an individual effort as this World Cup has seen. (FIFA's official man of the match selections have been bizarre all along, and none more so when they picked Ballack here. Didn't they notice how many of his touches were more like fumbles? Kicker magazine rated Ballack a decent 3, but gave Frings the top mark of 1.)

    The penalties? I suppose it's a bit churlish to point out that Lehmann left his line early on the winning save against Cambiasso. Whoever was up fifth for Germany would have drilled it anyway. Anyway, for an old-timer like me, the PK's were a godsend. My wife, who has only recently become interested in the game, was supporting Germany. When extra time ended, she was nervous:

"I don't like penalties, they're so chancy," she said.
"Don't worry," I said, "Germany will win."
She looked amazed. "How can you be so sure?"

    I gave her my most knowing look, paused just the right amount of time to project thoughtfulness and sagacity, and smiled calmly. "Just watch," I said. Life is good sometimes.


Italy-Ukraine


    If there are any Ukrainian readers out there, I apologize for offending--but never in the history of the World Cup had a team done less in reaching the quarterfinals. They had played four games and scored legitimately against only one team, and that was Saudi Arabia. Blank against Spain, a laughable PK when Shevchenko tripped himself against Tunisia, and nothing in 120 minutes against Switzerland. They were routed in their only game against a quality opponent. When the draw came out, and the two weakest groups (G and H) were yoked together, you knew someone would be around longer than they deserved, and it turned out to be Blokhin's men.

    Give them credit, though--over the years, lots of teams have been smothered after an early Italian goal. Instead, Ukraine really took it to Italy early in the second half, and were a bit unlucky not to equalize. Buffon's save on Gusev was one of the best of the tournament, and they hit the woodwork twice. In the end, though, Italy's quality was too much. Shevchenko never really broke loose, not in any of their games; I wonder if he was fully recovered from his injury.

    As for Italy, they showed a lot more than I expected, and this may be another one of those late-blooming azzurri teams, la 1982. After the man-the-ramparts routine against the Czech Republic and Australia, it seemed as if the new-look Italy was the same as the old. But the old Italy never would have attacked in the second half like that, and certainly wouldn't have raked in two more goals. Dare we hope for more of the same against Germany?

    Before the tournament World Soccer magazine picked Gianluca Zambrotta as one of the three key men on the side--I guess someone must have got an advance tape of Italy-Ukraine. He's been a class act for years now, and devoured the opposition Friday night. The goal, only his second for Italy, was a bit lucky, but there was no luck about the way he set up Toni for the third, or the way he enforced the law on his wing. His matchup against Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phillip Lahm should be one of the best of the upcoming match.


Portugal-England


    Well, that was fun, wasn't it? Here in the USA the most frequent criticism of soccer is that it's too low-scoring. But the very point of the game is that it's hard to score. And although we wouldn't want all our games 0:0 for 120 minutes, if you didn't get excited by this one then you just don't understand competitive sports.

    In fact, if this game had a blemish, it was that it was just too darned predictable. Questionable tactics for England, a controversial sending-off for England, a loss on penalties for England--who'da thought it?

    I never really understood the Rooney-alone-up-front business. That's just not his role. He's best when he gets the ball in deeper positions and can run at the opposition, and when he has a centerforward to team up with. Portugal only plays one striker too, but Pauleta (was he even in the same hemisphere as the rest of his team tonight?) is a centerforward himself and has two genuine wingers that support him in attack. Seeing the way Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon played off each other, you'd think the big guy would have been useful from the start.

    As for the red card, Rooney certainly did the Shrek Stomp on Ricardo Carvalho (a ManU-Chelsea thing?), and from my angle it looked intentional. The English fans have made much of Cristiano Ronaldo's attempt to get Rooney sent off, but if he saw, or thought he saw, Rooney shredding his teammate's groin, what else was he going to do?

    The penalty outcome was inevitable, most especially the miss by Frank Lampard, who may have had the worst tournament of all 736 players in Germany. Like Jens Lehmann, Ricardo left early on his saves, but you have to admire the guy for guessing right an amazing four out of four times, and very nearly saving them all. Just call him the Portuguese Sergio Goycochea.

    It's hard to say a result was just in this kind of match, but through five games Portugal showed somewhat more than England, and are more likely to produce a lively semifinal against France. Besides, this is just the kind of loss England fans love: the British bulldog spirit, a magnificent effort against the odds, showing fortitude in adversity. (Plus the chance to blame an Argentine.) I suspect, though, that just once they'd be willing to trade the pride of losing well for the joy of winning poorly.


France-Brazil


    I wish it were 1986. Not only would I be 20 years younger, but a France-Brazil match would produce breathtaking attacking football, marvelous skill, compelling drama. Unfortunately, it's still 2006, and tonight we got a lot of thudding about, an occasional moment of inspiration, and deep deep disappointment.

    To look at it another way, we didn't even get France-Brazil. More like England-Italy: one team dogged and determined, scoring its only goal on a set piece, the other playing defense until they fell behind, then discovering they had forgotten how to score.

    What can Carlos Alberto Parreira possibly say after this one? For days now we've been waiting for the real Brazil to emerge, only to find out they were never in the building to begin with. Never has a team of such potential attacking talent been so thoroughly handicapped by its own negativity. It's really hard to find words. Were we all somehow misled? Were Brazil just not any good to begin with?

    I can't believe it. Yes, Roberto Carlos and Cafu were too old (and Parreira should have had Cicinho in from the start), and Ronaldo was past his best. But Ronaldinho and Kaka are two of the greatest talents of their generation--Ronaldinho is one of the greatest of any generation--and except for isolated moments, neither looked like he had a clue how to produce a goal. After they went behind, Brazil not once looked likely to get the equalizer. It was a disgrace.

    That it should be France that did them in was both appropriate and shocking. The last three times Brazil have been eliminated by a European team, it's been France (1986), France (1998), and France (2006). But for months this French team looked like they'd have trouble eliminating Angola. With some players (Zidane, Thuram, Makelele, Vieira) too old, some players (Malouda, Sagnol, Barthez, Abidal) too ordinary, and one player (Henry) too unbelievably offside every time he got near the ball, they were so obviously the weakest of the top seeds that a semifinal place was unthinkable.

    To be honest, it still is, but they got there on merit. They were the better team against Spain and the better team against Brazil. No matter what the headlines say, Zidane isn't playing the way he did eight years ago, but his energy and brief flashes of genius are still driving the team. Set piece or no, Henry's goal against Brazil was a beaut. The rest of the side just dug in and did its job.

    But the real story is Brazil, the most colossal failure in recent World Cup memory. Worse than Argentina, who went out in the first round in 2002? Worse than France, who went out that same year without scoring a goal? Oh yes, much worse. In 2002, France and Argentina lost some football games; in 2006, Brazil lost their soul. I've been watching Brazil at the World Cup with joy and wonder since 1970, and tonight, for the first time in 36 years, I was glad they were beaten.



PS:

It's amazing how stupid you can be when you're convinced you're right. A few days ago I posted a column called "The Unstoppable Hernan Crespo," in which I ranted against FIFA for giving Crespo credit for two goals (against Serbia & Montenegro and Mexico) that he didn't deserve. It was a pretty good rant, actually, full of superb passion and indignation.

But it's off the site now, because it was wrong, at least partly. Reader Zhang Yizhou from China (via Dublin) sent me picture evidence that suggested Crespo in fact did score the goal against the Serbs, and, looking at the tapes again, I just plain blew it. In fact, although Dejan Stankovic sticks out his foot to try to deflect the ball, the ball passes just behind his foot, and Crespo gets the touch that sends it in. As for the Mexico goal, I've looked at it 100 more times now, and I'm still convinced Crespo didn't score it. But that's no excuse for the mistake on the Serbia & Montenegro goal.

The lesson? Don't be stupid. But also: when people all over the world cooperate, they can get things right, and everyone learns and benefits. The need for accurate football records is a real one, and there are plenty of fans out there who care about the truth. And keep those e-mails coming--this particular writer still has a lot of stupid in him.




 

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