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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Somewhat Up For the Cup
It’s going to be a fantastic summer of international football. If you like qualifiers, we’ve got both the European Championship and the African Nations Cup. And if you like full-dress tournaments, there’s a bonanza: not one but two FIFA Youth Championships, plus the Asian Championship, the Copa America, and the Women’s World Cup.
Oh, and the Gold Cup, too. You remember the Gold Cup--the CONCACAF “championship,” known primarily for its guest teams, bizarre draws and formats, and absurd schedules? Well, they’re gonna play that one too, and even though I'm a CONCACAFer myself, in any list of tournaments it comes last and definitely least. No surprise, the 2007 version has the usual foolishness. We’ve got 12 teams, with a group stage that eliminates only 4 of them; an unbalanced draw, with Group C easily the toughest; a dumb schedule, where the Group B teams will play their first two games less than 48 hours apart before flying all the way across the country to play three days later. And topping it all, the man who gives away the trophy is still Jack Warner, CONCACAF’s answer to Al Capone.
But believe it or not, this year the Gold Cup may be sort of worth watching. Look at the list of participants: Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago, USA. That’s right, folks, for the first time in 14 years, all the participants in the CONCACAF championship will be from CONCACAF. No semifinals between Peru and Colombia, no outsiders to eliminate the USA and Mexico. Kudos to the confederation? More likely, with all the international action this summer, they just couldn’t get any decent teams to show up. Even Warner must have figured that Solomon Islands wouldn't be much of a draw.
So it looks like we’ll have a real CONCACAF championship for once. And even better, it looks as if both the USA and Mexico will really try to win it. They haven't met in the championship game since 1998, but that's because when they don't send the A squads, and even sometimes when they do, they get knocked out by Brazil or Colombia or somebody. Against the rest of CONCACAF, the Gold Cup numbers are frightening: the USA and Mexico have won 46, drawn 5, and lost only 1 (Mexico vs. Canada, 2000). And we can expect more this year. True, both teams are also going to play in the Copa America, which starts two days after the final. But the USA, under new coach Bob Bradley, have already said the Gold Cup is their first priority. As for Mexico, they've named a full-strength squad, and are even putting Rafa Márquez on the list, hoping the Barcelona man will be ready to play in time for the semifinals. Hugo Sánchez doesn’t like losing, especially to the USA, so the Tri will be fully motivated. If someone upsets the Big Two, it'll be a genuine upset, not a throwaway.
After a World Cup year everyone more or less starts afresh (and given how CONCACAF performed in Germany, a fresh start is most definitely called for). So we won't try for a full preview of the squads, just a brief rundown of issues in each camp. We'll be here with regular articles during the tournament, and as things progress you'll get all the details.
(Costa Rica, Canada, Haiti, Guadeloupe)
The opening match of the tournament is between those great traditional rivals, Costa Rica and Canada. You laugh, but somehow the teams have been placed in the same group four out of the last five tournaments. (We say “placed” instead of “drawn,” since everyone knows the Gold Cup doesn’t do a blind draw.) Last time Costa Rica won 1:0 on a dreadful PK call by everyone’s least favorite CONCACAF referee, Peter Prendergast.
Still, the match should be a good one, with both teams in transition. Costa Rica, now coached by 1990 World Cup hero Hernán Medford, won the recent UNCAF tourney, but have question marks everywhere on the field. Ronald Gómez and Paulo Wanchope are gone, and centerforward Álvaro Saborio, who scored 14 goals in Switzerland this year, will be the key man up front. Speaking of attackers, it’s good to see Alonso “El Mariachi” Solís back in the squad. A wizard left-footed dribbler, he fell out of favor with Alexandre Guimaraes and didn’t make the World Cup squad. In midfield we’ll watch to see if Randall Azofeifa takes over the playmaker spot from Walter Centeno. Michael Barrantes is coming into his own as a defensive midfielder. But the back line has lost its longtime leader, Luís Marín. Can Victor Cordero or Michael Umaña fill the role?
For Canada the news is mixed. Right now soccer has a high profile, with the entry of Toronto FC into MLS, and the upcoming FIFA U-20s scheduled to begin on June 30. And for a moment the senior side appeared to have snared a top coach, René Simões, the guy who took Jamaica to the 1998 World Cup. But the federation inexplicably nixed the deal (The CSA acting unprofessionally? Who knew?), and the job fell to local man and U-20 coach Dale Mitchell, although Stephen Hart will be in charge for the Gold Cup. (And by the way, any baseball fan who sends in the trivia question to which “Dale Mitchell” is the answer gets mentioned in my next column.) As usual with Canada, some important names will be missing from the squad, like Tomasz Radzinski, Jim Brennan, and Kevin McKenna. But we’ll see Spurs man Paul Staltieri, probably at right back, and we’re looking forward to watching striker Rob Friend, who plays in Holland. Check to see where midfield all-rounder Atiba Hutchinson plays--the farther back, the more conservative the approach.
The big story in this group is Haiti, who appear to have come up with their best squad in years. In recent months they’ve won the Caribbean Cup, beating T&T in Port-of Spain in the final, and followed it up with friendly wins over Panama, El Salvador, and Honduras, plus a home draw with Chile. The man responsible is new coach Luis Armelio Garcia from Cuba, who turned the team around the moment he stepped in. The side is in flux, with several new recruits in the pool, so it’s difficult to scout them. But Elphine Cadet and Alexandre Boucicaut should be the key men in attack, and captain Pierre-Richard Bruny is the veteran in central defense. Watch also to see if France-based defenders Jean-Jacques Pierre (Nantes) and Windsor Noncent (Sedan) make the lineup. And check out the festive fans in Miami, who will be putting on a show of their own.
The fourth side is Guadeloupe, making their first appearance at the Gold Cup. Like sister island Martinique, they’re an overseas department of France, and so ineligible for full FIFA membership. But they’ve been toiling in reasonably distinguished fashion in CONCACAF for 20 years now, and will get a well-deserved place at the main table. Information on the squad is a bit sketchy, although reports are that EPL defender David Sommeil (Sheffield United) will be in the side. France youth international defender Ronald Zubar (Marseille) was set to play, but now appears injured and out of the tournament. But look out for the incredible veteran Jocelyn Angloma, a mere 42 years old and still starting in midfield!
(USA, Guatemala, El Salvador, Trinidad & Tobago)
The Bruce Arena era is over, and the Jürgen Klinsmann era never got started, so Bob Bradley now has the contract and the hot seat. He’s off to a bold start, putting Tim Howard in goal ahead of Kasey Keller, but he’ll need more than boldness to beat Mexico. Landon Donovan scored possibly the team’s most brilliant ever hat trick in a friendly against Ecuador; I’m guessing he’ll play withdrawn forward, although attacking midfield is also a possibility. Can striker Eddie Johnson recapture his famous qualifying form, or will he be the next Clint Mathis? DaMarcus Beasley had a decent run with Manchester City, but still has lots to prove after his indifferent performance at the World Cup. Clint Dempsey is boss at right midfield; watch for youngsters Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley (the coach’s son) in the middle of the park. Oguchi Onyewu was the next big thing at centerback until he flopped with Newcastle; Group B shouldn’t test him too badly, but he’ll have to be in top form once the games start to matter.
Guatemala are longtime losers at the Gold Cup, having failed to win any of their last 14 (!) games. Coach Hernán Dario “El Bolillo” Gómez has the pedigree, having taken both Colombia and Ecuador to the World Cup, but will find the task a lot tougher in Central America. Freddy Thompson, their most reliable midfielder, is out injured. Still, the group is fairly easy, particularly given T&T’s troubles (see below), and if top man Carlos “El Pescadito” Ruiz is in form, they should break their duck. Note, though: without him at the UNCAF tournament, they scored only 3 goals in 5 games, which included matches against Nicaragua and Belize. Dwight Pezzarossi is his likely partner; amazingly, “El Tanque” has never played in the Gold Cup. Marvin Ávila is an exciting wing player and the defense, with newcomers Claudio Albizuris and Henry Medina making their mark, is solid, but Gómez desperately needs a playmaker.
As for El Salvador, they desperately need a team. It’s been much too long since they were competitive, and though they hosted the UNCAF tournament and got a ridiculously easy draw, they could do no better than fourth, brushed aside by Costa Rica in the semis and even losing to Guatemala in the third-place game. Juan José Gómez is a pretty good keeper, but there’s no punch at all in the lineup. If they have a man to watch, it’s Victor Merino Dubón, the diminutive playmaker, very good at moving the ball around the pitch.
If El Salvador need a team, Trinidad and Tobago need a federation. After the World Cup euphoria, you’d figure T&T football would move onward and upward. But there was one small problem: greed. The FA failed to give sufficient bonus money to the players. So the players threatened legal action--and were promptly blacklisted. The bottom line is that T&T will bring a grand total of one member from their World Cup squad, midfielder Densill Theobald. There are a few familiar names in the mix, like striker Errol McFarlane and midfielder Silvio Spann, but mostly the Soca Warriors will be trying to survive. (Although I assume Jack Warner figured a way to make money off the whole thing.)
(Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Cuba)
Two words: Hugo Sánchez. The former Real Madrid striker has coveted the Mexico job since birth, and now he’s got it. Of course, it carries a weight of responsibility, like about 50 tons worth, which he found out when he lost the initial friendly 0:2 at the USA. But since then they’ve scored victories against Venezuela, Paraguay, and Ecuador, and Sánchez is doing what he does best, getting his players to think like winners. He surprised no one by recalling Cuauhtémoc Blanco to the squad, or by dropping the two naturalized players, Sinha and Guillermo Franco. He’s sort of between a rock and a hard place with the Copa America right afterwards; Bob Bradley can afford to send a B team down south, but in Mexico you’re supposed to win everything. The side now has more players with European experience than ever before: Ricardo Osorio and Pavel Pardo helped take Stuttgart to the Bundesliga title, and Carlos Salcido did the same for PSV Eindhoven in Holland. In friendlies, the USA have Mexico’s number, but when Mexico try to win the Gold Cup, they win it, and have to be favorites here.
Panama have made a smooth transition from minnowhood to respectability. Alexandre Guimaraes, two-time Costa Rica World Cup coach, took over the team before the UNCAF tournament, and got them within a couple of minutes of the title before they conceded an equalizer and went down on penalty kicks. He has a raft of good strikers, including Roberto Brown, Ricardo Philips, and Portugal-based José Luís “El Pistolero” Garcés. Felipe Baloy is still the star in the back line. Midfield is the problem area; either Julio Medina III has retired from international play or just doesn’t get along with the coach, because he hasn’t featured lately. Alberto Blanco has good technique and the hardest long-range shot in the business, but can’t run the attack by himself.
Honduras are the region’s leading underachievers, but had a good Gold Cup in 2005, losing to the USA in the semis on two heartbreaking late goals. But it was back to disappointment in the UNCAF tourney, needing a playoff against Nicaragua even to qualify for the Gold Cup (they won it 9:1, which tells you how they can play when they want to). The big news is that for seemingly the zillionth time, David Suazo won’t play. The soon-to-be man from Milan picked up an injury playing for Cagliari, and so once more we’ll be deprived of seeing the best striker in CONCACAF. Look for Poland-based Carlo Costly and maybe veteran Carlos Pavón to start up front. There’s lots of talent in the lineup; among the important names are Ivan Guerrero at left back or midfield, Samuel Caballero at centerback, and Wilson Palacios in midfield. The press has given new coach Reinaldo Rueda mixed reviews, which for Honduras is actually pretty good.
Cuba’s chance has come and gone. For years they looked like they were ready to step up a level, and in 2004 came within one goal of putting Costa Rica out of the World Cup qualifiers. But at the recent Caribbean Cup they were surpassed by Haiti, and friendlies in South America have been disappointing. Some of the shine has even come off Lester Moré, their star striker, who scored in only one of five games at the Caribbean Cup. The inevitable truth: Cuba will stay ordinary until their players are allowed to go abroad and be good little capitalists.
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