By Sherrie Li
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After seeing England's uninspired 1-1 tie with Sweden, my bet is on Nigeria to accompany Argentina out of the Group of Death into the next round. Given their team's youth -- average age 23.4 years -- the Nigerians performed extraordinarily well in a high-pressure situation and should seriously worry opponents at the next World Cup, to the extent that they're not already doing it at this one.
THERE'S NO DOUBT THAT NATIONALITY AT THE World Cup is becoming increasingly elastic, with more foreign-born players playing for adopted countries. It's at the coaching level, though, that borders really dissolve, with a Swede coaching England, a Serb coaching China, a German coaching Cameroon, a Dutchman coaching South Korea, a Portuguese coaching South Africa, three different Frenchmen coaching Senegal, Japan and Tunisia, and Italy's Cesare Maldini coaching Paraguay while his son, Paolo, captains the Italian squad. Post-nationalists will approve of this, but at the World Cup, where nationality is the point, it seems a bit strange. The clever strategizing of Bruno Metsu, Senegal's French coach, may have helped derail his country's chance at a second consecutive title and eternal footballing glory.
In the future, there will probably be more matches like France-Senegal, in which the question of who should be on which team gets a bit dodgy. The French have had a particularly confusing time in this regard, but perhaps it's fitting that the nation that brought deconstruction into the world is now having its own identity disassembled. When France played Algeria in Paris last October, the mostly French-Algerian crowd jeered the national anthem, threw bottles at the attending politicians, and ended the match prematurely by invading the pitch and rioting. All this despite the fact that the majority of the French team is of Algerian or African origin. And then last Friday there was the unusually subdued performance of Patrick Vieira, the team's Senegal-born superstar, who confessed to being troubled at going up against his country of birth. One can sympathize, but what of the Senegalese? Several of their players were born in France, most were raised there, and yet there seemed to be no mixed emotions on their part.
High-level soccer is already so borderless, with European clubs ransacking poor countries for talent (while the players left behind perform to pockets of disillusioned supporters in empty stands), that it seems a shame to dissolve frontiers even further. When the Brazilian team left for South Korea last month, only a few hundred people came to the airport to see them off. In the past, such a cool farewell would have been unthinkable, but in the past most Brazilian players played in Brazil. They also played in a freewheeling Brazilian style. Now they do neither. Or rather, they didn't until their 2-1 victory over Turkey on Monday. For the first time in years, a Brazilian side tried to play in the old, magical manner. The party tricks looked a bit rusty, but it was nice to see the players give them a try. By not showing up at the airport, maybe those Brazilian fans got their message through.
Surpassing the expectations of their own countrymen, Mexico may be just a game away from advancing to the World Cup's second round, which it can do by beating Ecuador on June 9. "El Tri" surprised everyone by overcoming Croatia's tough veterans, with the game's only goal coming when Cuauhtémoc Blanco scored from the penalty spot. Though the formidable Italian team is up next, passing to the next round now seems almost certain. Awaiting El Tri may be the star-studded squad of Portugal -- or, with any luck, its regional rivals: the U.S. --Joseph Treviño
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