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American Fútbol! 

The Weird Cup, week 3

Wednesday, Jun 19 2002
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NICK HORNBY SAID THAT GOALS ARE EVEN BETTER than orgasms. You know when you're about to have an orgasm, he wrote in Fever Pitch, his memoir of life as an Arsenal fan, but a goal is always a surprise. He may be onto something. You won't see any post-coital sadness on a player's face after he's ripped a shot into the back of the net, that's for sure. Nor will you see him reaching for a cigarette or muttering about "le petit mort" to explain the melancholy that has inexplicably descended upon his soul. And you certainly won't see him fall asleep. On the contrary, the scoring of a goal provokes a flesh-grabbing celebration that has to be seen to be believed.

For every goal celebration, of course, comes the tragic hair pulling and gnashing of teeth that follows the near miss. The French and Argentineans had dozens of those, and it killed them. A weird sort of curse seemed to hang over the co-favorites, causing the ball to crash off the post, the bar, the outstretched foot and hand, or to whistle inches wide of the mark. In Argentina's match against Sweden, the air rang with the sound of shots thudding off thick Nordic limbs. The Argentineans seemed to be not playing against people so much as moving trees. As for the Italians, another traditional power sent home early, they were up against the linesmen, who still haven't got the hang of the offside rule. In their matches with Croatia and Mexico, Italy had three, possibly even four, perfectly good goals ruled offside. Nor were they the only ones harmed by overeager flag-wavers. I'd guess that on average there has been at least one perfectly good goal disallowed per game. On the other hand, if you took away all the goals resulting from undeserved penalties and free kicks, you'd end up with the same number anyway.

This continues to be a terrific World Cup, but it wouldn't be football if there hadn't been some thoroughly boring encounters. Germany's second-round 1-0 victory over Paraguay is an obvious example, but England's 3-0 dismissal of Denmark was also a snooze. I stayed up until 4:30 a.m. to watch it, but after 10 minutes I was falling asleep cross-eyed trying to sort out which of the 44 players on the screen were real and which were shadows. It was only when I watched the rest of the match on tape that I realized my fatigue might not have been due solely to the lateness of the hour. A couple of good passes from David Beckham, a neatly taken goal by Michael Owen, the odd flourish here and there -- that was the extent of it. Overall, it was remarkably bland soccer. If the French were watching, they must have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief. How could they possibly have lost 2-0 to a Danish team as lame as the one on display against England? And how could a defense that would not cede a single goal to the wiles of Zinedine Zidane have allowed a lumbering journeyman like England's Emile Heskey to score?

I have to say I'm somewhat puzzled by England's remarkably smooth passage thus far. Owen has scored one goal in four games, and Beckham is still only half the player he was before he broke a bone in his foot two months ago. England's opponents have also been kind. The Nigerians played against them as if they were hoping to be invited to tea afterward, and the Danes looked as if they'd all taken a big, fat sleeping pill the night before. The Brits did pull out all the stops against Argentina, but they don't appear to have a lot of weapons. What they have is a placidity that seems to have been inspired by their Swedish coach, Sven Goran Erikkson, by all appearances the calmest man alive. Sven's mantra is that the team must always "keep its shape" -- i.e., not allow its players to be pulled out of position by opponents -- and this rather narcissistic strategy has worked for them. But even if it's shapely, it hasn't been sexy.

The Brazilians, on the other hand, have been fabulous to watch, partly because they can't even seem to agree on a shape, let alone maintain one. (They go from a 3-5-2 formation to a 3-2-2-3 or a 1-1-8 or a 0-0-10 according to mood.) But in their second-round match against Belgium, which they were fortunate to win 2-0, their lack of organization was painful to behold. Players were literally bumping into one another in midfield, and at one point right back Cafu could be seen furiously chasing a ball all the way on the other side of the field. And he's the captain. In the end, it took a stroke of genius from Rivaldo, chesting the ball down and swiveling to fire it past the Belgian goalie, to put them ahead in the 67th minute. Ronaldo later added another goal, but the contest was a lot closer than the score line suggests. For the second World Cup in a row, Brazil has put together a collection of brilliant individuals who don't add up to a team.

WRITING IN LONDON'S DAILY TELEGRAPH, DAVID Miller dubbed Korea's 1-0 defeat of Portugal a victory for "Frenzy Football," a style of play "based on fanatical fitness." The aim is to never give opponents a moment to think and to wear them down through sheer lung power as much as talent. Only when they came up against the U.S. side, which is also hyperfit, did the Koreans falter. But the problem with playing like this is that you can't maintain it for very long. For the length of a World Cup, in front of your own delirious fans, maybe; but for an entire club season? I think they'd all die of exhaustion. Or we would, watching them. But in Korea's shocking 2-1 victory over Italy, frenzy football paid off. By the end of the game, it was the Italian players who were exhausted while the Korean fans were still singing their hearts out.

If the Koreans' play is frenetic, then Senegal's is hypnotic, with sinuous striker el-Hadji Diouf in the role of snake charmer in chief. He appears to do everything in slow motion, lulling defenders to sleep. But when he finally makes his move, he gets past them in the blink of an eye. Senegal is a superb attacking team, but unlike the Brazilians, they also "keep their shape." Their defenders really do defend, and aside from giving away three goals to Uruguay in the second half of their third group-stage game, they've maintained a remarkable discipline. Almost too much so. It took extra time and a golden goal for them to beat Sweden in their second-round match, and reluctance to go all-out on attack almost cost them the match. Sweden's Anders Svensson hit the outside of the post, and, a few minutes later, Senegal's Henri Camara hit the inside of the post -- and the ball went in. That was the difference. But the Senegalese are in the quarterfinals now, and have as good a chance of winning the whole thing as anyone.

A LARGE SLICE OF THE AMERICAN POPULATION AND pretty much everyone else in the world were rooting for Mexico to defeat the United States, but it was not to be. Rather like France-Denmark, this was a game in which one side dominated play but couldn't score, while the other team snapped up its chances and won 2-0. The major difference being that once America got its second goal in the 65th minute, Mexico wilted pitifully. Had the referee spotted John O'Brien's deliberate handball in the penalty area 10 minutes before the second goal, it might have been a different story. Nonetheless, the U.S. did what it did perfectly, and its two goals had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with pace down the flanks, accurate passes and bull's-eye finishing. They deserved to win.

For the Mexicans, it was undoubtedly a bitter defeat, a shameful way to end what was turning into a great World Cup. As frustration boiled over, Rafael Marquez was sent off for a vicious foul on Cobi Jones, and there was a noticeable lack of shirt swapping at the end. In fact, there was none. The Mexicans embraced each other rather than their opponents and disappeared down the tunnel. If not excusable, it's understandable. You get no credit for beating the U.S., and suffer humiliation when you lose. Bruce Arena's team is breaking other nations' hearts -- first Portugal's, now its next-door neighbor's -- but, in soccer terms, has no heart of its own that can be broken in return. We'll applaud if we win, shrug our shoulders if we lose. And with a mediocre German team facing us in the quarterfinals, further heartbreak is definitely in the cards.

It's certainly a bizarre tournament. Zinedine Zidane is back home watching it on television (if he can bear to), Landon Donovan is scoring in the quarterfinals, and almost every match is played in a stadium with thousands of empty seats. It's really the perfect setting for an American triumph: Years of soccer tradition are being brashly upended, and like us, the co-hosts, Japan and South Korea, would usually prefer watching baseball.

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