WHEN I WAS GROWING UP IN LONDON, THE WORLD Cup was a time when I felt sorry for people who didn't like soccer. How boring to have to listen to everyone go on about free kicks and dribbles and offside traps and “brilliant” this and “useless” that for an entire month. But now that I live in L.A., it's a time when I feel sorry for me. How boring to be the only person on my block who even knows the damn thing is on! Try saying “Zinédine Zidane” — that's the world's greatest player — to your next-door neighbor and see how far it gets you. (“Ziné-what?”) Or inquiring if he caught the match between Spain and Slovenia (“Slove-what?”) that was shown on ESPN2 at, er, four in the morning.
But at least the competition has finally begun. To say the start to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan was fraught would be an understatement. The endless preamble was beginning to look like an episode of Big Brother crossed with the WWF. Irish captain Roy Keane was sent home for calling his coach a wanker, Sweden's Olof Mellberg tried to strangle teammate Freddie Ljungberg, a Senegalese player was arrested for shoplifting, Cameroon's team staged a mutiny at Charles de Gaulle airport, two Nigerian players were fired for complaining about missing reimbursements, and, taking first prize for originality, Spain's goalkeeper dropped a bottle of aftershave on his toe and severed a tendon. Like a lot of other talented players, he's back home watching the World Cup on television — with his foot on the ottoman.
The injuries have grabbed the most headlines. As competitions increase in size and number, the wear and tear takes its toll on the players. Problems with David Beckham's foot, Zidane's thigh, Luis Figo's ankle, Kasey Keller's elbow and Rivaldo's knee (to name just a few) turned the buildup to the competition into a festival of malfunctioning body parts rather than a celebration of athletic talent. Minute analyses of fractured metatarsals and torn quadriceps were interspersed with prayers for divine intervention.
The French could certainly do with the latter. Without the genius of playmaker Zidane, they are a team that has everything save an organizing brain. They were a little unlucky to lose 1-0 in their opening match against Senegal, but even with defeat looming, the champions looked listless compared to the Africans, who moved and thought faster. A lively crowd might have helped, but the Korean spectators were so quiet you'd have thought they were watching a French movie. Nor were they very numerous: This must have been the first opening match in World Cup history that failed to sell out, and seats have gone begging at every other game as well. Blame it on the big shots at FIFA: They know the Asians aren't really soccer fans, but like ambitious executives everywhere, they will always put a new (i.e., theoretical) audience before an established one. But when the established audience stays up all night to watch games on television, and the new one can't be bothered to show up at the stadium in the middle of the afternoon, something's wrong.
The good news is that so far this has been a tremendous World Cup. Senegal's upset victory over France was one for the history books, and Denmark's 2-1 victory over Uruguay was filled with imaginative attacking play, as well as a goal by Uruguay's Dario Rodriguez that was the equal of Zidane's winning volley for Real Madrid in the recent European Champions League Final.
Ireland staged a gutsy comeback to tie talented Cameroon, 1-1. How they did it is a mystery. As they trooped off down a goal at halftime, you could see them thinking, “Well, the Cameroonians are bigger, stronger, faster and about 10 times as skillful as we are, so what the hell are we going to do?” What they did was play the Cameroonians off the field for large portions of the second half. In the end, after several near misses, they were unlucky not to win. As for Germany vs. Saudi Arabia, it was hardly a classic though the goal-yield was rich: 8-0 to the Germans in one of the most lopsided World Cup matches in history. Given that Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, joked that he'd throw the Italian team in jail if it returned without the World Cup, one has to wonder what will befall the hapless Saudis on their return to the desert kingdom, where thieves get their hands cut off. If I were part of the Saudi squad, I'd be worried about my feet.
Argentina-Nigeria, the first encounter in Group F (the fabled “Group of Death,” which also includes England and Sweden) lived up to its billing. Aside from the depth of their resolve, the first thing I noticed about the Argentineans is that they are now a fullfledged attacking team, with Juan Sebastian Veron, Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta launching assault after assault on goal. That the Nigerians survived as long as they did was due mainly to the quick reactions of their goalie, whose only weakness was a complete inability to deal with corner kicks. Something of a problem, given that Argentina must have had 10 of them, but only once did Batistuta manage to capitalize and score. It wasn't a pretty goal, but it was enough to give the Argentine side a deserved 1-0 victory.
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