Chalk it up to soccer’s perversity that the game in which the U.S. best displayed its newfound mastery of World Cup soccer was the game in which it got knocked out of the tournament. I‘ve never seen such an exhausted bunch of Germans as the ones who squeaked through 1-0 over Bruce Arena’s team in the quarterfinal, but the fact is, they won, we lost, and it‘s four years until the next World Cup. (Which will be in Germany, by the way.) By then, key players such as Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel and Tony Sanneh will have retired, but others, such as Clint Mathis, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, should be near their peak. It’s even possible that one or two of them will have become major stars in Europe.

After the Germany game, U.S. captain Reyna (who plays for Sunderland in the English Premier League) made a point of telling the media that all those American players currently being used as bench warmers by their European clubs should be given more of a chance by their coaches. He was right to do so, but the more success American players have at European club level, the less time they‘ll have for the national team. Take Landon Donovan, for instance, the American player most likely to make a strong impression in coming years. Chances are, his German club, Bayer Leverkusen, which loaned him to the San Jose Earthquakes after he failed to break out of the reserves, will soon renew his contract. (Given the way he played against Germany, they’d be crazy not to.) Now let‘s suppose Donovan becomes one of Bayer Leverkusen’s star players and two years down the line is snapped up by an even bigger European club like Liverpool. By this point he could conceivably be playing alongside the likes of El-Hadji Diouf and Michael Owen. How much time would he have for the American team then? Would his club allow him to fly to Pasadena to play a meaningless ”friendly“ with Mexico if he were needed for an important match against Manchester United? I doubt it.

One of the reasons the U.S. did so well at the World Cup is that its players were fit, fresh, and had plenty of time to come together as a team. If a lot of them hit the big time in Europe, they may well enter the 2006 competition in as exhausted a condition as some of their more famous peers. But if they continue to make an impression at club level without attaining celebrity status, they could be even more dangerous next time around. And that is what is most likely to happen. There are going to be more American players at European clubs, but they will probably be midlevel stars on midlevel teams. This may well work in our favor.

Mexico‘s coach, Javier Aguirre, complained that the U.S. team lacked style, but I don’t think this is true. Like Brazilians and Africans who play in a more European manner for their clubs and switch to a more flamboyant one for their own countries, something different happens when Americans play together. The U.S.‘s soccer isn’t pretty or ornate, but it feels distinctly American in its energy and opportunism. More than any other team, the U.S. was eager to attack from almost any position on the field, and with nippy poachers like Donovan and Josh Wolff always prowling for goals, opposing defenses were never allowed to relax. Those Germans were exhausted not just physically, but mentally also. They had to think harder because they were playing against a new, more aggressive international style.

As a coach, Bruce Arena also added something novel to the mix by continually changing his lineup. A European or Latin American coach will usually decide on his starting 11 and then make alterations only when he‘s forced to do so. He might make adjustments here and there, but basically he has a ”perfect“ team in mind, consisting of his best players, and sticks to it. Arena’s approach was different. Coming from a sports background in which the number of substitutions is unrestricted, he strategized like a basketball coach rather than a soccer one, and thought in terms of an overall squad rather than of a team. Since only three substitutions are allowed in a game, in effect he would make three substitutions before the game while still allowing himself another three during it. Had Arena been coaching France, Zinedine Zidane‘s team would probably still be in the competition. I’ll be surprised if an English or Continental club doesn‘t offer him a very tempting job before the summer’s over.

When it comes to soccer, I‘ll admit to a certain European bias even though my favorite national side is Brazil and I bet $140 at 15-1 for Senegal to win the whole thing. (Unfortunately, the Africans lost 1-0 in their quarterfinal with Turkey.) That said, the number of calls that went South Korea’s way, particularly in the matches against Italy and Spain, does arouse suspicions. The Koreans performed superbly and are an admirable team who play hard, run forever, and don‘t go in for the shameless flopping practiced by superstars like David Beckham, Rivaldo, and, most pathetically of all, Luis Hernandez, in Mexico’s game against the U.S. Nonetheless, until their 1-0 loss to Germany in the semifinal, the Red Devils were greatly helped by inept officiating in their matches against Italy and Spain. There have been bad calls in games played by other teams, but for the most part they‘ve evened out. The U.S. got away with a handball against Mexico, for instance, but didn’t get the call when a German handled in the penalty area in the next round. Likewise, Brazil should have gone a goal down against Belgium (Marc Wilmot‘s header was disallowed for a nonexistent ”push“), but later saw Ronaldinho unjustly sent off for a mildly dangerous tackle on England’s Danny Mills. In the case of South Korea, however, the calls all seemed to go one way.

The officiating has interfered in more subtle ways too. Mexican referee Felipe Ramos Rizo‘s absurd red-carding of Ronaldinho in Brazil’s match against England diminished a game that looked as if it was finally about to erupt into open, attacking play and live up to the hype that surrounded it. (The last time England met Brazil at the World Cup was in 1970. Pele‘s team won 1-0 in what is considered one of the greatest games of all time.) Instead, the most anticipated encounter of the quarterfinal round was reduced to an impressive but unexciting showcase for Brazilian technical superiority. Down a man with over half an hour to go, the South Americans used their considerable skills to keep the ball away from England and humiliate Beckham & co. by making it look as if they were the ones playing with 10 men. Brazil did score two marvelous goals in its 2-1 victory, with the winner coming from an astounding free kick by Ronaldinho five minutes before he was sent off, but had the referee been sensible there would probably have been more. Who knows? England might even have won. The best referees are the ones you don’t notice, but at this World Cup it‘s been hard to get away from them.

A toe poke by Ronaldo was enough to edge Brazil past Turkey 1-0 in the second semifinal, and so now the underdog’s World Cup will end with a final between the two most successful teams in World Cup history, each making its seventh appearance in the finals. Germany has won it three times, Brazil four. Surprisingly, this will be the first time the two countries have met in the competition. They are polar opposites. If Brazil is everyone‘s ”second-favorite team“ (after that of their own country), historically, Germany is the one we all want to see lose. Lining up inside Yokohama International Stadium in Japan on Sunday will be the contemporary representatives of two of the sport’s most imperishable cliches: German organization and will vs. Brazilian imagination and style.

In fact, it‘s not as simple as that. The Brazilians can be quite pragmatic when necessary, and in the 1970s German stars like Franz Beckenbauer and Gunther Netzer played elegant, creative soccer. But there’s no doubt that this time almost all the flair will be on the Brazilian side. The three ”R‘s“ — Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho — may yet go down as one of the greatest trios of attacking footballers ever to wear the same shirt. (They have 13 goals between them in the competition so far.) The wingbacks, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, are aerobic miracles, and the central defenders, Lucio and Edmilson, are as skillful as most center-forwards. But they are a strange team. Ronaldo, the greatest striker in the world, has to beg his teammates to pass to him. Roberto Carlos blasts every free kick into the wall, while Rivaldo, who could do better with his eyes closed, stands by. And they still don’t really have a midfield.

If we were to judge solely on the basis of talent, Brazil ought to thrash Germany. But the Germans have that agile giant, Oliver Kahn, in goal, and have already been thrashed once this century (they lost 5-1 to England last year). It won‘t happen twice. The match will be close, maybe even Miroslav Klose, but let’s hope it‘s Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo.

LA Weekly