Vail World Cup column: Soccer fans love the controversy
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
All in all, a good week to watch the World Cup (is there a bad one?). Germany lost in beautiful fashion, even missing a penalty of all things! Their group is now wide open and there was a great atmosphere in Rustenberg for the Ghana vs. Aussie match. Ghana could win this group and become the only African team to advance. The Aussie fans travel in great numbers and have a great time, this time renting out a cricket stadium in Durban to create a tent city, as they do on a golf course near Wimbledon each summer. I’ll never forget four years ago in Kaiserslauten thinking that they must outnumber the Italians by 3 to 1 in the stands. Then the roar of “You’re blue, you’re white, you’re going home tonight!” And they almost did, but for that late penalty.
Which brings me to … The Call. You realize that we love it, don’t we? The outrage, the mystery, the intrigue, the uncertainty, we love all of it. Soccer fans love to be outraged. Just like the Italian penalty four years ago, the Thierry Henry hand ball, the ball over (?) the endline that benefitted Korea in 2002 against Italy and a certain shot that hit a crossbar at Wembley in 1966, the German hand ball that wasn’t called against the U.S. in the 2002 quarterfinal, the penalty that was just called on Australia and the phantom goal by the U.S. in Ellis Park on June 18. Isn’t it better to have these topics of conversation for a few hours, days, decades, than it would be to have some official review it and sanctify it? I could be wrong and we’d probably get used to it, but I hate the tentative celebrations in college football and then the wait for the recount to be done. It’s all a little 2000 election-ish, killing the spontaneity of the moment and still not guaranteeing that justice will prevail. So let the ref decide, immediately and then we can go off into the bars and Internet discussions around the world and talk about it. We do love it.
It was a bad call, we clearly see that now. It was the first World Cup game for a ref from Mali, a landlocked country in Western Africa, where most of the 13 million people live on less than $1 a day. The U.S. has been good to that country, but maybe, for a split second, this West African referee looked at the American college kid from University of Maryland and thought, “No, you’re not having this moment.” He might not have thought about any of that but something led him to blow that whistle and then he couldn’t back down from it. Maybe, as Toby once said on the West Wing, “That’s the price we sometimes pay for being free, rich and alive … all at the same time.” So in the end, a bad day for NATO. Germany lost, the U.S. were robbed, and England, well England were, as predicted, a shambles!
Speaking of NATO, perhaps our global strategy should be to keep subdividing countries until we create small enough nations that the U.S. and England can beat them. Perhaps in the next World Cup, we will be in a group with Chechnya, Palestine and Kurdistan. I think maybe we could beat them, although …
England have paid an Italian coach a vast amount of money to play Emile Heskey up top, sub a winger for a winger and to bring on his most prolific forward with six minutes left in the game. In contrast to the U.S., who played with heart, passion, guts and camaraderie, the English team looked listless and uninspired. Watching Heskey attempt stepovers, big Peter Crouch out on the wing in the dying moments trying to be Ryan Giggs, and Wayne Rooney, shoulders slumped , coming back to the halfway line to pick up the ball because England’s midfielders can’t complete a pass over 15 yards, was infuriating and frustrating. It wasn’t sad, because there are truly sad things that happen in the world, and it was kind of compelling to watch. If this game had not involved England, one might have walked away before it ended, thinking, “What a load of rubbish.” But since it was England you had to watch to the end, just to see. In the end, I didn’t want them to score. I didn’t want one little piece of good fortune to be worth more than that inspirational U.S. comeback. They didn’t deserve and they knew it.
The weekend brought some interesting games. Brazil joined Argentina, the Netherlands and Chile as the only two perfect teams coming out of the first round. Simply stunning football at times from Brazil and Portugal led to three and seven goals, respectively. Every youth player should watch the way Brazil and Argentina find each other in crowded spaces, on the flanks and how players like Leonel Messi and Robinho are not afraid to run with the ball at their feet. Heading into the third set of games, Brazil and Argentina have a firm grip on their groups and seemed destined to meet in the final. Ah, but it’s not that easy, Grasshopper! Just ask the defending champs!
The upset of Italy (I know, they didn’t actually lose, but it felt like it, and they cheated for their goal!) was a thing of beauty for most neutral fans. The Kiwis gave them all they could handle and the fans in the stadium, the commentators and the world, outside of a certain subset of Sopranos and Jersey Shore fans, rejoiced. It seemed to take on epic proportions the longer it went, sort of Machiavelli vs. the Beachcombers. A bunch of rag tag kids, some with degrees from American universities (Ryan Nelsen, Stanford) and playing for clubs like West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn Rovers, Gold Coast United, and San Jose Earthquakes (wait, Simon Elliot was cut by them!) defeated, sorry tied, Italy. Their penalty kick did count, even though it was a dive. The world champion Italians feature players from majestic clubs like Juventus, AC Milan, Roma and Inter Milan. Well, Inter Milan reserves anyway – Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan didn’t actually start a single Italian player in the Champions’ League final last month. New Zealand were battle tested, mind you, after vanquishing the mighty squads from New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji in Oceania region qualifying. They even lost at home to Fiji but still managed to win the group!
What odds would you have been given if you had asked for a bet that in the first eight games involving Italy, France, England, Portugal and Spain that they wouldn’t record a single win between them? But just as we were about to write off the great European powers in this World Cup, Portugal and Spain step up and display the sort of attacking play that can see a team advance deep into the tournament. Heading into the last set of games, here are some the scenarios:
Must See TV (Games to watch)
This last set of games is fun because it involves the simultaneous games that start at the same time so as not to give one team an advantage of knowing another’s result going in. Here are some of the potential best games.
Today: Group A looks set unless one of France or South Africa manages to beat the other by a huge score. Looks like Mexico and Uruguay are going through. I’d watch:
Group B: Argentina vs. Greece at 12:30 p.m. Argentina is the most entertaining team so far and Greece won their last game and could qualify but won’t, sending South Korea through after their game vs Nigeria.
Wednesday: This is the day to watch a lot of soccer!
Group C will go right down to the wire. Both games start at 8 a.m., and there are all sorts of possibilities. Wins by England and the U.S. will send both through, but, as we’ve seen, don’t count on that happening. Another slip-up by England (can we even call it an upset anymore?) sends Slovenia through. The U.S. have an edge over England on the virtue of more goals scored so if they match results with England, the U.S. go through. The most interesting combination of results: 2-2 in the Slovenia vs. England game and 0-0 in the U.S. vs. Algeria game. That would send Slovenia through along with the winner of a coin toss between England and the U.S.!
Group D at 12:30 p.m. sees Ghana and Germany face off with both having a good chance to advance. A victory by either of them could see Serbia leapfrog the losing team into the next round. A draw and a Serbian victory would see Germany eliminated and Serbia win the group. Hopefully, Archduke Ferdinand is tuning in from somewhere as his assassination by a Serbian nationalist triggered World War 1. Cope can’t get through a World Cup without that sort of reference and he better get it in now in case Germany and England are both eliminated!
Group F are the early games this day: At, 8 a.m., Italy face a nearly must-win game vs. Slovakia, though they could eke it out with a draw. A loss eliminates Italy. If they draw both games by the same score, a coin toss determines advancement between Italy and New Zealand.
Group E play the 12:30 game this day. The Dutch are through but the game between Japan and Denmark is, essentially, a knockout game. The winner would advance and the loser is out. A draw sends Japan on.
Group F plays in the 8 a.m. slot with Portugal and Brazil having essentially a friendly match to close out the round. It would take a Brazil win over Portugal and an Ivory Coast win over North Korea, both by big scores to vault Ivory Coast over Portugal into second place, unlikely.
Group H is worth watching at 12:30 after the early loss by Spain. They play Chile and most likely need to win to advance. The Swiss play Honduras and need to at least match results with Spain to advance. The weekend sees the tournament move into the knockout round with just 16 teams remaining.