Ten things I learned about life and soccer from the
2002 World Cup
There is a football God, and despite the wild twists and turns of this
year's tournament, He's still Brazilian.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Andrew O'Hehir
July 2, 2002 | Maybe
the championship game of World Cup 2002, in which Brazil defeated
Germany 2-0 in front of a television audience estimated at 1.5 billion
people, or approximately one-fourth of the planet's population, wasn't
an all-time classic. But it capped off a tournament full of thrills
and surprises with style and returned the soccer universe -- so disordered
over the course of the last month -- to a state of almost blissful
equilibrium. As any soccer fan can testify, a World Cup in which Brazil
goes unbeaten and untied and hoists the trophy for a record fifth
time, all without quite seeming to play up to its potential, only
proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Now comes a brief respite for fans of a sport that
has virtually no off-season (most of the major European professional
leagues will begin their new seasons before the end of August). The
major story lines of World Cup 2002 have been well explored by now:
The renaissance of Ronaldo, Brazil's one-time boy genius turned sympathetic
survivor; the quiet resurgence of Germany; the collapse of favored
teams from Argentina, France, Italy and Portugal; the emergence of
Asian soccer; the revelation that guys from the heartland of the United
States are suddenly able to compete in the world's game.
Beneath these narratives, however, lie certain Immutable
Truths about life and soccer, some of which are mutually contradictory
and almost all of which will be made irrelevant by the 2006 World
Cup in Germany, if not sooner.
There is a God
Mind you, I don't think S/He should make an appearance
in the Pledge of Allegiance, necessarily, but World Cup 2002 at least
temporarily resolved my doubts on this perplexing question. Without
a Supreme Being of some description (preferably not Alanis Morrissette,
as in the film "Dogma"), how can you account for the stunning odyssey
of Ronaldo, the Brazilian forward who, at the ripe old age of 25,
has lived through a death-and-regeneration cycle worthy of the epic
of Gilgamesh or F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon"?
After suffering an epileptic seizure or panic attack
or escargot poisoning or something on the morning of the 1998 World
Cup final, and lolling around the field during Brazil's listless 3-0
loss to France, Ronaldo -- then regarded as the best player in the
world -- virtually disappeared from world soccer. He has hardly played
for his club team, Italy's Inter Milan, since then and took no significant
role in Brazil's troubled World Cup qualifying process. Whether the
primary factor that sent Ronaldo to the sidelines for so long was
physical or psychological never became clear; most likely it was some
combination of the two. Certainly most fans assumed he was washed
up, a troubled shadow of his former self, à la Darryl Strawberry or
England's one-time wunderkind Paul Gascoigne.
So all Ronaldo did in this tournament was to knock
home eight goals, including both his team's scores in the championship
game -- one opportunistic and one flat-out brilliant -- to lead all
scorers and match the career World Cup total (12) of Pelé, the greatest
player in the sport's history. If Ronaldo is not quite in that class
it's because nobody is. But what he accomplished this year, establishing
himself again as the world's best attacking player after four years
of near-total absence from the sport, ranks among the greatest achievements
in athletic history. You might compare it to Jesse Owens' Berlin Olympics,
or to Babe Ruth's 60-home-run season (at a time when no one else had
ever hit 40). Based on degree of difficulty and sheer improbability,
it's bigger than anything Jim Brown or Michael Jordan or Barry Bonds
could ever dream about.
OK, maybe there isn't a God
Talk to German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn about it. Or
for that matter English goalkeeper David Seaman. We'll get to them
in due course.
Beware of conventional wisdom
Good defense will beat good offense. Nobody can beat
Argentina this year. France might be better than they were in '98.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan are plucky and likable little teams,
but they're not ready for prime time. Portugal's "golden generation"
of stars could go all the way. England is for real this time. It might
be Spain's turn at last. China could surprise us. Germany has no chance.
Brazil has no chance.
OK, nobody actually said that Brazil had no chance.
But the rest of those views were widely held when the tournament started.
Some of them were held by me, and probably by you too.
Beware of the new conventional wisdom
Now we're supposed to believe that American soccer
has arrived and that, based on their startling (and, yes, convincing)
wins over Portugal and Mexico, the U.S. is poised to win its first-ever
World Cup. Unless South Korea or Japan gets there first.
All three of those teams, and their fans, are going
to learn over the course of the next four years how great their accomplishments
of 2002 really were. Because they won't happen again for a long, long
time. Winning the World Cup is exceedingly difficult. Only seven countries
have ever done it, all of them traditional soccer powers, all of them
in Europe or South America. (England, which invented the game, has
only lifted the Cup once. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden,
Chile and Colombia never have.)
Don't get me wrong; the American team deserved its
victories, and outplayed Germany for most of their quarterfinal matchup.
But let's also remember that the Yanks deserved their 3-1 thrashing
at the hands of Poland and basically snuck into the second round by
a fluke; the team has speed, confidence and more ability than any
previous U.S. side, but it still lacks size, depth and consistency.
By the time the 2006 World Cup rolls around, the American
team should be better than it is now. Veteran leaders like Earnie
Stewart, Cobi Jones and Brian McBride will probably be gone, but Landon
Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Mathis should still be in their
primes and the pipeline is richer with young talent than at any time
in U.S. soccer history. But something else will have changed too:
No opponent will take the Yanks lightly anymore. They'll be a target
team, a side the premier European and Latin American teams will especially
Imagine, if you can, what the scene will be like the
next time the U.S. team plays a serious match in Mexico City's Azteca
Stadium, with 110,000 customers in attendance. If the Americans' 2-0
victory in Jeonju, South Korea, on June 17 was American soccer's coming-out
party, it was a national day of mourning south of the border. No one
who saw the Mexicans' brutal, foul-plagued play in that game, or their
refusal to shake hands and swap jerseys afterward, will underestimate
the Mexican desire for vengeance. The agenda for our boys in Azteca
will be simple: Lose with dignity (actually, they've never won there),
avoid the flying bottles and get out alive.
Here's the scenario I'm looking forward to: The U.S.
team scrapes into the next World Cup, loses twice in the opening round
and goes home. USA Today and the New York tabloids are full of angry
commentary about what went wrong. Talk-radio jocks and ESPN snarksters
call for the coach's head. That's when we'll know we've become a soccer
nation at last.
For what it's worth, the U.S. won't win a World Cup
in any of our lifetimes. We might come close, we might make the semis
or even the finals, we might beat anybody you can imagine. But it's
a longer road than it looks like right now. (The same goes for Korea,
who, I'm sorry to say, will go back to their classic three-games-and-out
when the tournament goes back to Europe.)
The best goals are not always "the best goals"
Sure, the most technically perfect goals in this tournament
were the blistering bicycle-kick by Brazilian defender Edmilson (against
Costa Rica) and the impossible, feathertip-precise head-flick by Mexico's
Jared Borgetti (against Italy). But the goals that really mattered
were the ones that seemed, for a few weeks, to turn the world upside
Papa Bouba Diop's goal for Senegal, which beat France
in the tournament's opening game, was nothing pretty. It came from
a scramble in front of the net in which the ball bounced off a defender
and the goalkeeper and fell right to his foot. But from that moment
onward, we knew this World Cup was something special.
Brian McBride's diving header, off a lovely cross
from Tony Sanneh, gave the U.S. an insurmountable 3-0 lead in its
opening game against Portugal. Even more than the later win over Mexico,
this result convinced the world that this American team was for real,
and the exclamation mark couldn't have belonged to a nicer guy. McBride
has labored long and hard for American soccer, playing for peanuts
in Major League Soccer and repeatedly fighting through injuries to
stay on the national-team radar when he could certainly have made
better money sitting on the bench somewhere in Europe. With two dramatic
goals in this tournament (one later against Mexico), McBride may get
the chance at stardom across the pond before alleged American superstar
Clint Mathis does.
Last and certainly not least, Ahn Jung-Hwan's clever,
slashing overtime goal for South Korea sent Italy home in a well-deserved
state of paranoid disgrace and turned an entire nation into red-bedecked,
frothing-at-the-mouth soccer lunatics, thus curing the rest of the
world of any delusions about Asians being reticent or inscrutable.
(The owner of Perugia, Ahn's Italian club team, threatened to fire
Ahn, saying "Enough! That guy will never again set foot in Perugia!"
He later changed his mind.) Korea would play Spain to a goalless deadlock
in the quarterfinals and prevail on penalty kicks before losing to
Germany, but they never scored again. Any time you see an event that
marks a nation's sporting high-water mark (like France's victory at
home in '98) it's unforgettable, and this was one of those moments.
England and the Scandinavian teams are not boring,
But they're not all that good, either. No, seriously,
many of you have berated me for my repeated and ignorant comments
about how boring England, Sweden and Denmark are to watch. I was halfway
being facetious, and each of those grind-it-out northern European
defensive powerhouses proved me wrong at least once during this tournament.
Of course they're good. They're very good. But in
all these cases (as in the case of Italy) I feel like some really
extraordinary talent is being hamstrung by an overly cautious tactical
style that relies on defense and counterattacks. (Mind you, the U.S.
team played a cautious, counterattacking style against Mexico and
it worked to perfection. That's another story.) The idea, of course,
is that this style allows a disciplined, well-organized team to compete
against one that may have more speed and offensive talent. So Denmark
loses in the second round to England -- which has the most speed and
offensive talent of any of these three -- Sweden loses in the second
round to Senegal and England loses in the quarterfinals to Brazil.
Do we see a pattern here?
And a word to all the Anglocentrics out there: Yes,
the English Premier League is still great theater (and perhaps I am
just bitter because Spurs haven't won in forever and perhaps never
will). But England is not the center of the soccer-playing universe
and hasn't been for about 30 years. The intense interior dramas of
the England team are just not that interesting to the rest of us.
And that game against Argentina, while tense and agonizing, was
just not that great if you're not British. OK? Thanks for listening.
Yes, the United States team was cheated (but not
Let's just say this once and then let it go. That
hand ball by the German defender on the goal line? First of all, it
should have been a penalty. I didn't think so at first, but the more
I see it the worse it gets. No, it wasn't intentional, but hey --
he prevented a goal with his hand! Isn't that against the rules? (The
referee has the option of calling an indirect free kick from that
spot, but given that the spot was the goal line, that's not realistic.)
Second of all, from at least one angle it looks as
if the ball was over the line in any case. Here's why it doesn't
matter: Germany was outplayed throughout the game but was going to
find a way to win. Anybody who watched the game should have no doubt
of that. Sending it into overtime wouldn't have changed the result.
And it must be said that there were equal or greater
injustices in this tournament plagued by spotty officiating: The yellow
card for diving that sent Italian star Totti off, highly questionable
offsides and end-line calls that saved Korea against Spain and Italy.
It's time to show Major League Soccer some love
I still haven't figured out what a MetroStar is, and
the Kansas City Wiz (now the Wizards), complete with pee-yellow jerseys
and Charlie Brown squiggly stripes, was certainly one of the worst
team names in sports-league history. And anybody who's followed the
hit-and-miss history of the league would like to forget that whole
business called the shootout, a concocted one-on-one contest used
to settle tie games in the first few seasons. In fact, anything negative
you can say about MLS I'd probably agree with, from the monopoly ownership
to the unfortunate use of mausoleum-like football stadiums.
But the standard of play has gotten better every year,
and at least half the players on this year's U.S. World Cup team would
never have gotten the chance to bloom as top-level professionals
if they'd been laboring in the Dutch second division or playing for
the Borussia Mönchengladbach reserve team all this time. MLS isn't
the equal of a top European league and it probably never will be.
But for all its peculiarities it's become a respectable second-tier
league, a reliable pipeline to Europe for rising young North Americans,
Latin Americans and Caribbean stars. There's absolutely nothing wrong
with that; in fact it's probably the right role for a U.S. league
to play at this point. Stay-at-home soccer snobs: You have nothing
to lose but your Saturday evenings.
Reports of the death of German füssball
have been exaggerated
As recently as last year, after Germany endured a
5-1 humiliation by England at home in World Cup qualifying, it was
fashionable to suggest that the glory days of German soccer were in
the past. The Bundesliga no longer looked like Europe's elite league,
and no new generation had emerged to take the place of such departed
giants as Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Karlheinz Rummenigge.
Well, forget all that.
Even German fans can't really complain about their
team's loss to Brazil in the final. They had needed considerable doses
of luck to make it there in the first place, and on Sunday it simply
ran out against a more talented opponent. All this German team did
en route was to reestablish themselves, to almost everybody's surprise,
as full-fledged members of the footballing elite, a team not just
capable of hard work and near-perfect defensive play but of lightning-quick
counterattacks and devastating set plays.
Coach Rudi Völler's team played the correct strategy
and dictated the stop-and-start pace of the game for the first half.
Then the Brazilians adjusted, playing as close to a "German" style
as you'll ever see them do, and basically outclassed the Germans at
their own game. But never mind that; this was a young team of budding
international superstars (led by midfielders Michael Ballack and Carsten
Ramelow) and the next tournament is in Germany. Watch out.
1 is the loneliest number
Oliver Kahn is one of the greatest goalkeepers in
soccer, perhaps the greatest. He has won a European championship with
his club team, Bayern Munich, and may do so again. But he will long
be remembered for his Bill Buckner-like bumble of that low, twisting
shot by Rivaldo, which Ronaldo pounced on eagerly and pumped in for
the opening goal of Brazil's victory in the final. Also, he'll be
remembered for his goofball sideburns. But mostly for that cheap goal
that cost his team the World Cup.
At least Kahn may get the chance to redeem himself.
English goalkeeper David Seaman, he of what one letter-writer terms
as the "porn-star ponytail," was not so lucky. Seaman, who plays for
the English champions Arsenal, is 38 and no longer the athlete he
once was; he has remained a top-flight 'keeper through his knowledge
of the game and his expert positioning. So the near-certain end of
his international career was especially cruel. With Brazil preparing
a free kick, Seaman drifted off his goal line as if asleep and watched
in a stumbling drunkard's daze as a beautiful chip from the foot of
Ronaldinho floated over his head and into the top left corner of the
net. It was the goal that finished England and a reminder that time,
like the beautiful game itself, takes no prisoners.