The greatest show on earth

It's World Cup time again -- when more than a billion people will be enthralled not just by the joy of victory and agony of defeat, but also by the mystery and despair that is championship soccer.


Andrew O'Hehir
May 31, 2002 12:51AM (UTC)

Soccer is in crisis. Soccer is the unchallenged titan of sports, standing astride the globe like a colossus in shorts and shinguards.

On the eve of the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan -- and even the positioning of the two countries' names has been a negotiated issue in what may be the tensest international sporting event since the 1936 Berlin Olympics -- both statements are true. You could argue, in fact, that both statements are always true. World soccer occurs on such a big stage, amid such high drama, that it contains a kind of yin and yang, an ethic of creation and destruction. Soccer is so far ahead of every other sport in its global reach and dominance that it has to be its own worst enemy. Its guiding philosophy is more a creed of mystery and despair than of hope and victory, which may be the profoundest reason why Americans haven't much taken to it. (As a German coach once put it, the ball is round and the game lasts 90 minutes. Everything else is theory.) If all that makes soccer sound more like a religion than a game, well, it is a kind of religion, one practiced by all races on all continents (again, excepting those agnostic Americans).

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The game itself is maddening and frustrating at least as often as it is enthralling; its ebb and flow can bog down into World War I trench warfare, an orgy of egregious hacking and theatrical diving, the kind of tactical defensive play British announcers call "cynical." Soccer bashers who don't understand the game may believe that fans actually like tedious 0-0 draws, but the opposite is true. There will be at least half a dozen endlessly dull matches in the 2002 World Cup -- which kicks off Friday morning, when defending champion France plays Senegal in Seoul -- that will leave fans, watching at peculiar hours around the globe, pounding their floors in rage and bitterness and vowing to swear off this hopeless team and this dismal game once and for all. Fans also know, of course, that you never know. Out of nothingness, out of the most boring game possible, lightning can strike.

With a single, searing volley from the top of the penalty box, French midfielder Zinédine Zidane, probably the best player in the world, turned this year's European club championship game (between his team, Real Madrid, and Germany's Bayer Leverkusen) from a mediocre match into a classic. Big games can be legendary thrillers, like the 1982 World Cup semifinal between France and West Germany (arguably the greatest game ever played), or duds, like the goalless final between Brazil and Italy at the Rose Bowl in 1994.

Soccer runs true to form most of the time, which makes its upsets -- France's improbable domination of mighty Brazil in the 1998 final, sending Paris into a delirium unmatched since the Liberation -- or its flagrant outrages, like Diego Maradona's "hand of God" goal against England in 1986, seem like the workings of irresistible fate. Yes, even 0-0 draws can be exciting, nerve-racking, action-packed affairs, although there's no point trying to convince non-fans of this.

Splitting the World Cup tournament between two East Asian countries that aren't exactly bosom buddies -- and that are multiple time zones removed from the soccer heartlands of Europe and Latin America -- was strictly a marketing notion, and perhaps not the brightest one ever conceived. But soccer will survive even this and thrive. FIFA, the sport's international governing body, seems to be enmeshed in a deepening corruption scandal. Professional soccer in South America is in ruins, and every pro league in the world -- with the partial exceptions of the star-packed leagues in England and Spain -- is facing serious difficulties on and off the field. (U.S. sports fans should take a hard look at the current state of baseball, basketball and hockey before they start feeling superior.) As usual, the standard of officiating is under attack and mavericks are calling for NFL-style video replay on goal-line decisions or for the abolition of the near-metaphysical offside rule.

(For non-soccer fans, the offside rule -- there's a less mysterious version of it in hockey -- prohibits an offensive player from running past the last defensive player until the moment the ball is passed forward. Its purpose is to prevent teams from simply trying to outrun the defense and punt the ball downfield. It is difficult for the officials to call because at the moment the ball is played forward, the offensive player is often almost exactly even with the defensive player and a considerable distance away from the passer.)

All that is background noise, the ambient Sturm und Drang that the soccer world seems to require when staging its monthlong quadrennial championship spectacle, the granddaddy of all media sports events. (No, Americans, nothing else comes even close: not the Super Bowl, not the World Series, not the Olympics.) Somewhere around a billion people will watch the World Cup final broadcast live from Yokohama on June 30, and if they have to skip work or get up early or stay up late, they will.

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Americans mostly won't watch it at all, of course, but I don't propose to write another of those angst-ridden pieces about why we ignore the world's game and what that says about our national soul. Salon columnist Allen Barra recently wandered into this issue and wound up, like most other American sportswriters, unintentionally insulting the planet as a whole and demonstrating his soccer illiteracy in support of a valid, if obvious, argument: Soccer will never be as big here as it is elsewhere. (I don't know Barra and we don't work in the same office, but I consider him an astute, acerbic observer of baseball, basketball and other sports.)

Perhaps Barra's suggestion that other countries might like baseball or NFL-style football better than soccer if they could afford to play them was meant to be facetious; it was certainly hilarious. Then there was his claim that top-level soccer talent does not vary widely. Why then do a handful of nations like Argentina, Brazil, Italy and France dominate the international game, while the same club teams (Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich) win European championships year after year? This is what comes from basing one's opinions on a vague impression: I mean, Shawn Bradley must be a better basketball player than Shaquille O'Neal since he's taller, right?

Still, Barra and other soccer detractors have a point. There's no Euro-style soccer culture in the United States, and there probably never will be. Soccer's future in the U.S. is as a widespread participatory sport that is very slowly gaining purchase as a niche spectator sport, thanks in equal parts to continuing immigration and the spread of soccer-mom culture in the 'burbs. Regardless of whether Major League Soccer, the troubled if decently competitive men's pro league, manages to survive, the game will most likely hold on to its spot in the sports hierarchy, somewhere a little south of hockey but north of lacrosse or arena football.

Despite its financial problems and microscopic TV ratings, MLS has given borderline young American players the chance to improve and has deepened and broadened the U.S. talent pool. It's no stretch to say that the United States has arrived in international men's soccer -- as a consistent, hard-working and mediocre team that tends to collapse in crunch time. (Of course, as the defending world champions, the United States is already one of the dominant forces in women's soccer. The next women's World Cup will be held in 2003.)

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The American men's team might fit somewhere in the top 20 national teams in the world, but definitely not in the top 10. Despite the embarrassing last-place finish in France '98 -- where the United States lost to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia, scoring exactly one goal in the process -- it's important to realize that the team has now qualified for four consecutive World Cups. That's not an insignificant achievement. Much better teams from such soccer-mad nations as England, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Chile and Colombia cannot make the same claim.

The good news about the U.S. team that flew to Korea last week is that it's by far the best we've ever fielded. We have two world-class goalkeepers, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, who both play at the top level in England and would start for most nations in the world. (Unfortunately, U.S. coach Bruce Arena can start only one at a time.) Midfielders Claudio Reyna and Eddie Lewis, along with defender Gregg Berhalter, also ply their trade in England. So does forward Joe-Max Moore, who may not even start. Defenders Tony Sanneh, Frankie Hejduk and Steve Cherundolo play in Germany; defender David Regis in France, midfielder Earnie Stewart in Holland.

None of those guys is the best player on the team: Midfielder-forward Clint Mathis, of the MLS MetroStars, may be the showboat attacker American soccer fans have longed for. With his talent, swagger and fearlessness, Mathis could become the first Yank goal-scoring star for a top club in Europe (where he'll undoubtedly end up after the tournament concludes). And there are younger players on the U.S. squad, like speed-burning forwards Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, whose upside may be even bigger than Mathis'.

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OK, now the bad news: The best-ever American team still might not be good enough to escape the first round. (If the United States didn't quite deserve its dismal fate in '98, its fluke victory over Colombia and second-round appearance at USA '94 was even more of an aberration.) The 32 World Cup teams are divided into eight groups of four teams for round-robin play; the top two teams in each group after those three games advance to the round of 16. Coach Arena's squad was drawn into a tough opening group with Portugal, one of the hottest teams in Europe and a dark-horse contender to win the cup; co-host South Korea, whose rabid fans will view the U.S. game as their Olympics and Super Bowl rolled into one; and Poland, exactly the kind of bruising, physical team that gives the Americans problems.

What targets can the Yanks set for themselves? Fans with some sense of reality and perspective, I think, will have to be content with precisely the kind of wussy-face moral victories that make most American sports fans contemptuous of soccer in the first place. Advancing to the second round of 16 will require a minor miracle, probably at least a win and a draw in those three matches. Winning a game -- any game -- would be impressive. Seriously, though, playing respectably this time around might have to be enough: getting a draw or two, scoring three or four goals, keeping the talented Portuguese squad from running up the score.

Furthermore, American exceptionalism aside, there's no shame in that; most of the 31 other qualifiers are in the same position. Uruguay, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Belgium, like the United States, are basically Morehead State in the NCAA tournament: They're all hoping to play well, catch a break somewhere along the line, and give the home fans something to cheer about. Their chances of hoisting the cup in Yokohama on June 30 are near zero, and they know it.

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Somebody will raise the chalice, of course, and if it isn't one of the soccer world's aforementioned big four nations, it'll be a major upset. Most of the talk has been about Argentina and France, which might suit the previously glamorous Brazilians and Italians just fine -- who knows how they'll react to an underdog role? (Brazil, the four-time champion and a perennial favorite, was plagued by scandal, infighting and injury during the qualifying rounds and barely squeaked into the tournament. A recent New York Times story even suggested that the soccer-crazed Brazilian public has largely turned its back on this year's squad.)

If one of the top four slips up, a handful of talented dark-horse teams -- principally England, Germany, Portugal and Spain -- are waiting to pounce. In fact, the quarterfinal brackets suggest a possible Spain-Portugal matchup, the result of which might affect the economy and culture of the Iberian peninsula for decades.

Then there are the rank outsiders, one of whom might sneak through to the semifinals the way Croatia did after ousting Germany in '98. Unpredictable, underachieving Nigeria? The impressive new generation from Ireland? The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon? The wily veterans from Russia? Nope, sorry, not this time.

Traditionally, European teams win the cup when the tournament is held in Europe, and Latin American teams win when it's held in the Americas. So who wins the first-ever Asian installment? Not South Korea, Japan or China, although you shouldn't be shocked if the latter two teams find a way to sneak into the second round.

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It's always boring to pick the defending champion, but if the unstoppable Zidane recovers from his thigh injury to play at full strength in the second round and thereafter, I'm not sure anybody can beat the French combination of talent and experience. Still, they'll be tested: The tourney's later brackets suggest that France may face Brazil in the quarterfinals and Argentina in the semis, so victory won't come cheap.

The modest surprise will be Spain: That talented group of perennial underachievers will make its mark by winning that crackling quarterfinal against Portugal, surprising Italy in the semis, and losing a tightly contested battle to the French on the last Sunday in June.

Then again, a Salon colleague who knows at least as much about the game as I do claims that injury-plagued Germany will find a surprise path to the final, beating Croatia in the quarters and Portugal in the semis to find themselves facing Brazil in Yokohama. Of course, he's German. Still, even after imagining his heroes getting that far, he thinks Brazil will beat them. Like all true soccer fans, he's a dreamer who knows that fate, in the end, is a cruel mistress.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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