Sacre bleu! Dios mio! It's the Bizarro World Cup!

France fades into Sartrean nothingness, Argentina dances the tango of despair and the United States and Japan, titans of world baseball -- sorry, I mean soccer -- rise up.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published June 12, 2002 6:23PM (EDT)

Way out there on the other side of the Pacific, where the approaching East Asian monsoon season threatens to drown the gladiators of World Cup 2002, the soccer world has become Bizarro World. So it seems, anyway, as the tournament's first round comes to a close and both defending champion France and pre-tournament favorite Argentina depart under black clouds of their own making, the French without winning a game or even scoring a goal.

The United States team -- long viewed as a club-footed outsider in the sphere of international soccer -- dropped the soccer equivalent of a daisy-cutter bomb on heavily favored Portugal and is virtually certain to advance to the round of 16, while world-football darlings Italy and Portugal were forced to gaze deeply into the Nietzschean abyss of first-round elimination that had already claimed France and Argentina. Japan and South Korea have been revealed as maniacal attacking sides that nobody wants to play; apparently Asian soccer was ready for its close-up after all.

Unheralded sides from Costa Rica, Denmark, Ireland and Paraguay are all still alive, while the French, winners of both the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European championship ... well, let's just say il fait très beau in Paris this time of year. Although nonscoring forwards David Trézéguet and Thierry Henry -- the latter ignominiously missing the last game after being sent off with a red card -- had better wear disguises if they want to get served in the hot boîtes of the Left Bank.

But beneath the apparent chaos of upsets and topsy-turvy group results, soccer order is in fact asserting itself. Sooner or later the glass slippers will be pried off the American and Japanese and Senegalese feet. Nearly unnoticed amid the hubbub, a handful of elite teams -- mainly the old warhorses from Brazil and Germany, with England and Spain lurking just behind -- have come through the first stage reasonably unscathed and are now zeroed in on winning the championship. (Despite its mediocre first-round play, Italy also scraped through on Thursday morning, thanks to a 1-1 draw with Mexico and Croatia's surprising loss to Ecuador; if Portugal can survive South Korea on Friday, they'll remain contenders as well.)

You could even call this year's tournament the Revenge of the Ice People: With Denmark, England, Germany and Sweden all advancing -- and one or two of those teams likely to survive to the semifinals -- the grind-it-out industrial style of North Sea soccer seems to have vanquished its flashier Mediterranean cousin. None of this, of course, is to say there won't be more shockers: Japan in the semifinals? The U.S. beating Italy and Spain? This is the year when the old sports cliché that anything can happen is actually true.

Some jerk who writes for Salon apparently picked France to repeat this year, but without injured midfield general Zinédine Zidane, who watched the first two games from the sidelines, the team was revealed as an incoherent collection of high-priced talent, disorganized in defense and jittery on the attack. The championship French team had seemed, almost miraculously, to escape from the phlegmatic national character, but in its second game of this tournament, a spiritless 0-0 draw with Uruguay, all the ennui and anomie and escargots and general je ne sais quoi seemed to come flooding back.

As Internet soccer scribe Adam Novy has observed, this journey through the desert of goallessness transformed French head coach Roger Lemerre into Jean-Paul Sartre: "Doubt is the fate of all thinking men," he told a postgame press conference. Zidane returned for the final game against Denmark but limped around through the thickening existential gloom with his thigh muscle heavily bandaged while Trézéguet bounced more shots off the crossbar. It was 2-0 Denmark and back to the future for France: If the joyous '98 victory was often compared to the 1944 Liberation, this ignominious defeat (coupled with the international embarrassment caused by semifascist presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen) might bring the national mood closer to the humiliation of 1940.

Sure, Argentina was the consensus front-runner this year, but the potential for disaster was evident all along. The players pretty much announced that they were bringing home the Cup to salve their nation's wounded pride -- to say nothing of its ruined economy -- when what they were really doing was writing the script to a classic Argentine melodrama of tragic love and crushed expectations. After barely managing to squeak out a 1-0 win over Nigeria in a game where they had 77,538 scoring chances (by my unofficial count), the Argentines were driven to boredom and despair -- along with the world television audience -- by the smothering defenses of England and Sweden.

England's 1-0 win (the only goal coming on a David Beckham penalty kick) was sweet revenge for the Three Lions after a lengthy history of frustration against the Argentines, but purely as a soccer game it didn't live up to expectations. England triumphed on sound tactical play and midfield ball control, which is a good way to burrow yourself close to a championship without quite finishing the job. I officially predict that England's second-round matchup with Denmark will be the most boring game in history, an unendurable draw decided on penalty kicks (with the lucky winner facing Brazil in the quarterfinals).

Even after the dispiriting loss to England, all Argentina had to do was beat Sweden on Wednesday to advance, but that's never an easy or enjoyable task. The Swedes played most of the game with their entire team behind the ball (i.e., defending their own goal) and then, with the Argentine players apparently distracted by their own theatrical flailing, snatched a goal on a beautiful free kick by Anders Svensson. Finally playing with enthralling desperation, Argentina equalized when Hernán Crespo knocked in a rebound off a penalty shot with two minutes to go, and actually had several last-second chances to seize a winner. But Claudio López sent another four or five lovely, curling shots high and wide, looked heavenward in desolation as he had been doing since the opening whistle, and the tango of despair was complete. Maybe the Argentine players should spend the summer in Paris too; I wouldn't recommend going back to Buenos Aires just yet.

The cup's third- or fourth-biggest surprise so far has been the emergence of the U.S. team, a phenomenon long predicted by the tiny cadre of American soccer loyalists (who have probably long since stopped believing their own hype) and long dreaded by the rest of the world. In case you still thought that people of all nations felt love for the Red, White and Blue just because of those buildings that got knocked down, roll the videotape of those South Korean players celebrating their goal against the U.S. with a dance mocking American Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno.

Ohno is a Korea-specific ugly American, to be sure; the point is that most soccer fans around the globe watched the 3-2 ambush of Portugal and the frantic 1-1 draw with South Korea in a state approaching horror. Americans in general still don't care about men's soccer, even if 20-year-old U.S. forward Landon Donovan has become an overnight teen heartthrob and sports-talk shows have temporarily abandoned their usual tone of condescension. That makes it even worse, in European eyes, that coach Bruce Arena's team, with its inelegant, scrambly athleticism, now looks capable of beating almost anyone if it gets a few lucky bounces.

It should be said that the U.S. was more than a little lucky to scrape a point out of the Korea game (in soccer, you get three points in the standings for a win and one for a tie), played before a hysterical, red-painted home crowd that seemed on the verge of spontaneous human combustion. If the speedy and superbly conditioned Koreans had any finishing ability whatsoever they would have won by two or three goals. But luck happens when the soccer gods start to smile on you.

Internet soccer geeks have been baying for Arena's head since midway through the U.S. team's uneven qualifying run, but everything he's done in this tournament has turned to gold. He kept head-case star striker Clint Mathis on the bench against Portugal, and Donovan and fellow 20-year-old DaMarcus Beasley ran the Portuguese defense ragged. He put Mathis -- now sporting a hideous Travis Bickle mohawk -- back on the field against South Korea, and Mathis slithered through an invisible crack in the defense to score the Yanks' only goal. He started Brad Friedel in goal ahead of the more experienced Kasey Keller, and Friedel became the first 'keeper in this year's tournament to stop a penalty kick.

On the other hand, Arena is probably still starting central defender Jeff Agoos because by rule he has to put 11 players on the field. Either that or he views Agoos as some kind of good-luck mojo, since Agoos -- a great guy and a dependable Major League Soccer performer for the San Jose Earthquakes -- has been repeatedly torched by opposing forwards and is personally responsible for all three goals the U.S. has surrendered to date (an own-goal and two blown assignments). The Yanks have some real talent along with confidence, swagger and luck. What they don't have is discipline or depth, and eventually someone will make them pay for it.

Who exactly will that someone be? It's too early to say. Presuming the Americans get at least a draw out of their Friday game with winless and goalless Poland, they'll play a second-round game on June 17 or 18, probably against Italy or Mexico. Survive that encounter -- and, given the mood of the soccer gods and those teams' self-destructive tendencies, it's not out of the question -- and it's on to the quarterfinals, most plausibly against either Germany or Spain.

Germany is a mentally and physically tough team; the U.S. cannot and will not beat them in such a high-pressure game. The Spaniards, on the other hand, are the perennial choke artists of world soccer. Fumbling away a huge match to an overmatched U.S. team would be precisely the sort of ignominious flop for which they're celebrated. A bad call in the penalty box, a sneaky Mathis goal, more of that "When Chickens Attack!" offense from Donovan and Beasley and there you have it: The U.S. plays in the World Cup's final four while the male populations of Europe and South America commit ritual suicide.

OK, it won't happen. What will have to happen eventually -- to avoid an upset of outlandish proportions, that is -- is that someone will have to beat Japan, with its surprisingly elegant rabid-Smurfs attacking style, in front of 10 bazillion screaming Japanese fans. Nobody wants this job, which is why Japan will overwhelm whoever they play in the second round (Costa Rica or Turkey) and could pose a real threat to the Arctic composure of the Swedes in the quarterfinals. You really, honest to God, might see Japan facing Brazil in one semifinal while Germany plays Spain in the other.

Indeed, almost any fan inspecting the probable second-round bracket would pick Brazil and Germany -- who have both played with calm competence and avoided the spotlight -- as the new favorites to hoist the trophy in Yokohama on June 30. But this tournament has been excessively cruel to favorites so far, and anyone who has watched its parade of dazzling upsets has to wonder whether the soccer gods are done laughing.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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