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.


Andrew O'Hehir
July 2, 2002 11:48PM (UTC)

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.

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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

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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.

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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 relish beating.

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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.)

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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 down.

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.

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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, honest

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?

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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 that badly)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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