The World Cup cometh

The U.S. may not survive the first round against Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. But nobody said getting respect on the global soccer stage was going to be easy.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published December 12, 2005 11:01AM (EST)

If 2002 was the year the United States team came of age in international soccer, that makes 2006 ... well, what, exactly? Based on the way things look following the draw for the '06 World Cup tournament -- conducted Friday night in Leipzig, Germany -- it might be the year they find out that being a grown-up sometimes involves getting your ass kicked and then acting philosophical about it afterward.

As anyone who even glanced at a sports section on Saturday already knows, the U.S. was drawn into a round-robin group that includes Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. This was pretty bleak news, on the face of it. The Italians and Czechs are two of Europe's (and hence the world's) best teams, and will be playing on their home continent before stadiums crammed with their supporters, chanting peculiar slogans and waving tribal banners. And while Ghana is a little-known nation in international soccer, many who follow the sport in Africa say it has recently assembled one of that continent's best teams. This may or may not be the "Group of Death," an unofficial label bestowed on the tournament's toughest group (and in case you were wondering, the German for that is "Todesgruppe"), but whichever way you slice it, it's a pretty dang tough slab of pie.

Only two of the four teams in each opening-round group advance to the next round, so to even approach their striking success of 2002 (when they reached the quarterfinals and outplayed Germany in a 1-0 loss), the Americans will need at least a win and a draw from these three games, plus a respectable defeat in the third game and a fair bit of luck. Of course I should exercise sportswriterly caution and say you never know, all 32 teams are good or they wouldn't have made it that far, etc. But it isn't a very likely scenario, and everyone knows it. The U.S. team has never won a World Cup game played in Europe, and its overall record on that continent is an appalling 11-33-6. Maybe those are negligible psychological factors, but when you're facing the smothering Italian defense or the physical, ball-control attack of the Czechs, they certainly don't help.

Barely had the national-flag logos been posted on the wall in Leipzig before analysts started writing the Americans and Ghanaians out of the tournament. Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira even began musing about a second-round match against Italy or the Czechs, which assumes both that Brazil will win its group and that the U.S. (and Ghana) will be eliminated. In the world of soccer, only a Brazilian is entitled to that level of arrogance.

But steady on, Yank soccer fans. I feel your pain and I understand your near-constant yearning for reassurance. If this glass is half empty (OK, a lot closer to empty than to full), it still has some water in it. That water pretty much consists of respect, and if respect isn't going to get you a lengthy run in this tournament, it's still better than the alternative. The mere fact that some journalists have dubbed this the Group of Death signifies that after the shocks of '02, no one in the soccer world will ever take the U.S. team lightly again. A Group of Death, after all, has four good teams by definition, any of whom could conceivably beat any of the others.

In the 2002 tournament, international soccer fans and reporters learned about the American team's style; they undoubtedly know more about it than most American sports fans do. The U.S. (at least under current coach Bruce Arena) is regarded as a tenacious team, difficult to break down, whose players possess tremendous athleticism and dedication, but not much technical skill. The Americans tend to frustrate opponents, deaden the game in midfield, and then launch unpredictable, helter-skelter counterattacks that can slice unwary defenses apart. This was what the world saw when a cocky Portugal team (one of the tournament favorites) took the field against the U.S. on June 5, 2002, in Korea -- and gave up three goals in the first 36 minutes.

Argue with me if you must, patriots, but this international view of U.S. soccer is largely accurate. Purists don't much care for this style. (Mexicans complain constantly that the U.S. doesn't play "futbol de verdad," now that they can no longer reliably beat us.) But at least in certain matches and certain situations, it's a highly effective adaptation of the northern European focus on defense to a nation whose athletes are superbly conditioned but have (mostly) never played soccer as an improvisational street sport.

If Brazil's Parreira is writing off the U.S. a little too early, Italian coach Marcello Lippi isn't. "It's a tricky group," he told a Reuters reporter, insisting that all the matches would be tough and declining to say that Italy was better than either the U.S. or the Czechs. Of course that's just ordinary coach-speak, on one level, but Lippi also understands the Italians' World Cup history, which involves a lengthy list of lackluster first-round performances. Lippi is probably delighted for his moody Azzurri to face the Czech challenge, in what will be one of the tournament's defining early matches, but likely views the U.S. game as a trap waiting to be sprung.

In fact, the U.S.-Italy game (on June 17 in Kaiserslautern) has deadly 0-0 draw, or even upset, written all over it. If that were the Americans' opening game, I'd be far more sanguine about the possibility of the Yanks advancing. Instead, the U.S. will open the tournament against the Czechs, on June 12 in Gelsenkirchen, and that's the toughest possible beginning in this group.

With veteran stars Pavel Nedved (who plays for the Italian club team Juventus) and Vladimir Smicer (of the French team Bordeaux) dominating the midfield, and one of the world's best goalkeepers in Petr Cech (of English champions Chelsea), the Czechs are exactly the kind of tough, skilled European side who won't be fazed by the U.S. style. I suspect the Americans could fight hard and play well in that game, and end up losing 2-0 or 3-1. The way I see it, they'll be going home with two losses and a draw.

In some epochal, big-picture long view, I also think that result might be a good thing. No, it won't help soccer conquer the American sports marketplace, but guess what? That wasn't happening anyway. Instead, it might remind us that becoming one of the world's best teams -- not on paper, or based on a couple of anomalous upsets, but in reality -- is a lengthy and difficult process. It's not a question of locking a bunch of white kids from the burbs away in soccer academies and boot camps where every mark of individuality is rigorously ironed out of them. It's about learning that soccer is not a healthful youth activity or a career path for athletic kids too small for football or basketball, it's a game. It's about developing a true soccer culture, and that remains a long way off.

Because I can't resist trying to handicap a sports event that's still six months away, a few thoughts about the rest of the field:

As nearly everyone has said already, Germany, England, Brazil and France -- probably the four teams with the best chance of lifting the trophy on July 9 in Berlin -- all got virtual free passes into the second round. Did they bribe Heidi Klum's pedicurist or something? The Germany-Costa Rica match that will open the tournament on June 9 in Munich has to be the most mismatched opening-ceremony game in living memory.

When England plays Paraguay in the Group B opener on June 10, it's also a mismatch (if not as egregious). More than that, it's an early candidate for most boring game of the entire tournament. Yes, I know, the English do play an attacking game these days, but Paraguay plays 10 men behind the ball virtually all the time, and can probably lure the Lions into one of those sloppy, stop-and-start, midfield games where you'll learn a great deal from the announcers about Paraguay's national dish and how it compares to steak-and-kidney pie. At least we'll get to see David Beckham whine.

I still haven't figured out why Trinidad & Tobago has a white player. But it's probably the same reason Croatia has a Brazilian player.

Right now the English sports pages are all about the fact that English coach Sven Goran Eriksson is from Sweden, and that England will play Sweden on June 20 in Cologne. Officially, this is a game to watch between two good teams and all that. But let me crawl right out on a limb and announce that this one will be boring too.

OK, let's be clear that the real Group of Death is Group C, the one with Argentina, the Netherlands, Serbia and Ivory Coast. I know nothing about the Ivory Coast team beyond the presence of lethal Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, but that's enough. The other three teams are all legitimate contenders for the championship, and no other group can say that. The Argentina-Netherlands game (June 21 in Frankfurt) is, at least on paper, the match of the entire first round, both because it's likely to decide the group and nearly certain to be a brilliant display.

The only thing you can say about Group D (Mexico, Iran, Portugal and Angola) is that it looks fun because it's totally unpredictable. It's also meaningless, since none of those teams has a prayer of getting past the second round. How did that wind up being a group? The Portugal-Angola game has the potential to be one of the ugliest colonial-oppressor-vs.-former-colony matches in soccer history, even if it can't challenge the Frantz Fanon Cup (France-Senegal in 2002) for high drama.

I've suspected for some weeks that the surprise team of this tournament would be Australia. The Socceroos are a rough and tumble bunch, mostly honed in England and other major Euro-leagues. They won't be intimidated, even though their nation hasn't made it to the World Cup since 1974. But they got no favors from the draw, since they have to play Brazil, Croatia and Japan (who are amazing, very good and good, respectively) in Group F. G'day, mates.

Even the French coach admitted it'll be boring for them to play Switzerland again in their opening match. (They were in the same qualifying group, and are of course neighboring countries.) Les Bleus would be primed for another disastrous meltdown, à la '02, if they hadn't lucked into such an easy-breezy group. They also play South Korea, who will be out of their depth after overachieving at home last time around, and Togo. That's Togo, the tiny country in West Africa, not Togo's, the sandwich chain. And I can't believe I made that joke either.

Spain supposedly has an easy path through the round too, playing Ukraine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. But this is the Spanish national soccer team we're talking about. Sure, they have a prodigious amount of talent, and can sometimes play so beautifully you'll want to cry. But as any longtime fan will assure you, they'll find a way to screw this up.

One of the important things I look for in any World Cup is a game that creates an unlikely collision between two nations whose respective citizens couldn't find each other's countries on a map with, like, five guesses. (I tried to come up with a joke here about how any game the U.S. plays fulfills at least half this criterion -- but it's not working, is it?) Certainly the Togo-Switzerland game (June 19) is promising in this regard. So is Ukraine-Tunisia (June 23). But I think the winner has to be Ivory Coast-Serbia, on June 21. That should actually be a good game! Besides, it will offer residents of those two tormented countries a chance to focus on a sport that is not a matter of life and death but is, as an English coach once cracked, something much more important than that.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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