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Sweden’s Christian Wilhelmsson, right, competing against Trinidad and Tobago’s Avery John Saturday.[Murad Sezer, AP]

World Cup Diary
Day Three: Reviews, Previews & Revenge

Two days, five games, twelve goals in Germany 2006. That gives us an average of 2.4 goals per game, lowest worst in the history of the World Cup, after the dismal one worthy of Dante’s inferno, the 1990 cup held—where else, Italy, land of the zero-zero tie and boring-as-hell football. That one clocked in at 115 goals in 52 matches (there were just 24 teams back then), for an average of 2.2 per game. The last two cups, France 1998 and U.S. 1994 both managed averages of 2.7 goals per game, but the last time we had anything more honorable was in 1970, when Brazil put on its Art Ensemble of Brazilia display in Mexico and those 32 matches (just 16 teams in the competition) resulted in a 3.0 average. And still, that was pretty low compared with previous world cups. Up until 1958, when the competition was admittedly a very clubbish affair (13 to 16 teams participated in its early years), the averages went like this: 3.9 in Uruguay (1930), 4.1 in Italy (1934), 4.7 in France (1938), 4.0 in Brazil (1950), 5.4 in Switzerland (1954) and 3.6 in Sweden (1958). That makes this World Cup’s totals even more dismal. I’m looking for a 3.0 average at least, if this is to be an occasion as joyous as it ought to be. No more of these Ireland-Italy games, no more of these pseudo-chess matches on the pitch.

Then again, we had a match like yesterday’s 0-0 tie between Trinidad and Sweden, certainly the best match of the tournament so far (Reuters gives it to Argentina-Ivory Coast, a fair enough point of dispute). It’s not always about the score. The quality of play is what matters best, and Trinidad-Sweden’s quality was higher than what we saw in Germany’s 4-2 defeat of Costa Rica despite the goals. What was heartening in that case was to see Germany’s more open style of play, their willingness to play outside their angst and just attack, attack and attack without two generations’ worries that the style might be interpreted as resurgent militarism (let Gunter Grass worry about that). Ecuador’s 2-0 victory over Poland was mildly exciting, but a little too much so from its assumed air of an upset. It was nothing of the sort. Poland are an unexciting team, an old team, a slowish team, Ecuador have grit and gumption, and they managed to lift the stadium’s altitude with their play as if they were in Quito, sinking the Poles even lower than their obviously flabby demeanor. The score was just right. It’s the England-Paraguay match that so far ranks as the stinkest of the tournament. It was slow, uninspired, even pretentious at times as England took on airs of superiority it in no way deserved. Its only goal was scored by Paraguay’s captain, who headed in a curling free kick from Girlie Bekham. The second half of the game was more or less dominated by Paraguay and ended in a deceptive win for England. If England keeps playing like that, it not only will not go very far into the tournament, but it will be ensuring duds along the way that will make their matches look Hamburg-gray.

Today’s matches offer up a great mix of football and political excitement. Holland-Serbia will give us a look into the orange madmen’s perennially underestimated psyche. In my much younger days I used to dislike the Dutch squad for totally irrational reasons, but came around to wishing for more play like theirs. They should make for a very entertaining match against Serbians less known for their excitement, but not necessarily their inability to win. Should we say 3-2 in Holland’s favor, to lift up that overall goal average? And then Mexico-Iran. A curious match-up between two nations that have just about two things in common: lots of oil, and lots of resentment for the United States, even though their nationals don’t take their resentment so far as to decline the chance to trip it into the Fifty States. There’s no way to tell really what kind of quality the Iranians are bringing to the field; their qualifying run to the final included 1-0 and 2-0 wins against North Korea (American commentators will have a field day with that little axis of ironies), wins against Qatar and Bahrain, and big fat wins against no-name Laos, and just two losses: against Japan and Jordan. So the J’s give Iran trouble. Iran’s only victory, remember, is its 2-1 thrashing of the United States in 1998, an undeserved win (I’m not being partisan here, really) in which the U.S. outplayed the Iranians but got unlucky quite a few times (three cross-bar shots, for instance). Still, that was then. Mexico, a strong side with the occasional blond spark, should have no trouble beating Iran. No ties here.

The real fireworks should come from what’s probably the least anticipated match of the day, but only by those who don’t know the history between these two countries. Angola-Portugal is a match for the ages, something like US-Iran in 1998, or England-Argentina in 1990. Angola, you see, was under the jackboots of Portuguese imperialism for a few centuries. Portugal first settled Angolan outposts in 1483 (before Columbus’s “discovery” of America). Angola would only get its independence from Portugal, then a fascist country, in 1975. A lot of blood spilled in between, a lot of massacres, a lot of enslavement, and it hasn’t quite been a walk in the Serengeti since (yes I know, the Serengeti is a world away, but give me a break already). Civil wars, proxy wars (remember how the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro sent “advisers” to Angola to fight the American-backed UNITA forces?). This is Angola’s first-ever entry into the World Cup, but an entry facilitated by weaker teams like Rwanda and Gabon. Still, the Angolans beat Nigeria, too, and Algeria, so they’re no push-overs. It should be a fine match sharpened by the good, clean fun of revenge.

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