World Cup Diary
Day Seven Reviews and Fishy Chips
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 15, 2006
From the sounds of it, the United States football team is out of this competition. I don’t need to see another game to know that the team has already beaten itself. It’s not being self-critical and self-loathing the way any good football team would be, its members aren’t merely bitching out their coach and second-guessing his decisions. They’re doing something more revealing about their defeatist mindset: they’re offering up excuses about their own play. Midfielder Bobby Convey: “I think the reason we didn’t do well is because everyone did not do their role, maybe didn’t know their role, maybe didn’t know what to do.” I’d like to hear one back-benching Brazilian player in the history of the sport being caught dead saying “I didn’t know what to do,” or looking to the coach as his reason for being on the pitch. There is an instinctive knowingness about good teams that makes a coach almost superfluous. He’s there to oil the way, not to create it, least of all to justify it. Landon Donovan: “I need to get the ball in better spots. If we’re going to concede that we’re just going to move the ball uphill, that’s not playing into my strength.” Again with the scapegoats. So two days after their defeat, the Americans are still looking backward and downward, their attitudes as negative as their play. Italy must be smiling. The lousy prospects for Saturday’s Italy game are bad enough. But it’s football’s prospects in the United States that will suffer especially if the team continues its ugly-American act. Another game like the Czech fry will reinforce many a stereotype Americans love to kick around about football, setting back the game’s progress in the country. It won’t be fatal. The immigrant upsurge is the wind behind soccer’s sails in the United States. But the national team can provide that extra push necessary to take the game into the mainstream, rather than leave it to the snobs and the rich suburban. Italy of course could fall apart and give the United States a chance. But that’s not the way to win hearts and cleated boots. The United States need to beat an Italy in top form, the way—as one reader put it—the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets at Lake Placid in 1980.
But this is turning into a US-centric mania. And so onto the rest of the field. Great games and duds have followed each other: a World Cup like any other, except for goal production. Despite yesterday’s eight goals in two games, we’re still below the best recent averages, and very close to the worst of 1990. We need more goals. The 1-0 Germany victory over Poland was a wonderful display of power and resilience. You can excuse the low score the way you can’t in that dismal 0-0 draw between France and Switzerland, so far (with England and the United States) the least inspiring teams of the tournament. England today goes up against Trinidad & Tobago, the team that gave us that other wonderful 0-0 draw with Sweden when Hislop, Trinidad’s goalkeeper, turned into the Great Wall of China. Two straight miraculous performances in goal are too much to ask. The Trinidadians will have to manage more attacks. They had just six shots all match against Sweden’s 18, and only two of those were on goal. That won’t beat England even if England plays as moronically as it did against Paraguay ( England had 13 shots in that match, just 5 of them on goal.) I started this World Cup cheering for England, as I always have since living there in 1978-79 (I’m an Everton fan—yes, say what you will about its middling recent history, but it’s the only team never to leave the Premiership), but that game against Paraguay was such a downer, and the continued focus on Wayne Rooney despite his absence from the field has turned into a bore worthy of “The English Patient.”
Can we expect a game today as thrilling as Spain-Ukraine? Sure it was a one-sided match, but Spain’s display has so far been the most dominant of any team. First up is Ecuador-Costa Rica, a chance for either team to claim second place now that Poland is packing its bags for the well-deserved train ride back to Warsaw. It’s not that Poland couldn’t squeak by, but it would take all sorts of machinations, like two huge defeats by Ecuador and a 70-0 win by Poland against Costa Rica, in its last game. Not very likely. The last game of the day will pit Paraguay and Sweden. Sweden can’t afford another draw, nor can we afford a low-scoring display of iffiness. Paraguay in its match against England showed itself to be easily beatable by a marginally good team. And so, off to Hamburg.