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World Cup Diary
Day Nine: Stumps and Tripes Forever

Thursday’s games turned out to be the most exciting of this decidedly sub-pat World Cup so far: a thrashing (Argentina over Serbia, 6-0), a wonderful surprise (Angola’s Black Antelopes holding off holding off Mexico, 0-0) and in what has to be one of the most entertaining games of the tournament, Holland’s stylish 2-1 win over the Ivory Coast’s Elephants. Despite that little shower of goals, the 2.39 goal-average per game is still the second-lowest of the modern era. We need more goals. If the roller-coaster pattern of the World Cup continues, and if the American team’s dismal performance against Czechoslovakia carries over to its game against Italy at 3 p.m. (EST) today, we’re in for a few disappointments, although it seems unlikely that a Czech team, even without the great Koller, won’t lay waste to Ghana, or that Portugal won’t do the same to a very conventional Iran. That leaves us with the supposed marquee match of the day. I’m not holding up hopes for an American win, although a draw (which would be pointless for America’s hopes) is always a possibility against the dullard and offensively inoffensive-minded Italians. Since the American team’s loss last Monday it’s been all bitching and moaning and scapegoating. The team has shown nothing more inspiring than an ability to turn on itself, led by coach Bruce Arenna, who bears at least some of the responsibility for Monday’s implosion for fielding a team of grandparents against the Czechs, when he had more lethal talent on the bench. Yes the coach’s decisions are always second-guessed. It’s a football tradition. But that doesn’t mean all the second-guessing is always wrong. In this case, the result shows it enough: Bruce Arena was wrong. Making amends against the Italians won’t be easy. There’s mousse and corruption all over the Italian side, but there’s also style and certainty in that Totti-Tony combination (Luca Tony, the one Italian I’m rooting for). And there’s history. Never has the American team managed a victory against Italy. Even less on European soil. Even less in front of a crowd that will be overwhelmingly hostile: Forget the reigning anti-Americanism sweeping Europe. That’s ugly enough and undeserved, so far as a football team is concerned. But anti-Americanism directed at a team’s poor play is fair game, and these men deserve all the jeering they got, and will get, if they keep up their ugly play. Things change. There’s always room for miracles in football. But the Americans have done too much to discredit and disfavor themselves. The Italians are doing too much to deserve themselves a berth in the latter stages of the tournament. And this World Cup has been short on miracles and short on drama. All this still adds up to a great chance and minuscule possibility of a classic football match, if the Americans can muster the best performance of their lives. I don’t believe in miracles except at World Cup time. I’m rooting for one this afternoon. But I’m also feeling more pessimistically German than Gunter Grass and Thomas Mann put together.

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