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13 Jun 2010

Let the games begin – At the end of my last post, I said that when you next heard from me I would be “very happy, partially happy, or bummed.” Well, I would have to say I am much closer to the very happy end of the spectrum. Five games have been played so far in the World Cup, and I managed to catch four of them. The first was the opening match between South Africa and Mexico. I have no real stake in either team, but it was the opening match and it was on at a reasonable hour here, so I decided to watch it. Imagine my surprise when South Africa scored the first goal of the match (and, fittingly, the first goal of the tournament). I was rooting for them as the home team, but I didn’t really think they stood a chance against Mexico. But Mexico couldn’t seem to pull it together, and even though they ended up scoring an equalizer, South Africa played very well and came away with a deserved point.

“Before the tournament started, people here were talking about getting to the round of 16. This morning they’re talking about making it through to the quarterfinals.”

The next match I watched was the third match, yesterday’s match between Korea and Greece. Last week I said that I would be cheering Korea on in the hopes that they would “pull off an upset,” but I don’t know if the 2-0 victory can really be called an upset—the way they played, it looked like there was never a doubt in their minds that they were going to win. Korea pulled ahead with an early goal that came so easily Hyunjin and I were caught off guard. We were sitting there talking about something and suddenly the ball was in the goal. From that point on Korea never looked back. Greece did threaten at times, but the best they could muster were long passes from midfield that hoped to find forwards in the box. There certainly were a few close calls, but after a while it became apparent that Greece didn’t really have anything else up their sleeves, and Korea’s defenders routinely handled most of these challenges.

The goal of the match (and the FIFA goal of the day) came in the second half, a beautiful effort from my man Park Ji-sung. I call him “my man” because I’ve been a fan of his since the 2002 World Cup, when he scored a great goal against Portugal. There was just something in the way he handled himself that was fresh and different, and I knew he would be going places (although I never imagined he would be going as far as Old Trafford). Anyway, the goal he scored last night was perfect: picking off a poor pass, powering past a defender, and then calmly lifting the ball over the sliding goalkeeper.

Korea had other chances to score, two of them off textbook passes from Park Ji-sung, but they failed to capitalize. I was particularly disappointed with Park Chu-young’s performance. He played hard and gave it his best, but he missed a couple of perfect chances that would have buried Greece. There is always room for improvement, no matter how well a team does, but minor quibbles aside I think this was the best performance I have ever seen from Korea in an international match not played on Korean soil. They dominated Greece, recorded the first victory of the tournament, and put themselves at the top of their group. Before the tournament started, people here were talking about getting to the round of 16. This morning they’re talking about making it through to the quarterfinals. I think this might be a case of drinking one’s kimchi soup first (or counting your chickens before they’re hatched, to use a more familiar Western saying), but it’s hard not to be excited.

Hyunjin had made some Korean-style sea snails to go with the beers we were having during the match, and when the match was over I didn’t feel like I was ready to go to bed with the food still in my stomach. And I guess being excited about the victory probably had something to do with it as well. So I decided to stay up and watch the Argentina-Nigeria match to see what Korea’s competition looked like. I was expecting Argentina to win, and they did, but I doubt that they were entirely happy with their three points. They managed to score very early (that was something of a trend in yesterday’s matches), but for the rest of the match they either squandered scoring opportunities or were stopped cold by Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama—who, despite being on the losing side, was named man of the match. With the game so close, all Nigeria had to do was take advantage of one opportunity and they could have come away with a point, but their offense was positively anemic. When all was said and done, they had one shot on goal, and they never really threatened the Argentinian defense. All of this bodes well for Korea, of course, but who’s to say what Argentina will look like in their next match? Perhaps this match will be a wake-up call and they will play superbly against Korea. The next match will be the toughest of the three in group play for Korea, but if they can come out unsullied, I think they will go through.

The last match I watched was the USA-England match at 3:30 this morning. After the Argentina-Nigeria match ended, I went to sleep for about two and a half hours, but when I woke up I wasn’t feeling too well—the sea snails were having their revenge. My condition did not improve when the match started and the U.S. looked like they were scrambling to avoid being run over by a steamroller. The steamroller caught up with them only four minutes into the match, when Gerrard scored what I have to admit was a lovely goal. Things looked pretty grim for a while, but then it seemed that the U.S. calmed down and started to get their game back. Just as it was starting to look like the U.S. wasn’t going to have any luck on offense, Dempsey put a fairly easy shot on net that somehow managed to get by Green, and suddenly the game was tied. England applied the pressure in the second half, but the U.S. defense clamped down and Howard was solid.

To be honest, before the match I would have said that I would be happy with a draw. Obviously I was hoping for a win, but considering that the other two teams in our group are Slovenia and Algeria, a draw against England is a good result. I don’t think we got lucky, either—sure, the goal that made it past Green was a clear mistake on his part, but he made a great save in the second half on what I was sure would be a goal. If he had made the first save against Dempsey and missed Altidore’s shot later on, no one would have blamed him, but the result would have been the same. The fact of the matter is that England had plenty of chances to pull ahead, but they failed to do so, in part because of missed opportunities and in part because of some excellent goalkeeping from Howard and some very tight defense in the box. I could see the frustration on their faces—especially Rooney—as the clock wound down. England face Algeria next, and I bet they’ll be looking to redeem themselves. Poor Algeria.

Speaking of Algeria, in about fifteen minutes their match with Slovenia will be starting. I guess I’ll go watch that to see how the rest of Group C stacks up. Korea’s next match is Thursday and the USA’s next match is Friday, so I imagine I’ll be back again on Saturday at the latest.

Too bad this only happens once every four years. No, on second thought, maybe it’s better this way.

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