Time for futbol! – So the World Cup is well underway now, with every team having played at least one match. It was not a very auspicious start, with the opening contest between Brazil and Croatia being decided by the referee rather than the players. It’s common knowledge, of course, that the home team gets an advantage with the referees, but it still makes me angry every time I see it happen. And the refereeing in this particular match was beyond the usual level of atrociousness.
I don’t really want to dwell on that here, though. Instead, I’d like to focus on my teams: USA and Korea. Thankfully, my two teams did not draw the same group (meaning no sleeping on the couch), and the chances of them meeting up are virtually nil (even if both teams make it out of group play, unless one of them finishes first in their group, the earliest they could meet would be the finals), so I can root for both of them with no conflicts.
To be honest, before the tournament started, I was not very optimistic about either of my teams advancing to the second stage. Despite the fact that Korea got a relatively easy draw (Group H is the only group with no top ten teams in it), their performance in their pre-tournament friendly against Ghana was absolutely dismal, and they ended up on the wrong end of a 4-0 score. Nothing that I saw in that match inspired any sort of confidence, and I was not alone in that assessment; a lot of my Korean colleagues wondered aloud if Korea would be able to manage even a single win.
On the other side, the US had the spectacularly bad fortune to be stuck in the “Group of Death,” with Germany (ranked #2) and Portugal (ranked #4). Oh, and the weak link is Ghana—a team that had beaten the US in both of their previous World Cup meetings. This was all I knew, though, as the last time I saw the US national side play was during the last World Cup. Despite their relatively high ranking (#13), I didn’t have much faith that the US would survive group play.
And now here we are, on the other side of the first group matches. Do I still feel the same way? Well, I’ll get to that in a bit. First let’s talk about the matches, starting with the US victory over Ghana yesterday. To get straight to the point, I think we got a little lucky. Our left flank leaked like a sieve, with Beasley apparently out of his depth. Bradley was very frustrating in the center as well—the Korean announcers kept talking about how he was running the most of all the players on the field (apparently they have sensors in the athletes’ footwear now that let you know exactly how far everyone runs), but every time I saw him he looked like he was struggling to keep up with the action. Perhaps that’s why he ended up running so much—because he was always behind. And while Ghana were dropping long-distance bombs deep into our left flank seemingly at will, our long passes were ineffectual at best.
Of course, this is not to take away from our two goals. Dempsey’s goal thirty seconds in was pure art, and Brooks’ header to win it at the end was so inspired that Brooks himself could not believe it. But in the 85 minutes between those two goals, the US appeared to be satisfied to sit back on defense, with only the occasional foray forward. This is depressing in and of itself, but even more so because—according to what I’ve read—it is precisely what Klinsmann promised the US were not going to do. The US needed to press their advantage, but for almost the entire match they were playing Ghana’s game. In the words of Christ: “Knock and the door will be opened to you.” Well, Ghana knocked, and the door was eventually opened. (Incidentally, while Jesus was a holy terror on the pitch as a player, with an almost supernatural situational awareness and lightning speed, he was not as loved as a coach, mainly due to his propensity to coach in parables. Much-maligned forward Simon Peter once told reporters that he didn’t realize until one match was over that Jesus had told him the parable of the sower because he wanted Peter to take more shots from outside the penalty area.)
OK, so it’s true that the US kicked down Ghana’s door only a few minutes later—and that was indeed awesome. But it doesn’t change the fact that the US performance was less than stellar. Dempsey’s early strike did indeed take the game to Ghana’s doorstep, but the US then fell back into their old ways. In sum: I was happy that we won, but the victory could have been a lot more convincing.
Today’s match was different. I don’t know if I was expecting Korea to march onto the pitch and get destroyed by Russia (in Mother Russia, football kicks—oh, never mind), but I was prepared for the worst. The side that showed up to play against Russia today, though, was not the same side that got crushed by Ghana. True, the first half ended scoreless, but Korea played well and had some quality scoring chances. Son Heungmin had two shots on goal that he sent high—if he had just calmed down a bit he could have put them on target. And Koo Jacheol had the chance of the half, when a deflected shot went just wide of the net. That could have just as easily gone in.
If I had a concern in the first half, it was that Korea were just not quick enough on the transition to offense. Russia, on the other hand, were very quick, which allowed them to put pressure on Korea in Korea’s own end and then (usually) get back in plenty of time to defend. Well, Korea came out in the second half and did exactly what they needed to do, transitioning to offense a lot more quickly and putting the pressure on. Still, even though there were more scoring chances in the first fifteen minutes of the second half than there had been in the entire first half, the score remained 0-0. It wasn’t until the 25th minute that Lee Keunho scored, but even that was a fluke—Lee shot the ball straight at the keeper in what should have been an easy save, but the ball instead hit the keeper’s hands and then popped up over his head and into the goal. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have taken the shot—after all, statistics show that 100% of all shots not taken fail to find the back of the net—but Korea did get lucky.
Unfortunately, Russia got a break only a few minutes later, when two Russian attackers were left alone in front of Korea’s net (the two defenders seemed more interested in raising their hands, appealing some imaginary foul, than clearing the ball). There was no mistake this time, and the score was again even. Unlike the US-Ghana match, though, that would be the end of the scoring. This was also quite disappointing, since Korea have always been strong at the close, and they should be far more accustomed to playing in heat than the Russian side. But both teams looked beat after the equalizer, and neither posed any real threat in the dying minutes. To sum up: I was happy with the way Korea played, at least compared to recent performances, but their inability to convert chances and the way they completely faded at the end were disappointing.
So where does that leave us? Well, with a victory, the US are now second in their group behind dominant Germany. Another win would almost guarantee advancement, but our next opponent is Portugal. On the plus side of the ledger (for the US), Pepe will be out due to one of the stupidest send-off offenses I have ever seen. On the negative side, though, I’m not sure what Altidore’s status will be for the game. Besides, after their humiliation at Germany’s hands, Portugal will be looking for blood—this next match is a must win for them if they want to advance. Can the US handle Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo?
Korea really needed a win against Russia to get things rolling, although a draw is not fatal. They will have to win a match if they want to advance, though, and Algeria is their best bet. I know nothing about Algeria, but I do know that Korea has historically been weak against African teams. Then again, if Korea play with the same heart and determination that they played with today, who knows? Of course, they will have to figure out how to put the ball in the net—guts alone are not enough to win matches.
If you’ve read this far, you probably want to know if my original prognostications have changed. In a word: no. Don’t get me wrong; I desperately want both of my teams to go through and will be rooting for them all the way. And I am less pessimistic than I was before the start of the tournament. Realistically speaking, though, I do not think that the US can handle Portugal, let alone Germany, and I don’t have too much faith that Korea will suddenly start scoring the goals they need. I hope I am wrong—I will be very happy if I am wrong. But if I were a betting man, I would not bet on either the US or Korea advancing.
As luck would have it, the US and Korea are playing their second matches back to back, next Monday starting at 4:00 in the morning (Korea time—not Korean time, which is a very different thing). I will dutifully be rising early to cheer on my teams, hoping against hope that I’m just being a curmudgeon and they really do have what it takes this year. These second matches will be key—both the US and Korea will face their toughest opponents in the last group match, so victory here will be essential.
As for the rest of the tournament, I haven’t seen enough of the matches to make too many predictions, but my favorites at the moment are the Netherlands, both because I’ve always liked the Oranje and because their performance against defending champions Spain was outstanding. I would like to see England do well, and I think they did play well against Italy despite ending up with no points, but for some reason England have a tendency to go down in flames at the World Cup. Brazil are the tournament favorites, of course, but I have been unimpressed with what I’ve seen so far. They won their first match thanks to the good graces of the referee and settled for a scoreless draw with Mexico this morning. They’ll definitely make it out of their group, but I expect them to be eliminated at some point in the second stage. (In an ideal situation for FIFA, that point would be in the finals.)
There you have it. I wrote last time that “once is enough” when it comes to World Cup ranting, but I will likely write again after the second match, and possibly after the third match as well. We’ll see how it goes.