Jun 30, 2006 

Quarterfinal Craziness: Two Shockers Will Advance

Ukraine's Andriy Shevchenko
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.

World Cup fever has subsided briefly the past two days in preparation for a flurry of exciting football. After Saturday afternoon the final four will be set. Here's how things may shape up:

The Germans are playing the best football, or, at least, the most attractive football of any team in this tournament. Phillip Lahm has been a revelation for Germany. I'm not impressed with Germany's tandem up front of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, but they have been exceptionally opportunistic and that's all that really counts. The question is: Who have they played thus far? Costa Rica, Poland, Ecuador and Sweden. Argentina seems like a huge leap in quality for the Germans. Throw out Argentina's game against Serbia-Montenegro and the meaningless defensive-minded match against the Netherlands and what you have is a solid game against the Ivory Coast and a problematic overtime win against Mexico. Midfielder Juan Riquelme may be playing the best football in the tournament, but the German's homefield advantage and frenetic pace will be too much for the Argentine's this time around.

What a story this would be! After a 4-nil drubbing in the opening game, could a spot in the semifinals be in Ukraine's future? I must admit to the allure of such a great storyline, in addition, to the World Cup premise that at least one side in the semis be a surprise and Ukraine will certainly fit the bill. People talk about England and to some extent Brazil being off kilter despite reaching the quarterfinals. In some respect, the Italians have been even more disheveled and disorganized than anybody else. They've looked ragged in every match including their 2-0 opening win against Ghana. At times, Italy seems like a squad full of guys who've just met each other. This could be the day that everything meshes for Italy, but it also could be the beginning of the end with a foreshadowing of bad things to come from their fortunate win against Australia in the round of 16. Ukraine, on the other hand, has been on a huge upswing since being blown away in their first match against Spain. It may have simply been the case of a World Cup debutante playing too nervously on the world's stage. The offense has begun to come around even as world-class striker Andriy Shevchenko has yet to fully warm his engines and the Ukrainians went toe-to-toe with the best defense in this tournament--Switzerland-- in the round of 16. One shot is going to be all Ukraine needs and it should come from the rejuvenated Shevchenko.

Deco is missing. Costinha is missing. Christiano Ronaldo says he 79.6 percent sure he'll play Saturday (that's rounded to 80 percent) and the English think FIFA should have suspended Luis Figo. This game, probably because of the elite American soccer groupie's predilection to the British media for news, has become a lesson in broadly painted absolutes. England, with only three strikers (one previously out with a broken foot and one whom the manager has never seen play) is said to have little chance of netting a goal unless David Beckham miraculously and famously bends one in and Portugal will somehow be discombobulated without Deco in the middle of the field. What gives? A nil-nil match decided by penalty kicks? Through the many storylines, including Portugal's supposed thuggery, this game will come down to heart. Portugal comes into this game with the intangibles. Despite missing two starters to red card suspensions, they may be the most veteran side in the tournament outside of Brazil. They are definitely the most physically feared and most of all, they have England's number after eliminating them from the past two European championships. Add to that, if this match heads to penalties, a whole different set of mind games begins to emerge in an English psyche that abhors the pressure of deciding a game in this matter. Maniche could be the man to put England out of its misery. The Boston Red Sox of the world soccer add another torturous chapter.

France's come-from-behind win against Spain in the round of 16 was a delightful surprise. Frank Ribery has to have earned a spot in the tournament's Best XI. The freakish looking 22-year-old plays with the pace of a guy loaded off a speed ball. The French looked wonderfully rejuvenated with Zinedine Zidane back in the lineup. For France's sake, Thierry Henry looks like he's ready to explode. If not for a handful of close off-side calls in the Spain match, he may of already taken off. France is going to need a perfect game to upset the world champs. An early goal from either Henry or Ribery is a must along with a long stretch of good defense. When the Brazilians were down briefly against Japan in the group stages an odd cloud of concern blanketed the team. It didn't last long because they quickly equalized and eventually won, 3-1. An extended time behind might rattle the Brazilians. The problem for France, is that Brazil was totally controlled by Ghana and still won handily, 3-0. No team looked so bad, yet made their case for winning the World Cup so precisely. As proven in that game, zero tolerance for errors in transition for France is a certainty against this squad. Sadly, this will probably be the great Zizou's final game.

Jun 29, 2006 

The Real Reason For U.S Soccer's Downfall

Bianca Kajlich
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
The "MLS or Europe" question has dogged Landon Donovan since he inexplicably left the German Bundesliga for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer a year ago.

He didn't leave the German powerhouse, Bayer Leverkusen, because he was playing poorly or didn't fit with the manager's plans. He did allude to the fact that he wanted to be back in California with his family.

This is why Landon came back home to Southern California.

Can you blame him now? Regardless of possible career advancement, would you toil in rainy Germany playing soccer in the middle of winter against a bunch of Krauts or spend time strolling through the malls of SoCal with your hot girlfriend?

Seriously, let's be honest and see things through Landon's eyes. He's a genius. Now, is soccer really that important? Maybe not.

Good job, Landon. You're the Man of the Match.


Which Ref Will Royally Screw Up In The Quarters?


The mere fact that anyone would care about the allocation of referees for the quarterfinals should you tell you everything about the overindulgence of this World Cup's arbiters. Here's Friday and Saturday's assignments:
GER-ARG: Lubos Michel
ITA-UKR: Frank De Bleeckere
ENG-POR: Horacio Elizondo
BRA-FRA: Luis Medina Cantalejo

You might note that the referee that greased Italy's skids into the quarterfinals, Luis Medina Cantalejo, is available to do the same for "angelic" Brazilians against France.

Portugal might have an advantage against England Saturday. Referee Horacio Elizondo is of Argentine descent. Hopefully, he vividly remembers the ill-fated Falkland Island war against the Brits in the 1980s.

Jun 26, 2006 

Aussies And Swiss Bow Out Undeservedly

What an undeserved end to Australia and Switzerland's World Cup hopes.

How can a referee choose to decide a knockout match in the World Cup and how is it possible to exit a World Cup in the knockout stages without ever yielding a goal? Yet both happened today.

Many are debating Australian defender Lucas Neill's defensive decision-making in the box, but it's unconscionable that a penalty kick should be called on such an iffy play and then immediately end the game after it was successfully scored by Francesco Totti. (Click here for the highlights)

How will the faithful in Melbourne and Sydney deal with this heartbreak for the next four years?

It was sad to see the upstart Swiss play so valiantly in this World Cup. Despite bowing out in the round of 16, having the stingiest defense in this tournament is something to build upon when they host Euro 2008.

Much has been written about the impeccable Swiss organization in the back and defender Ludovic Magnin. How many times in today's game was Magnin involved in the flow of play. A place in the tournament's Best XI should be saved for Magnin and the Swiss.

Unfortunately, their lack of fitness after 120 grueling minutes against Ukraine was clearly evident in the penalty shootout. When your legs go out you're pretty much screwed, unless you choose to arrogantly chip important penalty kicks like Ukraine's Artem Milivskiy successfully attempted.

Jun 25, 2006 

Dirty Dutch Planned This World Cup Slugfest


Those dastardly Dutch. Where did their dishonorable performance come from? The Netherlands have always been associated with elegant and innovative football, but played more like a band of thugs Sunday. Granted, this game could be a lesson in perception, many Dutchmen would say it was the Portuguese who played dirty and to some extent they were, but more likely willing participants in this hard fought match. (Click game highlights here)

A second viewing of the game would suggest that Luis Figo's head butt of Khalid Boulahrouz in the 58th minute began the carnage that occurred in the yellow card-filled last two-thirds of the match. That begat Figo taking an elbow to the face, dangerous tackles from both sides, various episodes of pushing and shoving and an unprecedented flurry of red and yellow cards by the Russian referee, Valentin Ivanov.

Instead, there was a subtext to this match that had the postgame feeling of a Las Vegas prize fight and that was a pair a highly unsportsmanlike antics from the Dutch.

The Dutch played this match from the beginning with an American football mindset. It seemed the Dutch had a premeditated plan to take out Portugal's Christiano Ronaldo from the beginning. In the sixth minute, he was severely spiked by Boulahrouz and like a predator sensing its prey injured continually went after Ronaldo's thigh until he was substituted before the end of the first half.

When the Netherlands' John Heitinga advanced the ball after a Portuguese player was injured it violated one of football's most cherished unwritten acts of sportsmanship. It was galling exhibit of a Dutch team hellbent on winning this game at any cost even if it severely tarnished its well-deserved place in world soccer.

If anything, it illustrated a perennial flaw in Portugal's football style; an inability to control their emotions. The lack of control was pervasive from their manager to every player and substitute on the field. At the same time, the world now knows that Portugal will not back down from schoolyard bullies.

Jun 21, 2006 

Portugal Beats Mexico, 2-1


Here's the real highlights. Simao Sabrosa with the game-winning penalty kick featuring the call in Portuguese.


Portuguese Trash-Talking Points For Mexicans


>>>Bro, we beat you with five starters on the bench. We didn't even need them to dress. That's how confident we were

>>>You've just had a Portu-beating.

>>>Did you get your Mexican flag? I heard they're going for five for a quarter.

>>>Linguica is still made with top quality meats and spices.

>>>Sorry, you still can't come to America.

>>>Portugees might lose three straight softball games to Mexicans, but we win when it counts, sucka!

>>>Ever heard of that movie, "A Day Without Mexicans"? Today, I couldn't find a Mexican in sight. Must've of been Portu-beaten.

>>>I heard if Mexico wins the World Cup they're going to meltdown the trophy and give everyone a gold tooth. Portu-smack!


Jun 20, 2006 

Expectations Game: Game Two Of First Round

South Korea

Ghana, Argentina, Netherlands, Portugal, Australia, England, Italy, Poland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Tunisia, Japan, United States, Ukraine, Croatia, Saudi Arabia,Togo,Iran

Serbia & Montenegro
Czech Republic

Jun 19, 2006 

Schizophrenia Rules At World Cup


GROUP A>>>The Germany-Poland match for sheer tempo and nationalism may have been this World Cup's best. Decades of angst were in full effect and it showed with tough sliding tackles and a frenetic pace throughout the game. That the Germans won in the 90th minute was not worthy of a tough and evenly played contest...Ecuador continues to play an attractive, almost carefree style led by Carlos Tenorio. They are quite possibly, the only team that has played two effective matches. There is a very real possibility that Ecuador could win this group forcing Germany to play England in the round of 16.

GROUP B>>>Despite the cacophony of dread coming from the U.K., England has played just well enough to win two games. The Brits haven't strained themselves and have been able to slowly move Wayne Rooney back into the lineup. There is something to be said about blowing your load too early in this competition and England definitely hasn't...Sweden has somehow put themselves in a good position by fortune of a surprisingly weak group. Paraguay just didn't show up and T&T is a squad that shouldn't even be in this tournament despite practically playing all ten men back. Delightful.

GROUP C>>>>Sorry about the crude sexual phrase above, but talk of peaking too early starts with Argentina. It's kind of silly to fault the most dominating performance of the World Cup as being a job too well done, but who did they beat? A team with a country that won't exist by the time qualifying begins for the 2010 Cup...Holland's Ruud Van Nistelroy is heating up. The Man U. striker could pose huge problems for both of Group D's entrants, either Portugal or Mexico in the knockout stages...The "Group of Death" seems to be mislabeled. Argentina and the Netherlands have clearly been the class of the group, while in hindsight, its seems odd that pundits thought much of the Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro. It was as if everybody figured one team from Africa would shock the world and the Serbians must have been good because they didn't allow a goal in qualification. It hasn't turned out that way.

GROUP D>>>Portugal continues a path similar to England. Their match against Iran was similar to their first. Ricardo wasn't tested in goal. Their defense continued to play decisively led by Miguel, who also has shown some offensive flair and Luis Figo continues to drink from the Fountain of Youth. Portugal's tendency to play as 11 players instead of one, may exhaust them farther into the tournament. Christiano Ronaldo could pass the ball more often instead of performing magic tricks with his feet...Mexico looks lost with Jared Borgetti. He won't be available for their important match Wednesday against Portugal. Still, without the Bolton reserve, Mexico should advance. Iran hasn't played very well in their own box, but that doesn't mean it hasn't stifled both Mexico and Portugal in the midfield.

GROUP E>>>Meet the new "Group of Death". When the group resumes play on Thursday which one will show up? All four teams have been afflicted with schizophrenia, none more than the U.S. and the Czech Republic. Did their opening match really happen? Lost in the fact that the Americans must win against Ghana is the fact that Italy must win with a very vocal Italian press and fans screaming at them...Eddie Pope's red card was probably warranted Saturday, but it could also help the Americans because Pope has not played well in two games...The Tailgater told you! The Czechs are old, overrated and untested at this level. Two of three things everybody said about the U.S...If things had turned out differently, Freddy Adu could have been lining up for his native Ghana against the U.S. Thursday instead of languishing at D.C. United.

GROUP F>>>Brazil has done what it was supposed to do; beat Croatia and Australia and most likely romp against Japan, but the aftertaste of those lackluster wins is lingering around the World Cup. Is this tournament wide open again? If Brazil fails to win its sixth title it will be because their manager Carlos Perreira didn't have the guts to sit the three-time World Player of the Year, Ronaldo. He's a drain on this team. I'm not sure his replacement, Robinho, could stand up to the beating of 90 minutes, but Ronaldo is just sitting in the box eating donuts and coffee...Australia played very well against Brazil. It was the brief moments that they didn't that cost them. All in all, a do-or-die match against Croatia is what they had hoped for. Striker Harry Kewell has to get better shots off and stay onside.

GROUP G>>>France has to be thanking their lucking stars for two reasons: they're playing a Togo team that seems to love creating distractions off the pitch and Zinedine Zidane won't be playing because of yellow card accumulation. If Thierry Henry doesn't get going without the past-his-prime legend that most claim he cannot co-exist then France may be dropped again in the first round...Shame on me for counting out the Koreans. In two games, they have duplicated their tremendous work rate from 2002 and if they win this group, should be mentioned on the short list of emerging soccer powers. Same could be said for Switzerland, who have shown amazing poise for such a young team. Kudos to the Swiss federation for taking such a promising, but inexperience team to the World Cup in preparation for hosting the 2008 European Championship. I'm amazed at how organized their defense plays together. They have yet to be put in a bad defensive posture as evident by two clean sheets.

GROUP H>>>The Spaniards are truly playing with their country's minds. The early Tunisian goal must have sent fear of another Spanish collapse through the Iberian peninsula, but they regrouped and looked every bit as dominant as their first game against Ukraine. How are we to trust this squad? The key to this team is their bench. No team in the world can bring a striker like Raul off the bench...No way can you equate Ukraine's resurgence with America's. Just look at the opponent. After giving up an embarrassing eight goals to Germany in 2002, the Saudi were ripped for four today...Does anybody want to finish second in Group H? Three relatively weak offensive teams get the chance to possibly meet Switzerland in the round of 16.


World Cup Ref Had A Bad Rep


Jorge Larrionda will rue the day he botched the Americans chance at beating Italy. Most are in agreement, the red card given to Pablo Mastroeni was warranted and possibly colored by a chance to even the man advantage the U.S. enjoyed. Eddie Pope's red card five minutes later seemed a bit contrived for most.

What is one to think when such dubious officiating occurs in a match with Italy? The top league in Italy, Serie A, is presently enmeshed in a scandal so explosive that rumors are Juventus may be relegated to the second division. Italy's top goalie was questioned by authorities a week before the World for his involvement in betting on soccer matches. The coach, Marcello Lippi and his son; a sports agent has been questioned and the president of Juventus and other top teams in Italy have been accused of match-fixing in cahoots with referees. Here's what the New York Times reported about Larrionda:

Larrionda was barred for six months in 2002 by his country's soccer federation for unspecified "irregularities." Two days before the suspension, he had been chosen to officiate at the 2002 World Cup, which he was then forced to miss.

"irregularities" could mean anything, but sound ominous. One of the things we must learn from the steroid scandal unfurling in baseball is that when peculiar things start happening on the field, it's not because the ball is "juiced" or the ref just had one of those days, but serious attention must be paid to the obvious. Larrionda had an ulterior motive and did not make decisions based on the play on the pitch.

Jun 18, 2006 

Ciao Baby: U.S. Takes It To Italy


Hollywood, were you watching soccer this weekend? The U.S. played one of the most impressive and heroic matches in history and did it with a literary story arc.

It couldn't have been any worse for the Americans against the Czech Republic and it could have only been better if Brian McBride would have stayed onside against Italy.

Saturday's 1-1 draw against Italy may one day become one of this country's greatest games in any sport. Playing the mighty Italians for a result in the World Cup is big within the context of American soccer by itself. But, when you add the formidable obstacles and the gritty scenes from the game it begins to gain a certain mythic quality.

I've never witnessed a match played 10-on-9 ever. As Bruce Arena pointed out afterwards, a team would never imagine training for such an occurrence. Theoretically, subtracting three players from the pitch should open up large chunk of ground, which should favor a more attacking, skillful side like Italy's. Instead, it was the Americans who had the noticeable fitness.

In addition, most teams will move to a defensive position down just one man. Arena had the guts (HUGE cojones!) to send everyone forward for most of the second half. Defender Steve Cherundolo made numerous quick runs down the right side of the field during this stretch as did Landon Donovan and substitute DeMarcus Beasley.

Was the picture of the bloody-faced McBride just screaming for an American jingoistic statement such as, "American Grit" as the New York Times called it Sunday.

It was clear that on the pitch at Kaiserslautern that the fortitude of the Americans was shown in full glory. Why it wasn't shown against the Czechs is another perplexing story. Maybe they weren't ready or maybe the scouting done by exclusively by Arena on the Italians rather than assistant Glenn Myernick's report on the Czechs was the key.

The story is yet to be finished. Ghana still must be beaten and the Italians must follow. Will the Americans be fit after such a difficult match? Will Eddie Johnson come off the bench to score the Americans first goal? Will Johnny O'Brien be fit to come in for Pablo Mastroeni?After that, comes the Brazilians. First things first.

Jun 15, 2006 

Cup Games Go Mostly As Planned


GROUP A>>>California Boy Juergen Klinsmann is suddenly a tactical genius. Germany may have played the most attractive style of any team through the first round of games, but unless that style can be switch for a more defensive stance later, we may see the Germans bowing out early in their own tournament. Is Ecuador for real? I don't think so. Their win over Poland may have been due more to an appalling effort by the Poles.

GROUP B>>>The English and Swedes are up in arms, but for different reasons. The Brits looked solid, if not, unexciting but got the three points. What's the problem? I'm tired of hearing about the English players wilting in the heat of Korea in 2002 and Sunday afternoon in Germany. The Swedes looked like an All-Star team playing as individuals. Henrik Larsson had some blistering shots on goal, but otherwise, the rest of the offense looked disorganized. It looks like Sweden's poor pre-cup results were a warning for bad things to come. T&T's goalie, Shaka Hislop may have played the most inspired football of anyone thus far. Can he do it again against England? Probably not. Their adrenaline should come back to CONCACAF levels by the weekend.

GROUP C>>>So much for the Ivory Coast. Argentina and the Netherlands look like the class of this group. Argentina played very well, but the Ivory Coast was overrated

GROUP D>>>Portugal's performance was similar to England's. They played just well enough to win, but neither Paraguay or Angola deserved a result. They simply saved their energy against a minnow. After Pauleta scored in the fourth minute, that was enough and Angola never put any fear into the Portuguese. Luis Figo looked like he shaved five years off his age. If Figo plays with such vigor and pace later in the tournament it will bode well for a successful cup. Mexico had a few problems early against a sturdy Iran team, but eventually chiseled away for a strong win. These are clearly the class of this group and their final match against each other may not mean much.

GROUP E>>>It's back to 1998 for Americans. Disorganized and pointing fingers. It was their worst Cup loss since losing 5-1 to Czechoslovakia in 1990. I thought our football had grown since those days? Czech manager, Karel Bruckner, faked out Arena and the media with his insistence that a bunch of their stars were nursing injuries. Striker Jan Koller looks like the only true injured Czech. How many times do the Italian strikers have to, after missing a scoring opportunity, raise their eyes to sky and pray in anguish as if they just shredded a $50 million lottery ticket? It gets a little over dramatic after the 30th minute.

GROUP F>>>The Australia/Japan was the most exciting match thus far. The Aussies rallied late in dramatic fashion, but it was the electric atmosphere at the stadium that caught my attention. These guys are for real and will advance more on guile and fortitude than talent, but that's alright. Croatia's tight defense may well be the blueprint for defending against Brazil. Everyone is gunning for the champs and a crack was revealed. This group is a joke for the Brazilians but a possible knockout round opponent like the Czech Republic or Switzerland might be risky.

GROUP G>>>My only dead-on prediction came to fruition in this group. France's scoreless draw against Switzerland is an ominous sign. France hasn't scored since winning the thing in '98 and the Swiss played, by far, the most organized and taut defense in this World Cup. Togo's early goal against Korea looked like a marvelous storyline in the making. An AWOL coach, grumbling players and a first-time and undeserving Cup participant, but the Koreans came on strong in the second half and actually showed signs of the 2002 semifinalists that many look back and scoff at.

GROUP H>>>Were those really the underachieving Spaniards who thrashed Ukraine or some cruel hoax? Of all the teams through one game of group play it was Spain who had the look of brilliance and fun on the pitch, not the Brazilians. What the win showed, most of all, was that Spain has a wide-array of capable strikers that could cause others fits.

Jun 13, 2006 

First Round Of Group Play

Trinidad & Tobago

Costa Rica
Ivory Coast



Masters Of Disaster: USMNT Chokes; No End In Sight

It couldn't have been any worse. A 3-0 drubbing that more closely resembled a 5-0 thrashing than an honorable defeat. Everything that could go wrong went disastrously wrong. Giving up a goal in the first five minutes to the guy who the U.S. supposedly had the only remedy for--Uguchi Onyewu. Landon Donovan was nowhere to be found. Bruce "Almighty" Arena uncharacteristically butchered his tactical decisions and trashed Landon and Beasley. Just about the only revelation was the guy who many questioned the most, Eddie Johnson.

Is Onyewu for real or were we all snookered by believing in this 6-4 linebacker posing as a central defender would actually be a factor? He letdown the U.S. only all three Czech goals, although the third tally could be chalked up as a team effort. Onyewu may actually be more effective against Italy's Luca Toni, but even that advantage will be negligible if he's caught napping or flat-footed.

The enormous enigma that is Landon Donovan continues to grow. Where was he? Save for one brief attack shortly after Jan Koller's goal he wasn't a factor at all, Landycakes could have been more effective posing for glossy outdoors magazines with his shirt off. His astonishingly pre-pubescent body would have caused more of a distraction to the Czech attack than having him picking daisy's on the pitch.

What was even more amazing was that Arena chose to throw Donovan and Beasley under the bus during his post-match press conference. Is he cleverly pressing their buttons or is this first glimpse of serious internal problem with the national team? If there is any inkling of such a rift and a possible three-and-out Arena will unfortunately be out and coaching D.C. United before you can say "Freddy Adu".

Surprisingly, it was a little too late for Eddie Johnson. Granted, the game was effectively over at 2-0 when he came on, but Johnson was a revelation. Arena has to start Johnson up front with McBride against Italy. He simply has no other choice.

Jun 9, 2006 

Knockout Rounds: Penalty Kicks Abound

>>>ROUND 0F 16








Top Scorer: Peter Crouch (ENG), Pauleta (POR)
Phenoms: Clint Dempsey (USA), Fernando Torres
Goats: Petr Cech (CZE), Ronaldinho (BRA) missing PK in semis, Christian Ronaldo (POR) red card.
Surprise Team: Australia, Switzerland, Ukraine, Tunisia
Disappointment: Czech Republic, Italy, Argentina, All African teams.


Group H: Spain Wins Unexpectedly Difficult Group

Spain's striker Raul
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
1>>>SPAIN 7 points. As long as the Spaniards rely on Raul to score goals in a big tournament, the same result will follow. If fellow forwards, Fernando Torres, or more likely David Villa can come through, winning this group will be far more easier. This just may be Spain's year to advance deep into the tournament, but if they do, their psychological fitness may come into question. Fifty years of ineptitude despite quality players is lot to shake in one month.

2>>>UKRAINE 5 pts. They were Europe's first qualifier and seem to be assuming the character of their famous coach, Oleg Blokhin. Whatever question there may be on the backline or in the net are more than made up for with one of the planet's best scorers, Andriy Shevchenko.

3>>>Tunisia 4 pts. Fielding competitive World Cup teams has not been Tunisia's forte. With French coach, Roger Lemerre, this squad could surprise Spain and Ukraine in this group. Tunisian football has become more sophisticated with Lemerre's tactics and imagination. Any two of these three teams could easily advance.

4>>>Saudi Arabia 0 pts. For one, it's hard to distinguish the players on the Saudi Arabian roster. It looks like the same 23 names down the list. There's not much here. This is their fourth straight Cup and very little is still expected from them.

Pivotal Match: Jun 19. ESP 3-1 TUN. In what will be the tournament's most underrated group in terms of parity, the Spanish will set themselves apart from Ukraine and the Tunisia.

Jun 8, 2006 

Group G: Swiss Give French A Run For Top Of Group

Zinedine Zidane of France
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
1>>>FRANCE 7 points*. The good old days of French football are getting grayer. A huge amount of ego may hamper this team. Whether its a generational differences in the locker room, politics with the manager or the coexistence of Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane. The injury of Djibril Cisse this week may be an omen of bad things to come

2>>>SWITZERLAND 7 points. Swiss football is on the rise. This team may be one of the more exciting teams in the tourney if their youngster don't freak out in the limelight. Striker Alexander Frei will open some eyes in Europe and should be paid handsomely for some overpaying big European club.

3>>>South Korea 3 points. Basically this is the same Korean team that use to lose every game in the World Cup until they were recipients of "good luck" hosting the last tournament four years ago.

4>>>Togo 0 points. The party in Togo had barely ended by the time their time played horifically in the African Nations' Cup, losing three straight in a convincing manner. Their star striker, Emmanuel Adebayor didn't play in that tournament, but his inexperience and slim supporting cast will make Togo the worst team in the Cup
*French win the group on goal differential.

Pivotal match: Jun 13. FRA 0-0 SUI. The opener will set the tone for a group where every game will have a clean sheet. Both the Swiss and French will emerge from Group G by not allowing a goal.


Group F: Of Course! Brazil To 2nd Round; Aussies Surprise

Brazil's Kaka
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
1>>>BRAZIL 9 points. Predicting Brazil's fate is about as easy as forecasting when the sun will come up. More of the same in this weak group. Question do emerge, though. The age of the Brazilian backline is worrisome. Cafu and Roberto Carlos may not have the pace to defend against some of the more talented winger in the next rounds. How Adriano and Ronaldo coexist?

2>>>AUSTRALIA 6 pts. 95,000 fans sent off the Socceroos last week with a victory over Greece. The Aussies are ready to explode with football fever. After tanking two successive playoffs in qualifying, this deserving team sprinkled with veterans with European experiece should be one of the feel-good stories of the tournament. They also possess a coach, Guus Hiddink, with a very successful World Cup pedigree

3>>>Croatia 3 pts. This is team that screamed when the coach named his 22-year-old son to the squad and then became its star player. Croatia will suffer more from an Austrailian team that should bring back memories of their own surprise run in 1998 through heart and grit than by any problem on the pitch.

4>>>Japan 0 pts. Like Sweden, the Japanese are in caos. Their stars are questioning the manager's tactics and teammates just days before the opener. They struggled in a weak Asian qualifying group and have should very little since.

Pivotal Match: Jun 22. AUS 2-0 CRO. The Socceroos do more than score their first goal, they advance with a two-nil shutout in their final match.


Group E: Cloud Of Suspicion Irks Italy; U.S. Advances

Italy's Mauro Camoranesi
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
1>>>ITALY 7 points. Despite a likely first round winner, Italian calcio is in hot water right now. The gambling and match-fixing scandal is reaching the very top, including Juventus and quite possibly the Italy manager Marcelo Lippi. The man in goal, Gianluigi Buffon has spoken to authorities just this week. The house of card may be falling making this predication the most iffy of the tournament.

2>>>UNITED STATES 5 pts. The world is about to give the U.S. an increasing amount of respect with another trip to the knockout stage. Make no bones about it, many in Europe already respect Bruce Arena and the squad and find their ability to hide discretly in the huge American sports scene.

3>>>Czech Republic 3 pts. In the World Cup, the host usually tank in the opener, the host always advances and the dark horse contender always tanks. Portugal was the consensus last time around; the Czechs are this tournament's recipient of the whammy.

4>>>Ghana 2 pts. The Ghanaians have speed that will cause some fits for the Italians and, definitely, the Americans. They will be Africa's best entry in this World Cup.

Pivotal Match: Jun 12th. USA 3-2 CZE. The U.S. exploits the injured Czechs and minimize the 6-8 giant Jan Koller with a linebacker posing as a central defender, Uguchi Onyewu.


Group D: Portugal Atones For 2002; Pauleta Shines

1>>>PORTUGAL 9 points. Serious demons will need to be exorcised during the first round. There's no question that the Portuguese have as much firepower as any team in the tournament. Their defense is strong, too. The goaltending of Ricardo is the big question mark. Even in advancing to the finals of Euro 2004, he looked shaky. If their famously volatile tempers are controlled, a long run in this tournament is likely.

2>>>MEXICO 6 pts. The Mexicans are an enigma and possibly shaky with some questionable roster moves and two pre-World Cup warm ups of dubious distinction. The tall Jared Borgetti should be no match for the Iranians and the Angolans in what will be a straight-forward group.

3>>>Iran 3 pts. The Iranians are a rugged bunch. Hopefully for this Cup's focus they don't advance and risk the arrival of their president, which would pose an unfortunate distraction from sport. Iran's time, if it ever had one, passed between 1998 and the present. Too much reliance on older players in skilled positions like Ali Daei and Ali Karimi will bring this team down.

4>>>Angola 0 pts. It will be interesting to see the energy level of the Angolans in their first World Cup game, in addition, to playing their former colonial masters. Senegal did well against France in 2002 and the Portuguese are prone to playing down to lesser teams. Because of the familiarity of their roster with the Portuguese league, any possible points will come against their Iberian rivals.

Pivotal Match: Jun 11th. POR 4-1 ANG. Known for their maddening slow starts and habit of playing down to weaker opponents finally ends.

Group MVP: Pauleta (POR)


Group C: Argentina Sow Seeds For 2010

Argentina's Julio Cruz
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
1>>>ARGENTINA 7 Points. They've had the same roster chock full of superstars and come to every World Cup as favorites, yet they've tanked every time out since Maradona's 1986 champions. Unfortunately, 2006 will be more of the same. Argentina can point to this tournament as a turning point with the obvious emergence of striker Lionel Messi. As always, the flow of action and victory will have to come from the feet of midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme.

2>>>NETHERLANDS 6 pts. The Dutch come to the World Cup with the same sort of pedigree as Argentina without sprinklings of titles along the way. They also come to Germany with some nagging injuries in the back. That shouldn't stop the dangerous Ruud Van Nistelroy from depositing a few loose balls into goals in this overrated "Group of Death".

3>>>Ivory Coast 3 pts. Not buying everyone's preoccupation with the Ivory Coast or any other African squad. The group of newbies from Africa wasn't the case of upstarts but of a continent-wide depression in qualifying that left out the traditional powers. Chelsea's Didier Drogba might cause a team like the Netherlands problem because of the Dutch rash of injuries in the backfield. It won't be enough.

4>>>Serbia & Montenegro 1 pt. Sadly, by the time they kickoff on Sunday, their united country may be no more. After Montenegro announced their intention to split from Serbia, this defensive-minded team may be thinking of country over sports. Playing in the weakest European qualifying group, their impressive 10 clean sheets out of 11 games was a mirage.

Pivotal Match: Jun 21st: ARG 3-2 NED. You could argue that the Argentines beating the dark horse favorites Ivory Coast in the first game of the group sorted out the so-called "Group of Death", but the battle between these traditional rivals will crown first in the group.

Group MVP: Juan Roman Riquelme (ARG)


Group B: England In A Cakewalk; Rooney Returns?

David Beckham
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
1>>>ENGLAND 9 points. Even without Wayne Rooney, the Brits look impressive, although, any bit they can get from Man U. striker will build a huge amount of momentum for the next round. Not having a completely healthy Rooney may actually force the English to better utilize the dorkish Peter Crouch with long balls and in the air.

2>>>PARAGUAY 4 points*. These guys are survivors who will prosper because of the chip on their shoulders being the South American team nobody pays attention to. The Paraguayans will make their third straight trip to the round of 16.

3>>>Sweden 4 points. To Paraguay's delight, their good fortune is that the talented Swedes are coming into the tournament at a crawl by going winless in six straight. They have the names: Ljundberg, Ibrahimovich and Larsson, but such a winless streak doesn't seem like a smokescreen, but portends to some confusion in the manager's box.

4>>>Trinidad & Tobago 0 pts. What can you say? Does the weak CONCACAF region deserve a fourth spot in the Cup if T&T is the best they can do? They may not be the worst team, but you can be assured to see some highly disorganized caos on the pitch.

*Paraguayans advance on goal differential.

Pivotal Match: Jun 20th. ENG 3-0 SWE. The Brits finally beat the Swedes. It's enough to just stop playing!
Group MVPs: Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard (ENG)

Jun 7, 2006 

Group A: Germans Win An Easy Group; Trouble Surfaces

Germany Celebrates
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.
1>>>GERMANY 9 points. The first round draw for the hosts easily greases the skids to the 2nd round. We probably won't see the real Michael Ballack save for a possibly tough match against Poland. The press is reporting today that Ballack has an injured thigh and may miss the opener Friday. Remember, if Germany succeeds it's because of Ballack. The Germans have serious problems none of which carrying the traditional fine showing that the host country usually attains.

2>>>COSTA RICA 4 pts*. Being in the weakest group of these finals suits this team that narrowly missed advancing in 2002. They should learn a lesson this time around with a nice blend of experience and youth. Watch out for wing-back Christian Bolanos, along with Pablo Wanchope upfront, the two may put some balls in the net.

3>>>Poland 4 pts. The Poles are young gunslingers who have yet to rise up against strong competition. They've never beaten their German neighbors and will fall to a similar Costa Rican team that is more experienced. Their defense will ultimately cost them an early exit.

4>>>Ecuador 0 pts. This is probably the only team that can thank the glaciers that built up its capital to 3,000 feet over the last million years for getting them to the World Cup. In the altitude of Quito, the Ecuadoreans are dynamic, at sea level, they're anemic.

*Costa Ricans win on goal differential

Pivotal Match: Jun 20th. CRC 3-2 POL
Group MVP: Christian Bolanos (CRC)

Jun 4, 2006 

A Talismanic Striker On A Beautiful Pitch Wearing An Expensive Kit

One of the great pleasures in sports writing is the occasional use of soccer-specific terms. The field is not just a playing surface, but a pitch.

A team is a side, as in Brazil could field two or three strong sides. A uniform is a kit or a strip and a stadium is commonly called a grounds.

Then there's my favorite, calling the team's top playmaker a talisman. The notion that the team's best player somehow possesses supernatural powers that allows him great vision and creativeness to magical put the ball in the net makes for some poetic prose.

Aside from the terms, soccer writing is unabashed in providing corny, yet creative sports reporting. The game's ancestral background in England probably is the main function of this type of literature that finds it easy to describe the ferocious kicking of a ball into the net from a set piece as "elegant", "brilliant" or "a bit of genius".

C'mon, can you imagine a baseball writer in this country calling Roger Clemens the talisman for the Astros hopeful rise in the standings? The image most would conjure is that of the shaiman in the movie, Major League , who calls out for "Jobu" to help him with his power stroke.

Jun 3, 2006 

Mexican Team Brings In Foreign Workers

Ricardo Lavolpe
Originally uploaded by wonderbread74.

It was mentioned earlier that the U.S. has finally detached itself from the quick-fix solution regarding bringing naturalized citizen on the team. A kind of high-profile ringer that usually points to a lack of depth and confidence.

If the U.S. has grown past that sort of managerial fumbling, then the Mexicans have devolved to that level.

The Mexican manager, Ricardo Lavolpe, himself an Argentine, has caused a simmering uproar south of the border by tabbing two foreign nationals from Brazil and Argentina.

According to an Orange County Register article, this have driven a stake into the Mexican footballing psyche along with a bit of hypocrisy in regards to the immigration issue that is enraging in this country.

The addition of the Brazilian Antonio Naelson and the Argentine Guillermo Franco doesn't illustrate a lack of quality in Mexico, although, the article points out that 80 percent of the goals this year in the Mexican League were scored by foreigners, it does show an immensely scared manager.

The pressure is on for Lavolpe as every it is for every Mexican manager, but few resort to bringing foreigners to the national team in a country that values 100 percent Mexican heritage. Not only is El Tri expected to reflect the country's nationalism, it's most famous team, Chivas, is reknown for only fielding a squad of Mexicans. If U.S. labor laws forbid such an exclusionary policy, the MLS version of Chivas in Los Angeles would have been the same.

If you harken back to the dismal Steve Sampson era during World Cup '98, the U.S. talked the talk but felt the need to scour the world for any defender with any kind of relation to the U.S. He found David Regis, a Frenchmen married to an American and the rest was history. Three losses and a lone Brian McBride goal.

It's not that it was Regis fault. He played well enough, but the panicky move to add someone outside of U.S. Soccer's sphere was a precursor to Sampson's true beliefs--that the team wasn't good enough.

Naelson and Franco may be an insight into Lavolpe's true estimation of the Mexican national team and if the O.C. Register's article is correct, Lavolpe would have added another foreigner if the public's outrage wasn't so high.

Even with the suspect managerial moves, the Mexicans stand a good chance of advance to the round of 16. With a surprising Iran, newbie in Angola and a somewhat temperamental Portuguese side, five or six points should be good enough to advance. After that

Jun 2, 2006 

Koreans Boogie To New World Cup Dance

Do you think the Koreans have World Cup fever or what? Check out this video of some young Koreans performing a specially created line dance for the finals. It looks like the "Achy Breaky Heart" to me, though.

This is apparently legit. Here's another video of the dance. The six minute video seems to be an instructional video on how to properly perform the dance.

Jun 1, 2006 

Portugal Needs A Cool Ronaldo to Advance


Everyone's golden boy for this World Cup is Portugal's Christiano Ronaldo. Reaching that pinnacle will ultimately rest on his team advancing far into the tournament.

That's why his lashing out against a Cape Verde player during last Friday's friendly could be a foreshadowing of difficult times ahead.

Ronaldo, who was reportedly named after President Ronald Reagan, has the matinee idol looks, brawn and ability to defy gravity with his graceful runs down the pitch. He also, like many of his countrymen, seem to have a propensity to meltdown at the slightest provacation.

Big Phil, also known as Felipe Scolari, Portugal's manager, seems aware of his young gun's volatility. Shortly after Ronaldo's yellow card he brought in a substitute.

Portugal's penchent for underachieving and subsequently lashing out caused international outrage just four years ago when long-time striker, Joao Pinto, struck referee Angel Sanchez during their last game in stage play against South Korea. Undoubtedly, Pinto's assault was a manifestation of a very disappointing World Cup where the Portuguese were tabbed as sleeper contenders for the title.

Going back to Euro 2000 in France, a facsimile of the melee in Korea nearly occured when the French were rewarded a penalty kick in the dying seconds of their semifinal. Controversially, the platinum-dyed defender, Xavier, was called for a hand ball near the side of the Portuguese goal. Xavier, Nuno Gomes and others mobbed the ref in a ferocious manner screaming and shoving him and in a precursor to the poor sportmanship two years later.

Could this happen again?

It will be imperative that this talented, but underachieving team keep their cool, especially against their third opponent, Mexico. This game may ultimately tell us who wins the group or who possibly gets eliminated. If players like Ronaldo crack against the lowly Cape Verde Island, then what will happen when Mexico's Chuatemoc Blanco is bullying them at every opportunity or diving for penalties during the last precious minutes of regular time?

The first 20 minutes of their opener against the lowly-rated Angolans should go a long way in revealing whether the bratty Portuguese will be causing a riot on German soil or celebrating a new international star.