Thursday, June 15, 2006

World Cup Diary - II

I am hopelessly behind in updating my World Cup 2006 notebook, but not as bad as the U.S. football team.

From what I have seen so far, this World Cup opening round must rank amongst the most entertaining ones in memory. The difference is subtle but profound: most of the teams are now playing with a win first attitude instead of simply holding off the opposition and settling for a sleepy draw.

This is a healthy sign for football and a slap in the face of the proponents of catenaccio, the defensive style, perfected most recently by Greece who miraculously won the European Championship in 2004 but failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Among all the headlines, probably the one that grabbed your attention is the schooling of the U.S. team at the hands of Czech Republic. According to the FIFA ranking system, both these teams are in the top five (Czechs at 2 and U.S. at 5) which is why the result is more perplexing. This only goes in showing how rubbish the FIFA rankings actually are, particularly for the teams that are in North America and Asia.

Okay. Let's move on to the selected games over the last three days.

Holland — Serbia & Montenegro
Holland's appearance in the World Cup after eight years (they didn't qualify in 2002) was awaited with keen anticipation in spite of the absence of their seasoned veterans Kluivert, Davids and Seedorf. Holland, a traditional powerhouse, has often fielded glorious outfits only to fall short of winning the title twice (during the hay days of Johan Cruyff and "total football" in the '70s) and disappointing finishes at various other stages including semifinals and quarterfinals.

The newly born Serbia & M is curved out of former Yugoslavia. While you may or may not be familiar with S&M, some of you are well acquainted with their famous exports: Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic and Darko Milicic.

The game lived up to the somewhat lofty expectations with Holland winning by a solitary goal from the Chelsea striker Robben in the 19th minute. S & M had their chances but couldn't convert. A valued win for Holland.

Portugal — Angola

The match between Portugal and Angola (Angola being a former colony of Portugal added a political dimension) held much promise but delivered little as the African squad, a surprise qualifier from the group that included Nigeria failed to keep up with Luis Figo's eleven. Figo, the superstar skipper of Portugal in the twilight of his illustrious career, played like a charm often harassing the Angolan defense with his clinical passes. Portugal took the lead 1-0 which they never relinquished, in the 12th minute when Pedro Pauleta drove home a Luis Figo cross.

United States — Czech Republic

A poor showing from the United States must be disheartening for their fans who probably expected a surprise or two from Donovan et al.
Truth be told, U.S. is nowhere close to the top echelon of the football world but the way they got exposed was ugly.
They played too tentatively and barely did any justice to their talent .

While I have nothing positive to say about the U.S. team, it could have been worse. The Czech comfortably won 3-0, and Bruce Arena's team, short of finding the magic potion, is going home early.

And by the way, shame on ABC for cutting away to commercials when it was time for the Czech national anthem.

Brazil — Croatia

The Brazilians are legendary for their prodigiously talented teams, an unrivaled history on their side (five World Cup championships) and they are the bookie favorite to win it again.

In yesterday's game of the day, Brazil won against Croatia, the final score 1-0, hardly representing the thrilling encounter. The Croatians matched their more decorated rival almost in every aspect of the game, were more aggressive, created more opportunities in the box, and made every Brazilian fan sweat in the second half with a solid display of football. Brazil's superstar striker Ronaldo, winner of the FIFA Golden Boot in 2002 was a non-factor and if not for the blinder from Kaka just before the half time, the match would be drawn — perhaps more accurately reflecting an evenly fought game.

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