Fast Forward to F in France
Welcome back, sports fans and let us fast forward to Group F for you. By now, you know the format. Two teams from among Germany, USA, Yugoslavia and Iran will tease each other and eventually knock each other out leading to a clearer yet still evolving portrait of World Cup 98. The picture will continue to emerge through a second-round, quarter and semi-final games, and eventually the climactic epilogue on Sunday, July 12, 1998, crowning new champions of the world. Unlike the vast majority of “let’s not go out on a limb forecasters” – who will dramatically “forecast” a German or Brazilian victory – I happen to believe we will see “new” champions of the world.
So I’m on the cellphone this time with an ex-international manager who shall remain nameless. He tells me the US can’t cut it and this group decided itself long ago: Germany (surprise, surprise) and Yugoslavia – no contest. What a load of poppycock. If anybody knows what poppycock looks like, feel free to enlighten me. But this definitely felt and smelt like poppycock. The trouble was, I’m paying for the cell call so I don’t really feel like dragging on a conversation with someone who will not be converted at the end of it all. So I says, “Yeah, well, just read this week’s column to find out how I feel.” Strong words indeed. I didn’t get where I am today mincing my words. Incredibly, he says, ”OK, I’ll do that and if I don’t like what you say, you’re going to hear from me.” “Fine,” says I, only hoping for an e-mail after more than 10 articles.
The undeniable truth is that every Group will be difficult. No matter how superior your ranking is, how much history and tradition is on your side, how much more experienced your team is, the game lasts 90 minutes and it is during this time and only during this time that the triumphant result must be achieved. It makes no difference how much more superior your players are supposed to be, unexpected and “funny” results can and will happen. Think about it. Why else bother to play the game? This Group is “set up” for funny results.
Iran did not win any of its last six qualifying matches and most are predicting a continuation of this trend during round one games in France. Obviously, any victory for them could be deemed a “funny” result. But then, the USA versus Iran is surely a “funny” game to begin with. Whether we like it or not, millions of normally rational thinking people will view this “game” as a dilatation of a tragic war and somehow apportion deeper meaning to the result. Let us just hope for soccer to come out the winner of this contest within a contest.
So realistically, what are the US’s chances? In a strange way, I like their odds. Let me try to explain but please bear with me and any apparent contradictions. Firstly, I’ve seen them play “live” and I’m not overly impressed. I like the growing interest in US soccer. I like the sponsorship monies and healthy competitions being nurtured throughout the states. I love the fact that they have declared their intentions to win the World Cup in 2010. I believe they can do this. I’m very close to believing they will do this. But right now I believe that the USA 1998 edition has too many weaknesses in their side and they will come up short in June and be watching on television by July. The irony is (not irany, irony) that progress needs to be maintained over the years and some quarters would demand a quarterfinal appearance. I don’t doubt that the effort will be there, but I do feel that they will need more than their share of luck along the way to make it that far this time.
Yugoslavia has healthy competition for striker positions and will play an attractive brand of soccer. Their coach is the all-time leading goalscorer in Yugoslav first division history. The team scored 41 goals in 12 qualifying games and could potentially embarrass Iran in their opener. To my mind, the draw works well for them and I’m convinced they will know their fate before their third game kicks off. They have unquestionable talent but the defense, attitude when behind and overall blend needed for success remains debatable.
Berti Vogts knows that second place is not good enough. It’s either win the World Cup or hit the highway (autobahn) for Berti. They are looking well beyond round one already but will no doubt progress towards the ultimate goal with meticulously planned precision. I find German precision to be admirable but wearisome. They are efficient to the point of boredom. I long for the days of Gunther Netzer and Der Kaiser himself. They were exciting to watch back then, and Gerd Mueller only had to blink and the ball inevitably found the onion sack. Mind you, Klinsman didn’t do his chances any harm today with a four-goal display for Totenham in their bid to avoid relegation from England’s premiership. This goalscoring also eases some pressure on Berti, because Juergen is important to Berti. But other than “admiring” the Germans’ acting ability, particularly in opponents’ penalty areas, I don’t expect too much besides the aforementioned predicable precision.
Unless they uncover an exciting and unpredictable player (what are the odds), I’m hoping some team catches them “unprepared” in the later rounds, a “funny” result ensues, and the Germans are sent packing and Berti job-seeking. Don’t cry for me, Argentina.
Two more Groups to go and then my final round one predictions. Boy, the excitement is building…