How About That Group B Then?
Did I hear you say the winner is going to come from Group B? You must be Italian. Sure, it’s possible. Anything is possible. The cow jumped over the moon, remember. And the Italians should jump over Cameroon this time around. But hold on a minute. This time, Cameroon is out to make amends for memories of USA 94. Having delighted the world in 1990 (in the heat of Italy, let it be said) with a quarter final placing, they chose to make off-field items more important in 1994 (money) and paid the price, if you’ll excuse the pun.
People will forgive that. They’ve already forgotten it. We also need to forget the six goals the Russians put past them in the same tournament. But who could forget Roger Miller’s face and the jigs and reels that went with the shockwaves of 1990? Now how old was that guy? Really? So it’s a case of will the real Cameroon please step forward? Will Patrick Mboma be the man? With former African footballer of the year Jean Manga Onguene (or just Jean as I call him) coaching, they will have their chances. It will still be a big task but I will say it will be a joy to watch and definitely one of the “shock” possibilities to look out for. They will fancy their chances in the opening Group game against Austria. Then again, why wouldn’t any of these 32 teams fancy their chances?
What about them Austrians then? So far, nobody expects anything from them. I have a feeling (gained from playing the game all my life) that it would be unwise to discount them too quickly. After all, they did top their qualifying group and only lost one game out of 10 played. Sure, they have problems scoring. But who doesn’t, really? I look for them to be organised and uncompromising in defense, and basically approaching games with a lets-see-what-happens attitude. Unfortunately, this attitude does not lend itself to excitement and a high thrills-per-minute ratio. If I was a heartless and unfeeling commentator, I might say their games will be as interesting as watching Steve Davis play snooker “live.” (For my North American audience, read “as watching paint dry.”) Since I am neither heartless (last time I checked) or unfeeling, I will point out that it takes two to tango and it also takes two boring teams to make a boring soccer game. So I honestly don’t expect their games to be boring. Well, not too boring anyway. If I was Austrian, I would have liked to get the notoriously slow starters Italy in their first game and not Cameroon.
So, has it got a little Chile in here? What a classic confrontation the opening Group game has in store for us sports fans. Italy, the perennial favourite who usually doesn’t show up for its first game, and the South Americans who could go a long way towards second round qualification in their first 90 minutes. The stage is set for Marcelo Salas to impress. The “matador,” as he is known, has done everything right so far and certainly gave England a timely wake up call at Wembley recently. It is a rarity to have a successful team in international soccer not too renowned for defence, but Chile gets away with it because they are lethal in attack Linking with the matador will be “Bam Bam” Ivan Zamarano. If the referees can protect this pair, they will undoubtedly influence the final standings in this group. Look for at least one World Cup highlight to come from this pair.
OK. Let’s have a look at Italy then. I love Italy and Italian soccer. Don’t read too much into that because I also love Canada and Canadian soccer. I look forward to the day when Canada can compete on the same playing field as the Italians and even more so to the day when they can compete on the same playing field in the same 90 minutes as the Italians. But I digress. I loved Italy in 1970 trying better than everyone else to match the Brazilians. I loved Italy in 1994 trying to match the Brazilians. I’m not forgetting 1982, when they did match and dispatch everybody else.. So much passion contained in many 90-minute segments since then. In addition to all the skills required to play the game in the first place, it takes enormous resolve, immense effort, and tremendous heart to finish second in the World Cup.
It is with respect that I suggest finishing second is not good enough for Italy and the expectations on the team are such. This is a great thing. This makes their games all the more endearing to watch, especially as a neutral supporter, of course. I wasn’t very neutral in USA 94 of course, but that’s another column altogether. Will Roberto Baggio come back? That’s not as out of the question as it seemed a few months ago. Whatever happens in the build up to France98, Italy will be battling where they belong – on the world stage – and challenging for the greatest prize known to man. They will be formidable at worst, and breathtaking at best. Controversy and excitement will be the order of the day. Viva, Ole Ole Ole etc.