Americans call it soccer, everybody else calls it football, but whatever you call it, the exciting displays of skillful footwork and surprising results made the 2002 World Cup hosted by Japan and South Korea one of the best World Cups ever. If the word “soccer” does nothing for you other than conjure up a picture of a “soccer mom” picking up her kids in an SUV, let me explain what all the fuss is about.
The World Cup, like the Olympics, comes round only once every four years and the 32 teams in the competition have already come through a demanding two-year campaign within their own regions in order to qualify.
In the competition, the teams are drawn into eight groups of four with each team in the group playing” the other three. The top two teams with the highest points from each group go on to the second round. This is when the knockout phase — and perhaps the real excitement of the competition — begins.
Europe and South America have long been obsessed with soccer. Now, it seems the rest of the world is catching on. Newly soccer-obsessed and very gracious hosts Japan and South Korea appeared enthralled by the footballing spectacle that unfurled before them, with interest heightened by the fact that both home-teams progressed to the second round. Indeed, the South Koreans made it as far as the semi-final and, in doing so, became the first Asian team ever to have reached this stage of the competition. The USA enjoyed their biggest win ever by beating Mexico 2-0 to progress to the quarter-finals where they were beaten by Germany 1-0 in a display of persistence and skill which earned them the respect of many, including their German opponents. Earlier in the tournament, the U.S. team had pulled off one of the biggest upsets, enjoying a shock 3-2 win over Portugal, a strong favorite.
The Americans went on to draw with hosts South Korea and lose to Poland but qualified out of their group ahead of Portugal who failed to get through. Twenty-year-old Landon Donovan who scored against Poland and Mexico is being hailed as a star of the future and has doubtless attracted the interest of some European teams in a wonderful debut on the international scene. Other U.S. heroes included 29-year-old Brian McBride, a forward who scored two goals en route to the quarter-finals, and John O’Brien, a 24 year old who scored the first goal for the U.S. after only four minutes in their opening match against Portugal. O’Brien is a respected player who currently plays for one of Europe’s top teams, Ajax in the Netherlands.
The U.S.’s achievement seems even greater when one considers that the 1998 World Cup holders France and hot favorites Argentina failed to progress out of their groups and Italy, always a strong contender, got through only on goal difference. Italy were then knocked out by South Korea in the round of 16. Amazingly, the player who scored the winner for South Korea plays his club football in Italy for Perugia, whose chairman publicly stated after the match that he would never play for the club again!
Before the competition began, USA were among the biggest outsiders, having returned home from France in 1998 after losing all three of their matches. There was little reason to be optimistic about their chances, but their success may be due in some part to the “never-say-die” attitude of their coach Brace Arena, who believes nothing is impossible. Discussing his team’s chances against Germany before the match, he said, “there’s no longer an established football world. On paper, it looks to be no match, however we don’t play this game on paper.” Despite his faith, the U.S.A. lost to Germany 1-0.
Ireland did not have an easy route out of their qualifying group. The team’s preparations for the World Cup had been marred after Roy Keane, the captain and best player, was sent home after a row with the team manager. To their credit, the team put the saga (which gripped the nation to the extent that even Taoiseach Bertie Ahem offered his arbitration skills to try to sort it out) behind them in a great show of unity throughout their World Cup efforts. Trailing by a goal in their first two matches against Cameroon and Germany, the Irish showed great courage and tenacity in fighting back on both occasions to get an equalizer. In the match against Germany, the equalizer came in the 92nd minute of the match only 90 seconds before the final whistle (3 minutes of injury time had been added on). They went on to beat Saudi Arabia 3-0 and qualified second out of their group. It was in the round of sixteen that Ireland met the team who ended their hopes of World Cup glory, ireland were beaten 1-1 (3-2 on penalties) by Spain in a closely fought match that ended in a penalty shoot-out. The Irish team had been encouraged by close to 10,000 Irish fans who made the long journey from Ireland first to Japan and then to Korea. Irish supporters at home and abroad had every reason to be proud of their team who again, trailing by a goal, battled on, refusing to lose heart against a strong Spanish side and ultimately scored an equalizing penalty in the 88th minute. The Irish team is a young one and with more experience can hope to do even better in the next World Cup which will be held in Germany in 2006.
Despite the great achievement of the United States, you have to feel a little sorry for the team who are somewhat unsung heroes at home. The Irish team, despite failing to qualify for the quarter-finals, arrived home as national heroes to a public celebration attended by 100,000 fans. The U.S. team barely made a paragraph in their national newspapers and the overwhelming reaction of most Americans was indifference. Consolation must be that the rest of the word now knows that American soccer is becoming a force to be reckoned with. ♦