Green Means Goal
U.S. soccer fans should send their Christmas gifts to England goalkeeper Robert Green, who so generously gift-wrapped the tying goal for Team USA in a 1-1 draw with the mighty English. If you missed it, here it is:
Damn, that’s bad. This sort of goalkeeping error haunts a player for the rest of his life. Not his career, his life. Of course, if England finishes first in this group anyway with Green still in goal, then there’s no harm done. There’s actually a solid case for England staying with Green in goal, though no one would be surprised if Coach Fabio Capello, who’s as ruthless as anyone, yanked Green for the rest of the tournament.
Who’d want to be a goalkeeper? The position seems to offer only embarrassment and pain. Indeed, while Tim Howard had a much better game for USA, he still got Emile Heskey’s footprint planted in his ribs, the single most terrifying moment of Saturday’s game for U.S. soccer fans. Despite all the signs pointing to soccer teams needing excellence in goal, and despite the wealth of fan-made highlight reels of great saves on YouTube, keepers are generally undervalued and underpaid. After all, they can’t win games for you, unless they’re goal-scoring freaks like José Luis Chilavert. They can only prevent you from losing. Still, they should be valued as highly as the scorers.
Green is only the latest in a series of England keepers who’ve been humiliated in international play: Scott Carson (eerily similar to Green’s), Paul Robinson (whiffing on a teammate’s pass), David Seaman (not really an error, just a flat-footed response to a mishit free kick), and Peter Bonetti (for the old-timers). Green still shouldn’t be as embarrassed as René Higuita of Colombia, who got his pocket picked by Cameroon at World Cup 1990.
The British press are sharpening their knives on poor Green and Coach Capello. I must say I get tired of hearing the English whine about how crappy their team is, when we U.S. soccer fans would give up nonessential parts of our anatomy to have players like Rooney, Gerrard, Aaron Lennon, or John Terry. I will say this, though: It’s more fun when we’re the cause of England’s latest bout of angst. This postgame analysis from across the pond actually gives USA its due and says, accurately, that the result isn’t a disaster for England. The best line belongs to Dan Silver at The Mirror: “This is one British spill the Americans won’t be complaining about.”
Other than that, I’m disappointed in the British tabloids. They usually run pun-filled headlines when something like this happens, but the best anybody could come up with was “Hand of Clod,” a reference to the famous “Hand of God” goal that England suffered in 1990. The commenters on ESPN’s GameCast came up with much better ideas: “Red, White, and Green,” “USA Has Green Light to Win Group,” “All England Feeling Green,” and my favorite, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”
The implications for Group C are interesting now, with Slovenia winning a shambolic game over Algeria. The two teams’ level of play won’t scare us or England. However, Slovenia presents USA with a different sort of challenge on Friday. England was always going to attack USA, and USA came in knowing that and was prepared to deal with it, despite what Steven Gerrard’s goal indicated. The Slovenes, on the other hand, may very well be satisfied with a 0-0 draw, so USA will have to take the initiative. In North American qualifying, our guys have occasionally struggled against inferior teams who were intent on “parking the bus.” (Click here for an explanation of the term.) Can we break through?
Hmm, it wouldn’t be the dumbest move for the Slovenes to let the hype build for six days about how they’re going to play all 11 guys in defense, and then try to catch the Americans by surprise by attacking when the game actually starts. Wonder if they’re thinking the same thing.
I watched England-USA at the Fox & Hound pub in downtown Fort Worth, which was packed to the rafters with mostly USA fans, though there was a noticeable England contingent present as well. Not to worry, the atmosphere was pretty friendly, with USA fans and England fans posing for side-by-side photos. F&H is the place to go to watch this tournament because they’ve styled themselves as soccer pubs and are opening early to accommodate the World Cup. The other so-called sports bars I contacted around here can’t be bothered. Granted, the atmosphere depends on who’s playing — the same F&H was practically deserted for the crackling Ghana vs. Serbia match on Sunday morning. Still, the USA soccer experience is alive and well here in Fort Worth.
The Fox & Hound resounded with occasional boos for England’s lineup and some for Wayne Rooney, but the loudest boos were reserved for ABC’s shots of David Beckham sitting on the sidelines. (He can’t play because of a torn Achilles, but he’s still with the team in an unofficial capacity.) I’m not one of the Beckham haters, but it was pretty funny when the camera cut to him a few minutes after Green’s error, looking like he wanted to strangle the goalkeeper with his own expensively manicured hands. I hope he eventually remembered that he himself was once a World Cup villain.
As far as the other teams go, France doesn’t look like anything at all, which is mind-blowing given the offensive talent that they have. Germany, on the other hand, were fearsome in their 4-0 destruction of Australia. National stereotypes die hard, so the soccer world doesn’t think about Germany as a flair team of entertainers, but man, the Germans were fun to watch. Nigeria should have lost to Argentina by five or six goals, but goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama played out of his mind. Nigeria’s not known for producing great keepers, but this guy looked good. That Serbia bandwagon that I jumped on a few days ago isn’t looking good right now; Germany and Ghana were supposed to be crippled by their injuries, and instead they both won their first match. Argentina and Germany made the best offensive showings, but I’m still not completely convinced by either team. Argentina had some holes in the defense that a more experienced opponent might be able to exploit. Germany was never troubled by Australia’s offense, but it’ll be interesting to see how they react to an opponent that hits them in the mouth with the first goal. In any event, making a good showing in the group games is terrific, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a deep run. Four years ago, Argentina lit up the group stages (scoring six goals against Serbia) but wound up flaming out in the quarterfinals. The Dutch have made a specialty of scoring in bunches early in these tournaments and then going out in the knockout stages. We’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out before we crown new favorites.
The standard of refereeing so far has been excellent. The Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov applied the offside rule correctly to Carlos Vela’s non-goal for Mexico, showing that he knew the rules better than ESPN’s commentators did. The Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura kept the lid on a bad-tempered France-Uruguay game that could have spiraled out of control. The Brazilian referee Carlos Simon got all his decisions right in England-USA. (Guess those lessons in English obscenities paid off.) The Argentinian referee Héctor Baldassi didn’t hesitate in awarding Ghana a penalty late in their game. Refs often get gun-shy about ejecting players from World Cup games, but the red cards given out so far have been easy to call, and the refs have called them. ESPN’s Ally McCoist didn’t like the straight red given to Australia’s Tim Cahill by Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez on Sunday, but I say the call could have plausibly gone either way. Bitching about officiating is commonplace at these tournaments, so it’s only fair that we recognize when these refs do a good job.
(By the way, Cahill’s red card carries an automatic suspension, which will remove Australia’s best offensive player for the next game at least and possibly kill the Socceroos’ chances for advancing out of the group. If they keep defending like they did against Germany, they don’t have a shot anyway.)
What’s the deal with all these players picking up yellow cards for handball? Guys, if you’re all alone in your part of the field and you extend your arms above your head for the ball, the referee is probably going to see it. And yet still Zdravko Kuzmanović (Serbia) hands Ghana the game-winning penalty, Abdelkader Ghezzal (Algeria) gets a red card for absolutely no reason at all, and Jay DeMerit (USA) looks like he’s trying out for wide receiver for his beloved Green Bay Packers.
Until Germany’s four-goal outburst, none of the previous eight matches had featured more than two goals. It’s a bit of a concern, but new soccer fans shouldn’t read too much into final scorelines when it comes to a game’s entertainment value. It isn’t goals per se that make a soccer game exciting; it’s scoring chances. (All the hockey fans reading this are nodding their heads right now, because the same thing applies in that sport.) A 5-4 game is probably going to be more fun than a 0-0 game, but you can have an thrilling low-scoring game if the goalkeeper is making great saves (the Argentina-Nigeria game) or if offenses are creating lots of chances only to waste them (the Ghana-Serbia game). Of course boring games do happen at this level (the France-Uruguay game), but we watch because of the potential for excitement, and even a raggedly played game like the 1-1 England-USA draw can raise our pulses and give us memories for a lifetime.
Players are bitching about the new ball, because they always do that, but I’m more concerned with the playing surfaces. The pitches use a blend of natural and artificial turf, and based on what we’ve seen so far, they are fast, fast, fast. The ball is bouncing on them like golf balls hitting concrete. The teams should stop hitting long balls from the back to the strikers or wingers. The ball simply bounces slowly over the end line or into the goalkeeper’s hands. Offenses should focus more on short passing and crosses into the box, because Route One football isn’t going to work.
Hope to have another post on the World Cup before the USA-Slovenia game.