Well, how about those Kiwis? When this World Cup started, I never imagined I’d be writing that sentence. How about that? New Zealand took advantage of an early goal and gutted out a 1-1 draw with Italy on Sunday. A few days ago, I wrote about how a low-scoring game can be exciting if there are lots of scoring chances. This is another way a low-scoring game can be exciting, watching a not overly talented but determined squad hold out against one of soccer’s superpowers. The play wasn’t all that attractive, but seeing the All Whites keep the world champion Azzurri out of the net was gripping. Now lowly New Zealand have achieved the greatest soccer result in their nation’s history, and they are rejoicing in Auckland and Wellington.
Again, a certain amount of controversy has gone with this. A few people have wondered whether Shane Smeltz’ goal should have been disallowed for offside; Simon Elliott’s free kick may have clipped the head of a New Zealand player on its way in, which would have put Smeltz in an offside position, but even with TV replays it was hard to tell for sure whether the ball made contact. Bigger controversy was over the penalty kick that Italy earned for their goal. Tommy Smith’s foul on Daniele de Rossi was soft, and de Rossi certainly embellished the contact to draw the ref’s attention. Still, when the defender has a fist full of the attacking player’s jersey, there’s only so much complaining you can do.
This draw puts Italy in some danger. All they have to do to qualify for the knockout stages is win the next game against an ordinary Slovak team. The thing is, even if they manage to avoid crashing out in the group stage, they’re still likely to be facing the Dutch in the round of 16. That’s not what they want. Plus, Italy’s offense has been looking pretty ordinary itself — most of the chances they created against New Zealand came from shots outside the penalty box. Coach Marcello Lippi made a big mistake not taking Giuseppe Rossi as one of his strikers. Rossi would give them speed up front as opposed to the lumbering physical guys that Italy has too many of. Currently Italy’s speed option is Antonio di Natale, but Rossi’s cleverer and more inventive. Italy expects to get back creative midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who has missed the first two games because of injury, for the third game. Maybe that’ll restore some bite to this Italian offense. If not, the World Cup champs will be going home early.
Meanwhile, this New Zealand team serves notice that there are no easy games at this year’s World Cup. Let all the favorites beware, including us against Algeria.
After the first 16 games featured only 25 goals, the second set of games has exploded into life. The Cameroon-Denmark game ended 2-1 and could have easily been 6-5 with the woeful defenses on display. The Danes won that game because Simon Kjær hit two long balls from his spot in central defense into the right side (Cameroon’s left side) behind Cameroonian left back Benoît Assou-Ekotto. Danish right winger Dennis Rommedahl ran onto them to set up one goal and then score the other one himself. The Cameroonians were exposed on that left side because attacking midfielder Achille Emana was too busy making forays on Denmark’s goal to provide cover. That wouldn’t have mattered if Emana had put away any one of his numerous scoring chances, but he failed.
By the way, Kjær recently told the media that his last name should be pronounced like “care.” Some people are confused because the famous Norwegian soccer player Ole Gunnar Solskjær pronounced his last name “sol-share,” but Danish follows different rules of pronunciation. Solskjær played many years for Manchester United, and the fans there still sing, “You are my Solskjær, my Ole Solskjær, you make me happy when skies are grey.”
I’m still trying to figure out what the Ghanaians were doing against Australia. The Aussies had striker Harry Kewell red-carded in the 24th minute after he handled the ball on the goal line. Ghana converted the resulting penalty to make the score 1-1, but then their offense turned static, as they tried to score the winner from long shots that Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer dealt with pretty easily. Ghana spent 65 minutes with 11 players while the Australians had 10, but during the latter stages, the Aussies looked like they had the man advantage. (There’s the pluck that the Socceroos were missing against Germany.) It wasn’t just the players who lacked urgency, either; coach Milovan Rajevac didn’t put in another striker until the 87th minute. Ghana is full of young players, and experienced teams know how to put wounded opposition to the sword. (That’s what they say in Britain. I love those British soccer expressions!) Will the Africans be made to regret not going for the win? We’ll find out on Wednesday.
The other Sunday game was Brazil vs.
Ivory Coast Côte d’Ivoire, which featured some truly disgraceful play-acting for fouls by both teams. (The Italians did their part, too, against New Zealand.) The worst offense was Ivorian Abdel Kader Keita conning the ref into giving Kaká his second yellow card of the evening, which means he’s suspended against Portugal. Brazil can probably take it; they’ve already qualified for the knockout stages. Still, it was unedifying to see, and it only provides ammunition for soccer haters.
The Ivorians will be out of the tournament by Monday morning if Portugal beats North Korea. Drawing Brazil and Portugal as opponents screwed them over, as did the elbow injury to captain Didier Drogba. Too bad, because Drogba is one of the sport’s most fascinating characters, for reasons that go well beyond his talent for scoring goals in bunches. On the one hand, he’s widely disliked in England, where he plays for Chelsea. He dives for penalties, and used to do it much more frequently before he figured out that he could beat top-level defenses honestly. He even admitted as much, which doesn’t go over well in the U.K. He threw a hissy fit a few weeks ago over a penalty kick taken by Chelsea teammate Frank Lampard in the last game of the English Premier League season. He swore on live TV after a controversial Champions League loss. There’s a still-unconfirmed but vastly entertaining story that he once purchased hundreds of his own jersey from the Chelsea gift shop after he heard that his jerseys weren’t selling well. On the other hand, he’s a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador who has spent millions of his own money to build hospitals and schools in his native country, and he even helped end the civil war there. (It’s currently at a truce.) How many of us can claim to have ended a civil war? He scored a goal against Brazil. Let’s hope that the World Cup hasn’t seen the last of him.
It’s wonderful how most of the teams here have brought something to the World Cup. This is even true of the French, who’ve gone from “disaster” to “farce” with their latest practice-session walkout. I called them Team Dysfunction back in December, but now they’re Team Dysfunctional Comedy. To recap: At halftime of France’s game against Mexico last Thursday, Coach Raymond Domenech instructed ineffective striker Nicolas Anelka to play more like a target player and less like a secondary striker, good advice given that there was no primary striker for Anelka to play off of. Anelka told Domenech, “Go fuck yourself, you son of a bitch.” (Presumably, he did not follow that up by saying, “Pardon my French.”) Domenech responded by subbing out Anelka for the second half. After the game, Anelka refused to apologize. The French Football Federation (FFF) kicked Anelka off the team and sent him back home to France, with Domenech’s assent. The player didn’t go quietly, issuing a statement supporting the French soccer team and his fellow players, but not for Coach Domenech. On Sunday, a training session open to the public turned into a shouting match between team captain Patrice Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne, in which Domenech had to intervene. Duverne was seen angrily throwing his accreditation badge to one side as he walked off the field. Evra then led the other players on a walkout, leaving Domenech to read a statement signed by the players in support of Anelka against the FFF. The FFF countered with its own statement condemning the players for depriving their loyal fans of the pleasure of watching them train. The team’s press officer, Jean-Louis Valentin, announced Duverne’s resignation and then followed it up with his own resignation, saying he was “sickened and disgusted” by the whole thing. He’s got lots of company.
Who knows what’ll happen between now and France’s last game on Tuesday? I’ll bet if Thierry Henry got the chance to do it all over again, he’d tell the referee about the handball he committed against Ireland and let the Irish go to the World Cup. Missing out on the World Cup can’t possibly be as embarrassing as the TV sitcom that the French have become.
Some background: Anelka is the French soccer equivalent of Terrell Owens. He has changed teams eight times in his 15-year playing career, because even though he’s scored goals everywhere he’s gone, he’s also pissed off coaches everywhere he’s gone. His attitude is so crappy, the British tabloids nicknamed him Le Sulk.
His teammates are supporting him because players wielded too much power in the French locker room ever since they won the World Cup title in 1998. Leaks from inside are saying that Franck Ribéry plays on the left wing because he wants to play there, even if he’d be more effective on the right, and that playmaker Yoann Gourcuff was dropped from the starting lineup because his teammates were jealous of his good looks and media-friendly charm. This isn’t a case of the inmates taking over the asylum, it’s a case of the mutinous sailors taking over a battleship and trying to launch an invasion after breaching their own hull. If Domenech had any authority and sense, he’d drop the troublemakers (starting with Ribéry, Evra, and William Gallas) for the South Africa game. Then again, if Domenech had any authority and sense, he and France wouldn’t be in this mess.
Well, if France is a warning about what World Cup pressure can do to a team, New Zealand is an example of what it can bring out of a team. Let’s see how USA responds.