Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, a thanks to Germany, of all places.
I can't believe I'm about to type these words, but thank God for the Germans. Until Germany steamrolled the poor Socceroos of Australia, ringing up four goals and nearly missing on another half-dozen, the South African World Cup was stuck in a rut of 1 and 0 goal matches. Relative to many of the early first-round matches, the U.S. and England lit up the scoreboard with one goal apiece.
That didn't mean the soccer was dull, of course, unless you're referring to the Slovenia-Algeria match, a plodding, defensive war that was about as exciting as an hour of Wolf Blitzer preparing and then dressing up a bowl of oatmeal. I rose at 7 to scout the two teams that stand between the U.S. team and the second round but am still not sure if I actually watched the game in total, or just took a long nap and dreamed of two teams ponging the ball around for 90 minutes. The day got better, however, thanks to Ghana and Germany.
What you missed if you missed the weekend:
The tournament's first weekend goes to the Germans. I'm not sure if the Germans are that good or the Australians are that bad, but the
two three-time Cup champions put on a fireworks display in Sunday's final game. Germany's reputation over the years has been as a team playing a methodical, effective, and boring style of soccer that looked as if it was preprogrammed by a computer. It worked, and well, but wasn't ever much fun to watch. That began to change at the last Cup, under the leadership of the tan, contented, chipper (for a German) ex-striker turned manager Jurgen Klinsmann (revivified by his retirement life in California) as well as a wave of more dynamic young players, especially Lucas Podolski. And yesterday, well, the Germans were downright thrilling. They were quick, and creative, and constantly threatening. If the U.S. finishes second in Group C, the team will likely draw the Germans. Before yesterday, I felt like that was a good matchup for us. Now, I'm not so sure.
On the other hand, the Australians are pretty bad. In the U.S. team's final warm-up for the Cup, the Americans scored three on the Socceroos, and easily could have scored five, if Robbie Findley did not lack the capacity to kick a small round ball into a gigantic open net. So I need to see the Germans play a better team.
That said, the Socceroos still got screwed. Two of the four goals came after the Mexican referee slash Dracula impersonator Marco Antonio Rodriguez dealt a horrible red card to Tim Cahill, effectively ending any chance at keeping the game reasonable and, worse, depriving Australian fans of their best player for the next match, and thus a good portion of what is sure to be a short trip to South Africa. Bastian Schweinsteiger, the receiver of the foul, later acknowledged that the tackle was not red-card worthy, and Cahill was said to be in tears after the game. If anyone at FIFA has any sense, or a heart, they'll reverse the call.
The African teams are better than billed. Many writers heading into the Cup posited that this was the weakest African pool in history. They said it was possible that no teams would advance past the first round. The African champion, Egypt, didn't even qualify for the tournament and three of the continent's best players — Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, and John Obi-Mikel — were likely to miss the tournament with injuries. But South Africa got things rolling on a good note by almost beating Mexico (if not for a pesky goal post ... ), and Ghana looked like a younger, more spry side against the Serbs, who aren't exactly known for dynamic play. With the two best teams, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, yet to play, things are looking up for Africa.
Hey, Africa's goalies are a nice surprise, too. The conventional wisdom on African teams is that they tend to be made up of individual talents who don't play well as a collective. You rarely hear about keepers one way or the other. Here, their keepers have been standouts. First, South African keeper Itumeleng Khune shut down the Mexicans and actually created his team's goal with a booming punt. If he's still playing in the South African league after the World Cup, I will swallow a Jabulani. But it was Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama who looked like the player of the weekend. Wearing a neon yellow jersey and covering the goal mouth like Spiderman, Enyeama single-handedly shut down Argentina's Lionel Messi, in the sense that he kept Messi from scoring. Otherwise, Messi looked like a character from The Matrix, regularly dribbing through three or four defenders, appearing out of thin air at times, and often moving so quickly he blurred the high-definition feed. If not for Enyeama, the world's best player (and, as a friend of mine noted, a potentially excellent Roman Polanski impersonator) could easily have scored five times. Argentina won the game only 1–0, but if a 1–0 game can be a rout, this was it.
Speaking of Africa, I suppose I owe France an apology. Nearly all of the African teams are playing in uniforms by Puma — how does a brand go about representing a continent, by the way? — and having picked on the French for wearing overly tight jerseys and having now watched Algeria and Ghana play in what look to be the top half of leotards ... I guess I have to apologize to the French. Granted, the Puma jerseys are supposed to be skin tight (while those French shirts were just unnecessarily small), and I like the style otherwise (the ghosted team emblems on the shoulder are a nice touch), but the only way anyone is going to one-up these things for form-fitting style is to outfit a team in one-piece bathing suits or Tour de France unitards.
Lastly, a mea culpa. And on the subject of apologies, I realize that I can handle sleep deprivation ... but not so much when in combination with alcohol saturation. I didn't mean to insult Mother England by botching the first names of not one, but two English players in yesterday's entry, nor the mothers of Jamie Carragher or James Milner. I meant only to insult their sloppy play. I have a newborn child who steals my sleep, but it was Team USA that got me drunk, and writing with no sleep and a hangover makes a man lazy. Or dumb. God save the Queen. Unless she's playing Uncle Sam.
(Ed. Note: The Netherlands, Dean's pre-Cup favorite, won this morning. He'll be writing about that match tomorrow.)