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, the death of France, and the United States' return to action.
The Diego and Messi Show. I think Argentina could win this tournament. And if they do, they're going to play in some exciting games. They are constantly creating chances in front of the goal — many of them spectacularly skillful and typically directed by Lionel Messi, who is so small that if it weren't for soccer, his best chance of playing a professional sport would probably be chess, or maybe golf.
Tactics have never been Diego Maradona's strong point, so it's a good thing he's got a bench full of guys who could probably win with Mike Ditka coaching. Four Argentine strikers scored at least twenty goals for their professional clubs and three of them — Messi, Carlos Tevez, and Gonzalo Higuain — are in Maradona's starting lineup as roving defense wreckers, free to go anywhere, so long as they're pressuring the defense.
Poor South Korea never really stood a chance, despite scoring just the second goal by any team playing a South American country. (The other: Why it was scored by their frenemies from up North?!) They kicked things off with an own-goal off a Messi free kick and then surrendered three more to Higuain, each of them a relatively simple finish created by the magic of Messi, who remains scoreless yet a legitimate candidate for MVP. It's hard to say what his best quality is, really — speed, skill, or the kind of vision that enables him to see open space before it exists.
By the way, if you're new to the game, you might think a photo of Maradona taken today would make a good PSA against the ravages of cocaine abuse. He's fat, bug-eyed, and puffy-faced, with a nasty beard that looks like it would smell of steak seasoning. He wears a suit, but it still appears as if his pockets might be bulging with fried-chicken legs. The thing is, Maradona was always kind of a troll — short and stubby and, of course, awesome, a magician on the ball who scored goals by the wheelbarrow load. But I still think that when all is said and done we will speak of Messi as the greatest Argentine of all time. He is the fastest player in the game, whether or not the stopwatch would actually verify that. He is almost totally unmarkable. To get an idea of why that is, try to keep your eyes on him during play — he's there, and then he's gone, only to pop up across the field, a one-man version of three-card Monte.
Today's MVP is not a player. The MVP of Greece versus Nigeria was the red card handed out by Colombian referee Oscar Ruiz in the game's 33rd minute. Basically, the Nigerians were up a goal and in control of the game when a ball rolled out of bounds with one player from each side tussling a little while chasing it across the line. Vassilis Torosidis picked the ball up and shoved it wimpily at Nigeria's Sani Kaita, who instead of shrugging off this inoffensive offense instead went all mental and kicked (again, rather wimpily) at the Greek midfielder. It was an easy call for Ruiz. And off went Kaita, his jersey pulled up over his face as he tried in vain to hide from the country he just let down. (Sorry, dude, it doesn't work for an ostrich either.)
The downside of the card is that it completely ruined Nigeria's tournament. The upside is that it brought the game to life. The Greeks, a rugged, unshaven bunch who look like a crew of dockworkers, favor a defensive game. But up a man, and down a goal, they attacked relentlessly, and if not for the ridiculous goal-keeping of Vincent Enyeama (who absolutely will be upgrading from his current job in Israel), they would have blown the game open. As it was, it took a lucky shot to tie the game — a long shot that deflected off of a defender's back — and to give Greece its first-ever World Cup goal.
The second half was up and down, with most action in the Nigerian end, but both goalies made dazzling saves before Enyeama made his one and only mistake, channeling Robert Green with a misplay off a harmless shot that was poked in by Torosidis, the man who drew the red card.
Argentina is a lock for the Round of 16, but the rest of Group B is wide open. Both South Korea and Greece seemed doomed and now are very much alive. Nigeria, which lost by a mere goal to Argentina and was ahead and in control approaching half-time of this game, is now likely out. Kaita's was a mental mistake for the ages. I hope he has a vacation home somewhere.
In which I sell my soul and root for France. France versus Mexico made me feel dirty. Mexico, as we have previously established, is the bitter rival of Team America, the Red Sox to our Yankees. Thus, I had no choice but to root for France. But I didn't feel good about it. The only good thing about Mexico's victory is that they are possibly on track — if many, many (many) cards fall into place — to play the U.S. in the quarterfinals. And to beat them then would be great. Am I getting ahead of myself?
Anything else we need to discuss? Let's see, what else is there to talk about? Oh, is there a game this morning? Let me check the schedule ... Oh, my — there is! There is a game! It's the USA! Shall we talk about that? Let's. For all the hype about the super-mega-giant-awesome opener against England's vaunted Three Lions — for all the "don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes" redcoats nonsense — it honestly didn't matter if the U.S. lost that game.
Of course, a tie was great for the team's confidence, and for fan happiness, and for making English people sodden their Marmite (Marmite!) toast with tears, but from the beginning all the U.S. needed to do to advance to round two of the World Cup was beat the other two teams in the group. It may actually be that they only need a single win, plus another tie, but one thing is clear: They have to beat Slovenia, which leads the group after beating Algeria. That makes today the biggest game of the first round for Team USA.
Quoth Landon Donovan, on the slim possibility that they could lose or tie and still advance: "The way we're looking at it is if we can't beat Slovenia, we don't deserve to advance anyway." I couldn't agree more. Slovenia is a nation of just 2 million people, which is only salient in that it seems impossible that a country less populated than Brooklyn can possibly field a better team than a country of nearly 300 million. Of course, we have the NBA, and the NFL, and Major League Baseball — not to mention snowboarding, BMX, and street luge — stealing away our swift, hearty, stout-hearted children. Still, we should win this game.
That doesn't mean I'm not terrified. Slovenia plays the same sort of compact, frustrating defense deployed to great effect by so many overmatched teams so far — most notably, Switzerland and North Korea. Unless Bob Bradley is a complete moron, he will tinker with his lineup, replacing Robbie Findley in the front with Edson Buddle and altering the complexion of his midfield by swapping in Jose Torres, an attacking, ball-control wizard for Ricardo Clark, whose defensive abilities failed him big time when he fell asleep and gave up that first goal against England.
Nobody on the U.S. team wants to be locked in a tense 0–0 or 1–1 game in the waning minutes, so I fully expect to see attacking, offensive play directed by Dempsey and Donovan from the start. This could open up the team to quick counterattacks — a glaring weakness in recent matches — but there is no reward without risks.
My prediction: It will be close enough for awhile to give us all ulcers, but in the end Altidore, Dempsey, and Buddle will score. 3–1 USA.