STILL TOO SOON TO KNOW
Golden Ball: Romário, Brazil
Golden Boot: Oleg Salenko, Russia, and Hristo “The Dagger” Stoichkov, Bulgaria, 6 goals each.
Format: Same 24-team deal.
How’d We Do: We, quite surprisingly really, made it to the second round, where an otherwise friendly-looking Brazilian fellow cracked one of our best player's skull with his unfriendly elbow. This was our reward for hosting? Still, getting out of the group was an unexpected success.
The two rule changes imposed were:
1. The back-pass rule, which put an end to defender bail-outs and deathly boring “four-corners”-type play.
2. The points received in the standings for a win in the group stage were increased from 2 to 3. This rewarded, it was hoped, the risks of attacking soccer.
They worked, sort of. The tournament goals-per-game went up from 2.21 to 2.71 (it has since come back down to 2.3 in ’06). So it’s a shame that it all ended in the World Cup’s only scoreless Final.
The thing is, it was a massively successful event, even if the country as a whole didn't appreciate the significance (I myself only heard about it a few days before it started; was I ever so young?). It remains the best-attended World Cup in history.
But it didn't click here nonetheless. Why not? Three doses of bad luck.
1. England weren't there, after a miserable qualifying campaign. What a boon it would have been, from a US media standpoint, to have the English around. At least we had the Irish for a little while.
2. The day of the opening match, June 17, 1994, when soccer should have been the top story in the headlines... it got bumped.
3. The scoreless Final confirmed every "soccer sucks" cliche there was.
Here's the thing. American likes a show. All eyes turned to Pasadena for Italy and Brazil, ready for fireworks. There were none. Not only was the 0-0 game settled by shootout, it was settled by a missed kick. A nation yawned. Imagine if we'd gotten the '86 Final? Or '06? No. Instead we got the worst, most anticlimactic championship game in the history of the tournament. Strike three.
The shame of it was that those who hadn't been paying attention (like me) had missed a solid tournament with some iconic moments. Maradona celebrating creepily, then being booted for ephedrine use. The most unexpected nominee for best goal ever. And some legendary, must-see work from Diana Ross.
Golden Ball: Ronaldo, Brazil.
Golden Boot: Davor Šuker, Croatia, 6 goals, and totally stealing Toni Kukoc’s thunder as World’s Most Famous Croatian Athlete That Summer.
New Format: A beautiful, perfect, 32-team group-stage based structure of eight groups of four teams, 16 of which meet in the first of the KO rounds. It passes the true test of a good tourney set-up: it makes sense visually on a wall poster. The fact that they’re talking about changing it again sickens me to my core.
How’d We Do: Horrible. Lost all three games, including to Iran.
Notable from ’98…
- Another disappointing show from Spain, of the sort that was becoming typical of this under-achieving nation.
- Croatia- which hadn’t existed just a few years before- storming to third place.
- A phenomenal game between Argentina and England in the second round, featuring 18 year-old Michael Owen's wonder goal and David Beckham's low point.
- An even better goal by Holland’s Dennis “The Iceman” Bergkamp with time running out in the quarter-final against Argentina. Watch it again. He catches a 50-yard pass delicately, without breaking stride, while being closely guarded, juking his marker in the process, in the dying minutes of the biggest game of his life.
- France’s best player, Zinedine Zidane, got a red card in France's second game of the tournament (at 3:25 of this clip), then came back to score two goals in the Final. Scores goals AND has a temper? Foreshadowing!
The big story that won’t go away though is Ronaldo. Ronaldo was at his unstoppable best in this tournament, winning the Golden Ball. The day of the Final however, was a bad day (and not just because of the collision at 2:40 of this clip). France’s 3-0 victory, while certainly deserved, was shockingly lopsided. Who beats Brazil 3-0?
It came out later that Ronaldo had suffered an epileptic fit hours before the match, and as close as 72 minutes before the game he wasn’t in the starting lineup. Conspiracy theories abound as to why he was eventually allowed to play, a particularly pernicious one being that Evil Nike ordered him to. It's still shrouded in mystery. Again though, I don't go in for conspiracy theories. I just like to hear the evidence.
NEXT TIME ROUND
Host: Japan and South Korea
Champ: Brazil (third straight Final, tied for record)
Golden Ball: Oliver Kahn, Germany (the only goalkeeper ever to win the award).
Golden Boot: Ronaldo, Brazil, 8 goals.
How’d We Do: We did quite well. Let's pause for a moment to discuss.
First came a shock 3-2 win over 4th-ranked Portugal. After a 1-1 draw with South Korea and Portugal's helpful disposal at South Korea's hands, the Yanks were in the 2nd round for only the third time in 72 years. Their opponent: arch-rival Mexico.
Mexico has dominated this rivalry historically. But on the day of the biggest game in these two teams' shared history, the United States rose to the occasion, winning 2-0 (with Mexico really keeping it classy after the 3:14 mark). With that win, the US advanced to the quarterfinals, for the first time since 1930, where they faced a Germany side that was far below typical vintage. Denied by Kahn, and by a criminally unpenalized handball on a ball that was halfway over the goal line, the US lost narrowly 1-0. A sad day, but a great tournament for US Soccer.
(Author's Note: Just watched all those highlights again for the first time in years. I highly recommend it. Some of those performances are absolutely stirring, and I'd forgotten how well the boys played in the Germany game. Heavy sigh.)
As a quarter-final performance by the US might imply, this was The World Cup That Was Weird. The other entries in the final eight included regulars Brazil, Germany, England and Spain. The remain three: Senegal, South Korea and Turkey.
France, who had won the previous World Cup AND European Championship, not only failed to get out of their group, they failed to even score a goal. Brazil provided us with a weird dive and a weirdly amazing goal. And it would be fair to say that Korea's surprise run to 4th place was helped by some weird refereeing.
(Gotta say, of all the conspiracy theories presented in this blog, this one seems to have the most credence. And this coming from someone who thought at the time that people were overreacting. Now I see their point, especially with what became of the ref from the Italy match. This is very disquieting, given that it was only eight years ago, as opposed to 70.)
But the main story here was the restoration of Ronaldo. Restored from not only his troubles n the summer of '98, but from recurring injuries that had plagued him since. He would score 8 goals in the tournament- the most of anyone in 32 years- including two in a fairly mediocre final.
Fun Fact: In the third place game, Turkey's Hakan Şükür scored the fastest goal in World Cup history, only 12 seconds into Turkey's 3-2 win.
MAN OUT OF TIME
Golden Ball: Zinedine Zidane, France.
Golden Boot: Miroslav Klose, Germany, 5 goals.
How’d We Do: No-so-good. Remember when we jumped out to that early lead v. Portugal last time? This time was the opposite. Went down 2-0 to the Czechs after 30, lost 3-0, and the tournament was basically done. But there was considerable dignity in being the only team in the tournament to get a point off Italy.
This one was recent enough that we can just review some highlights right?
- It wasn't quite the Battle of Santiago, but that Holland-Portugal game was ugly.
- Argentina scored a fantastic team goal, and an even better individual one.
- Wayne Rooney was on the ball.
But of course, the lasting, singular image is Zidane's moment of madness. The thing about this moment, that the casual American fan might not have realized at the time, is that Zidane is one of the all-time greats. He has a very strong argument for the title of Greatest European Player of All-Time (and I say that as a huge fan of the historical holder of that title, Johan Cruyff). But Zidane's lustre had diminished since the failures of 2002. France was expected to be only so-so at Germany '06, but then the Zidane of old began to show up. Suddenly they were in the Final, and Zidane put them up 1-0 with an early penalty. A unique sort of immortality beckoned- there aren't may players who have spearheaded two World Cup titles, much less eight years apart. For him to have thrown all of that away in one moment of madness...
Oh, Zidane. The Unmitigated Gaul.
Fun Fact: At this World Cup Ronaldo took over the record for most career goals scored with his 15th.
And now you are up-to-date with minimum threshold World Cup knowledge. Enjoy contextualizing 2010.
- Brendan Hunt
© Brendan Hunt, 2010