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More World Cup 2006

Posted June 7, 2006
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The Argentines have historically been loaded with talent, from Diego Maradona to their current teenage phenomenon, Lionel Messi. They beguile with their feet, their heads and, in the case of Maradona, their hands. And, of course, they win: two World Cups and two second-place finishes. So why are they so loathed? Could it be because the team has more drama queens than "Desperate Housewives" — players who dive and fake injuries when someone sweats a little too close to them? Or because they often mistake an opponent's legs for the ball (they earned a tournament-high 45 yellow and 4 red cards in 18 qualifying matches)? But skill trumps chicanery, and Argentina has plenty of the former. In addition to Messi, there are the predatory goal scorers Hernán Crespo and Carlos Tevez, and the artful playmaker, Juan Román Riquelme. Those skeptics can decry Argentina all they want — they're likely to end up with huevos on their faces.


WORLD CUP FACT-O-RAMA To call Brazil the favorite is to say that Gisele Bundchen is a bit of a looker. They are not just favored to win, they are favored to dazzle while doing it. So overwhelming are the odds for Brazil to capture its sixth World Cup that conspiracy theorists are out-contorting David Blaine to come up with a reason not to hand the Cup to the Brazilians before they step onto the field. They point out that except for Brazil's victory in Sweden in 1958, all the World Cups in Europe have been won by European teams, and that the Brazilians will not have the benefit of South American referees who would be likely to protect them from European defenders who figure their best chance to stop them sambaing through the penalty area is to force-feed them a turf sandwich. What they conveniently overlook is that all of Brazil's starters play their club ball in Europe, so they are hardly strangers to these thuggish tactics. If Brazil has any reason to fret, it is simply that you are only allowed to put 11 players on the field at one time, which means that several world-class performers will have to sit; the question is, will they sit happily? From their smiling assassin, Ronaldinho, FIFA's World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, to the pick-your-poison cast of attackers featuring Ronaldo, Robinho, Kak'a, and Adriano, no team comes close to matching the Brazilians' wealth of trickery allied with speed. Don't expect anyone to rain on their carnivale.


The Czechs are one of the few teams that refuse to genuflect to Brazil. After all, in that other beautiful game — supermodel supremacy — they've long since encroached upon Brazilian dominance, and it's somehow fitting that their soccer has gotten prettier, too. Since the Velvet Divorce, which split the country into the Czech and the Slovak republics 13 years ago, the once dreary, mechanical Czechs have acquired the verve and sophistication of their stylish capital, Prague. Technically assured, the current Czech team is also long on height, from the man-mountain 6-foot-8 striker, Jan Koller, to the imposing 6-foot-5 goalkeeper, Petr Cech. But no one embodies the new Czech spirit more than Pavel Nedved, he of the silky blond locks and even silkier skills. Coaxed out of retirement from international competition, the aging (33) but charismatic Juventus midfielder still dictates the Czechs' rhythm, and he can unleash thunderbolts with either foot. Nedved is known as the Czech Cannon, and he's their best shot at dethroning Brazil.


Only six weeks ago, England was a halfway-decent bet to win the World Cup. Many bookmakers had them as second favorites. Wayne Rooney, the team's 20-year-old savior, even went all Joe Namath on the British media. "Of course, we're going to win the World Cup," he boasted, neglecting to mention his track record: reports of $1.3 million in gambling debts. Then he broke his rapier right foot, and four years after England prayed for the recovery of David Beckham's glamorous metatarsal, the country finds itself once again kneeling down to ask that a famous foot be healed. Actually, two. Rooney's strike partner Michael Owen is still recovering from a broken metatarsal. The lame attackers have forced lame-duck coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to roll the dice on the warp speed of the 17-year-old prodigy Theo Walcott, whom he has never seen play live. Yet with the formidable midfield tandem of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, to say nothing of Beckham's bendalicious prowess, the English should have little trouble in the first round. As for winning their first World Cup in 40 years, all bets are off.


The good news is that the French can hardly do worse than they did four years ago, when they arrived as defending champions and departed three games later — winless, goal-less, joie-less. Then as now, they relied heavily on the talismanic presence of Zinédine Zidane, a three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and the linchpin of Real Madrid's famed galácticos. Having hobbled away from international competition in 2004, Zidane un-retired last year after all of France begged him to return as Les Bleus struggled to qualify for Germany. "God is back," said Thierry Henry, a celestial talent in his own right. But the question remains: has Zidane, now 33, gone from galáctico to geriatrico? And how many of his fellow countrymen — like Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram, 33 and 34, respectively — have also passed their sell-by dates? It falls to the great Henry, a sprightly 28, to ignite the French attack, but although he has been electrifying with Arsenal, his professional team, he has yet to display the same form for France. Sacré Bleus!


The only thing that's receding faster than coach Jürgen Klinsmann's hairline is the host country's faith in him. After five years of failing to beat a single world-class team, Germany turned to its former national hero and asked him to re-engineer the team's once proud soccer machine from a panzer into a BMW roadster. Instead of endurance and impregnability, he demanded adaptability and speed, off-loading battle-tested veterans in favor of untried youngsters like the fabulously named midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. Out went captain and goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, and in stepped rival Jens Lehmann, who recorded six consecutive shutouts for Arsenal in the Champions League (before being ejected in the final). The calm center of the team remains intact, however, bolted down by the ever dangerous Michael Ballack. Still, it seems unlikely that Klinsmann's kinder have the mettle to restore the Germans to soccer prominence, but there is one thing going for them: they get to play in their own haus.


With the Italians, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. For years, the Azzurri have sung the blues about the injustices they've suffered at the hands of corrupt foreign referees. How ironic, then, that a match-fixing scandal has implicated their own World Cup referee, as well as all sorts of Italian suits. It's as if the soccer gods dropped a dead fish into the lap of Italy's World Cup prospects, just when those prospects looked so promising. Led by Luca Toni, who scored an astonishing 31 goals in Serie A this year, the Azzurri have successfully shed their stultifyingly defensive style in favor of a more wide-open attacking game full of flair and speed, tearing apart Germany, 4-1, in a recent World Cup tuneup. That this was accomplished without the operatic soul of the team, Francesco Totti, the Roma star known for his pretty chip shots and petty cheap shots, augured especially well for the Italians. And just as the country's rabid fans were ready to hail the return of their hero from a broken leg, the scandal has left them more hysterical than a Puccini heroine. On the other hand, because Italy is in the same group as the U.S., its woes could be buona fortuna for the Americans.


Generally believed to be the best country never to have won the World Cup, Holland has always been one of the most colorful teams in the tournament — literally. From their wildly entertaining Total Football of the 70's to the brilliance of their stars of the 80's and 90's — Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard — the neon-orange-clad Dutch just can't seem to make it to the other side of the rainbow. They've lost in two World Cup finals. But in the last decade or so, Holland has earned a new reputation: as a self-defeating collection of arrogant divas who are riven by racial strife and prefer looking flashy on the field to actually winning. This year, at least, under van Basten's calm direction, the team looks once again to be a contender. He'll have plenty of world-class players to call on, including the lethal attacking trio of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart, yet somehow you just can't help feeling that the Oranje will have their hopes crushed.


In the past half-century, Spain has yet to escape the quarterfinals, and in 1982 the team suffered the madre of all humiliations when, as host of the tournament, they crashed out in the second round. How to explain that a country boasting two of the world's most glamorous clubs — Real Madrid and Barcelona — has never produced a team worthy of its audacious talent? Could it be the Goalkeeper Curse? In 1998, their veteran keeper Andoni Zubizarreta sent his team packing with a spectacularly embarrassing gaffe. Four years later, Santiago Cañizares, attempting to make a save on a bottle of dropped cologne, tore a tendon and had to be replaced. This time around, sure-handed keeper Íker Casillas will no doubt go fragrance-free. But if the Spaniards, led by the teenage sensation Cesc Fábregas and their prodigious goal scorer, Raúl, need any extra incentive to finally realize their potential, they recently got it in the form of performance bonuses: if Spain wins the cup, each player will receive an estimated $700,000. That will buy a lot of Eau de Redemption.


WORLD CUP FACT-O-RAMA Once a soccer punchline, the Americans come into the Cup with the swagger of a team that not only made it all the way to the quarterfinals in 2002 but has since fooled FIFA into giving them the No. 5 ranking in the world. The Americans can no longer count on surprising opponents because the world is now waiting for them. And given that they must negotiate two potential landmines in their group — Italy and the Czech Republic — they will be lucky to emerge from the first round in one piece. Outclassed technically, the Americans will once again rely on their Lance Armstrong-esque stamina, their pugnacious athleticism and the world-class goalkeeping of Kasey Keller. The most likely candidates for the Wheaties box are attacking midfielders Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. Look for 6-foot-4, 210-pound central defender Oguchi Onyewu (picture Lawrence Taylor in satin shorts) to inspire keen regret in any opponents who set foot in the United States penalty area and for Brian McBride to give up his body on the other end. So can the Americans reprise their miraculous run of 2002? Dream on.

David Hirshey is an executive editor at HarperCollins. He writes frequently about soccer.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company Privacy. Reprinted from The New York Times Sports Magazine of June 2006.

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