Saturday, March 6, 2010

"A" is for: Are You Ready For Some Football?

Poor Mexico. So far from God, and so close to the United States. -Porfirio Diaz, Mexican Dictator.

I predicted as I took my place at the bar, that the USA would fall to the Dutch by either 2-0, or 2-1. The first would be the expected result, given the last game in Amsterdam and their history in Europe, the second more hopeful, reflecting their improvement against traditional powers as in the '09 Confederations Cup victory v. Spain.

They lost 2-1. They looked much better than their last visit, when they were never really in the game, especially in midfield. This time the midfield was effective for long stretches, and the team was able to close the gap in the late going on a nice goal, and even threaten to tie. So there is hope.
It'll be a while before we see any more warm-ups though, so it's all guess work from here. But the lead-up to the World Cup has begun, and it's time to start doing what the Cup is great for- learning about other cultures (though soccer-haters and other xenophobes would not agree).

There is plenty of team-by-team analysis around, but I'm taking my cue from a very fun book from the 2006 Cup, "The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup" (edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. I searched for this year's equivalent, but alas). It's a very readable book that gathers natives and fans of each team to write something on that nation. Since there are 18 return teams this year, it's still relevant.

Group "A" is a very interesting one with South Africa, the host; France, recent World Champs and hosts; and Uruguay, shockingly (for some) 2 time winners in 1930 and '50. But for purposes of this brief peek, the headliner is arch-rival Mexico.

If Mexico is, as former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda says in his somewhat mournful piece on the homeland of "Los Tricolores", the richest of the poor nations, at least in futbol, they've always been the poorest of the rich nations. They've hosted twice, and made memorable runs, not least at the 2006 Cup, where they were game before losing on a brilliant Argentina goal.

Now the northern giant threatens hegemony in this vital area, too. Worse, they do it in almost off-hand fashion, with the US' string of victories in crucial matches, such as the 2002 quarterfinals, arousing no passion in the football-hating press and NFL-obsessed public. It seems unfair. Here is ESPN Sports Guy Bill Simmons' impression of a USA v. Mexico match in infamous Azteca Stadium.

Football, in fact, is often not fair, though Mexico can still have the last laugh this year. Though the first game (the opener!) v. the hosts will be tough in terms of the crowd, South Africa really hasn't been playing that well. Uruguay will be game, but their days of regular participation are long gone (their cups came during an economic and soccer heyday as host of a truncated field in the first event, and via an upset of Brazil before that nation's era of domination began). France is also underachieving, notably needing a Thierry Henry handball v. minnows Ireland to even qualify.

Mexico is back in good form, so passion and pride may very well carry them farther than the young US team. Some would like nothing better than to see Los Tri fail, but once the US is out, I always root for them. It only seems fair.

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