Page Two

Soccer Watch

Page Two

There's a lot of really great stuff in this issue, from Raoul Hernandez's great story of Alejandro Escovedo's ambitious performance piece "By the Hand of the Father" and a pair of controversial arts pieces to Mick Vann's treatise on authentic Thai food, Mike Clark-Madison's bracing look at a troubled Eastside school, and a flurry of (mostly bad) news on the local environmental front. So let's get right to the big story: the imminent final games of the 2002 World Cup.

I've greatly enjoyed doing this peripatetic column over the last month or so -- this is its second appearance in this space, sandwiched around guest slots masquerading as book reviews, political commentary, and even a CD review -- but I must say, the sleep deprivation factor is starting to wear on me. Maybe next week I'll have some conclusive thoughts on what it's all amounted to -- for now, I'll make do with a potpourri of observations on the upcoming weekend and a few news items from halfway around the world.


The first thing to note is that the last two games are moved up a half-hour earlier than the previous games, to 6am this Saturday and Sunday. Stock up on your stimulant of choice.

Setting the Table: First comes Saturday's third-place match between semifinal losers South Korea and Turkey; the Korean Red Devils will be overwhelming favorites as their fans in Seoul bid them a raucous farewell; their enthusiastic sea of red at the Korean games has been quite a treat for the eyes and ears and will remain the most memorable feature of WC 2002.

The Main Course: I guess it should come as no surprise that Sunday morning's final pits the two most consistent soccer powers in the sport's history. Brazil is the only team to have played in every WC final since it began in 1930, as well as the only four-time winner. Germany has won three titles itself, and at least one of those two has been to the final game in every Cup since WWII. Both squads came into the tournament with a lot of question marks, but both have pulled it together down the stretch and it's hard to argue that these aren't the two best teams in the world right now.

After a relatively high-scoring first round, the defenses have clamped down, with only seven goals scored in the six quarterfinal and semifinal games this week. Only Brazil scored more than one in a game, in their 2-1 come-from-behind win over England, while Germany has gotten here with three successive 1-0 wins. Still, it's worth noting that these are by far the highest-scoring teams in the tournament: Brazil has outscored opponents 16-4, and Germany has tallied 14, while tying a WC record by conceding only one goal in their first six games.

Prognostication: The two goals scored in the semifinals may tell the story of the final. One was by Ronaldo for Brazil, making him the tournament's leading scorer with six, and the other was by Germany's Michael Ballack, who has a tournament-leading four assists to go with his three goals. Ballack, however, will miss the final, having picked up his second yellow card with a hard tackle against Korea that may have saved a tying goal. Ballack will be sorely missed; he's really the only truly world-class player on the German squad, aside from goalie Oliver Kahn. Still, he took the suspension with a decidedly non-Teutonic sense of humor. Noting that his club team, Bayer Leverkusen, lost in the finals of both the Champions League and German Cup this season and finished in second place in German league play, Ballack reflected that, "Perhaps the fact that I will not be in the final is a good sign."

Brazil, meanwhile, will be at full strength, with Ronaldinho -- a four-goal scorer and the third of the "three R's" -- back from his red-card suspension for the semifinal. Meanwhile, Ronaldo looks very fit after missing nearly two full years with a series of injuries, and goalie Marcos made a number of acrobatic saves against Turkey, just two days after being carried out of Monday's practice session with what looked like a serious knee injury.

Even with Ballack, Germany would be a huge underdog in the final. But if you're looking for a reason to like the underdog, consider the rest factor. As noted here last week, all four quarterfinals featured a team with three days rest against a team with five days rest. Only one less-rested team won -- Turkey over Senegal. Then, each of the semifinal winners had an extra day over their opponent. Now, Germany comes into the final with four days rest against Brazil's three. Overall, Germany will have played seven games in 30 days, two more than Brazil. Will that be enough of an edge to overcome the South Americans' decided skill advantage? Not likely.


The 23rd Man: After a firestorm of controversy about questionable refereeing in the early stages of the knockout rounds, FIFA assigned all-European teams for both semifinals. James Davis, writing on ESPN.com, had put the blame for the substandard refs squarely on FIFA president Sepp Blatter, calling "FIFA's pattern of appointing officials from minor footballing nations to run big games," a bald ploy "to keep the less established associations happy if he is to retain his position as head of world football's governing body, regardless of whether the officials are experienced enough for such a fixture. Let Italy and Spain cry foul." Blatter released a statement "dismissing in their entirety ... the ongoing rumors."

As we go to press, it seems likely that the final game will be run by Italy's Pierluigi Collina, generally accepted as the best referee in the world. It will be Collina's third match of the finals, including the highlight clash of the first round between England over Argentina. Added bonus: The Peter Garrett (Midnight Oil) look-alike is easily the coolest-looking ref in the world.

Meanwhile, late this week, UEFA, the European governing body, called for experiments with using two refs on the field instead of one.


Fox and Henhouse: World governing body FIFA has announced that it will investigate the ticketing chaos that resulted in tens of thousands of empty seats in the early stages of the World Cup. "We will later on go into a kind of investigation to find out where are the responsibilities," FIFA president Sepp Blatter (evil incarnate) told a news conference on Saturday. One of the main problems: Most of the European teams didn't claim their full allotment of tickets, then FIFA and the host countries failed to reclaim the seats and put them back on sale to local fans. The German Football Association, for instance, have admitted that they took just 1,000 of the 5,800 tickets they could have claimed for the final game because they didn't believe their team would make it that far. Their headquarters in Frankfurt was overwhelmed on Wednesday with over 2,000 requests, which they couldn't fill, for tickets to Sunday's final.


All-Stars: FIFA has announced its 33-player "short list" picked by a panel of experts as the finalists for the tournament all-star team. Six Brazilians -- including the feared three R's, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo -- and four South Koreans head the list. Landon Donovan and Claudio "Captain America" Reyna are the two Americans on the list; I'm a bit surprised that Brad Friedel didn't join them as one of the five goalies chosen. The final all-star squad will be announced this Friday in Yokohama, two days before the final in the same city.


Ratings Boffo: The U.S./Germany quarterfinal on ESPN was seen in some 3.77 million homes according to Nielsen Media Research data. That made it the network's highest-rated soccer telecast ever, surpassing a 1999 women's World Cup semifinal between U.S. and Brazil, and a 1994 men's World Cup match between U.S. and Colombia. The telecast also racked up a few other ratings superlatives. It was:

  • ESPN's highest-rated program of the year among men 18-34,

  • cable's most-viewed morning program ever among men 18-34, and

  • ESPN's most-viewed program ever in the second quarter of a year (April - June).

    Overall, ESPN's 21 morning WC telecasts through June 21 averaged a 1.09 rating, reflecting some 948,000 households. ESPN2's 33 telecasts averaged a 0.57 rating and 476,000 households. Both figures are up about 40% from the 1998 World Cup in France, which generally was aired between 9am and 5pm.


    Ahn Again, Off Again: Remember Ahn Jung-Hwan, the South Korean striker who knocked Italy out of the World Cup with an overtime goal and was sacked the next day by his Italian club team, Perugia, whose owner called him "the ruin of Italian soccer" and said he would "never set foot in Perugia again?" Well, on Monday, Reuters reported that the club had a change of heart. Calling its owner's statement "an emotional reaction, a provocation," Perugia announced that Ahn had agreed to stay with Perugia after a dramatic phone conversation with chief executive Alessandro Gaucci, the owner's brother -- and that, in fact, the club had exercised its option to buy Ahn, who had until now been on loan from the Korean League club Busan.

    By Wednesday, however, that appeared doubtful when Ahn's agent issued a statement that Ahn "does not want to go back to Perugia and Perugia has no right to demand him back." The agent claimed that Ahn would move to another European club but "will never play again for Perugia ... which mounted a character assassination against Ahn just because he scored against Italy." He added that the club was also four months in arrears on Ahn's wages.


    Ah, to be 20 years old again: Only 38 hours after leaving the field in South Korea, Landon Donovan was back playing with his Major League Soccer team, the San Jose Earthquakes. He came in as a late substitute Saturday evening against the Colorado Rapids and assisted on a goal for the Earthquakes who won their eighth straight home game.


    Fifteen minutes slightly extended: Sorry to say, you've already missed the U.S. team's post-WC media blitz. After bowing out in Korea Friday night, Head Coach Bruce Arena and a group of seven players were all over Manhattan in a whirlwind media tour that included nine live TV appearances in 24 hours on Monday and Tuesday, followed by a couple more in Los Angeles. It's all over now, except for Clint Mathis' appearance (15 minutes, of course) at 10:15 tonight (Thursday, the 27th) on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

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