Soccer Watch

Secure in the Knowledge

So, I guess you've heard about those soccer hooligans in Moscow. Wild stuff, eh? What's up with those crazy soccer fans, and their crazy sport? That was the gist of the U.S. coverage of last weekend's riots; even the Statesman perked up their ears at the hint of graphic disaster -- finally, here was something that seemed familiar about this peculiar World Cup thing that seems to be going on overseas or somewhere. And, predictably, all the tut-tutting had to do with the sport itself: What is it about this non-American sport that drives people (foreigners, anyway) into such a frenzy? Look. There they go again.

Now, I'm all for the media grasping onto familiar themes that make them comfortable, but just let me make a couple of points here. First, let's see what happens in Detroit this week when the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup. After all, sports celebrations in that city have led to riots and deaths three times in the past 13 years. Those were about baseball and basketball, though, and no one wrote about "basketball hooliganism." They wrote about social conditions, race, and police response (or provocation). And lo and behold, if you get beyond the "soccer hooliganism" canard, those are the issues in Moscow, as well.

And while violence and corruption might be old news in post-Soviet Russia, the context here is all too Soviet. Amid accusations back and forth between the Security Service and the Interior Ministry as to who's to blame for not controlling the situation, there's growing suspicion that the police "followed somebody's orders to sit tight and not intervene while the fans were wrecking everything in their path," according to Moscow's WPS Media Monitoring Agency, in order to demonstrate the need for a new anti-extremism legislation that Vladimir Putin is trying to push through the legislature. WPS calls the legislation, "so vaguely worded that every organization (a political party, an oppositionist media outlet, or a picket by coal-miners) or individual criticizing the authorities may be branded an extremist."

But I don't know. That's pretty cynical. Can you imagine a government that would go to those lengths, just to impose draconian security regulations on their own people? Boy, it's a good thing we don't live in a country like that!

Coincidentally, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been in Moscow meeting with hard-line Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov to discuss anti-terrorism legislation and "cooperation between their structures."

In Defense of ...

If you've been reading this column the past few weeks, you know I have little use for FIFA, soccer's ruling body. The ticketing fiasco hasn't helped -- up to 10-15% of the seats remain empty while fans clamor to get in, simply because FIFA couldn't figure out how to put the tickets on sale, and was unwilling to give any control to vendors in the host countries, but insisted on running everything from the friendly banking confines of Switzerland. So I was heartened to find this example of internationalism and customer service posted proudly on the FIFA Web site: "Pepsi Ambush of the FIFA World CupTM stopped in its tracks." Seems that PepsiCo had been running soccer-related ads in various countries, clearly diluting the value of Coca-ColaTM's major sponsorship. FIFA brags of "considerable efforts on the part of the specialized 'anti-ambush' team," plus a "worldwide network of legal experts ... based in some 80 countries." Onsite, the release continues, "Rights Protection Patrol teams at each of the stadia and around the host cities are positioned to protect the rights of FIFA and the Official Partners [and] work closely with the stadium security and local police to ensure that prohibited marketing items do not enter the stadium." Good to see their priorities are straight.

On the Field

Things are heating up as the first round draws to a close Friday, and the 16-team knock-out bracket starts this weekend. Half the spots are still up for grabs as we go to press, but, already, the two top favorites, France and Argentina, are out, and Italy and Portugal could be gone as well by the time you read this. All of which looks good for Brazil and Spain, who've looked the best so far, and are on opposite sides of the draw. Most likely challengers: England and Germany, respectively. Want to pick a long shot? Try the feisty Danes, or maybe even Mexico, or (dare I say it?) the USA.

Here's the schedule for the Round of 16:

Saturday, June 15:

Germany/Paraguay (1:30am)

Denmark/England (6:30am)

Sunday, June 16: Sweden/Senegal (1:30am)

Spain/Ireland (6:30am)

Monday, June 17: G winner/D second (1:30am)

C winner/H second (6:30am)

Tuesday, June 18: H winner/C second (1:30am)

D winner/G second (6:30am)

The quarterfinals are the next weekend, Friday-Saturday, June 21-22, again at 1:30am and 6:30am.

Continental Shift?

Top-level soccer has always belonged exclusively to Europe and South America. And who knows, things may yet shake out that way. But the big surprises thus far belong to the outlying provinces. Looking at it continent-by-continent:

The best record so far? No contest; it's the lightly regarded, but undefeated, North and Central America. Mexico, the U.S., and Costa Rica have combined for six wins and two draws, but none have yet qualified for the second round. Each needs a draw or win in their last game to get through, and will likely be eliminated with a loss.

Africa is where everyone thinks the first outsider cup-winner will come from. But it won't be this year. Senegal had the opening shocker but was exposed by Uruguay before squeaking through. And that's the good news. Sub-Saharan powers Cameroon and Nigeria tanked; South Africa fell agonizingly short of the second round as well, and Tunisia will need a miracle to advance.

Asia is a mixed bag. The two hosts have looked great; the others, China and the Saudis, are probably the worst teams in the field.

South America's hopes rest on Brazil. Paraguay snuck through, but won't go far; and the other three teams, including Argentina, will be first-round casualties with one win between them.

Europe, with 15 entries, is hard to pigeonhole. But it's worth noting that they swept the two toughest groups so far -- Germany-Ireland in E, and Sweden-England in F, the "Group of Death." Overall, their record stands at 14-12-12 -- above average, I guess.

U.S. Chances Hang by Agoos

No one wants to talk about it, because he's such a nice guy, an elder spokesman for the team, and kind of got a raw deal in the last two WCs, but Jeff Agoos has been a slow-moving time bomb in the middle of the U.S. defense -- directly responsible for each of the three goals the team has surrendered, and lucky to have gotten away that lightly. Elsewhere on the field, the U.S. has surprised and amazed -- solid wing defense, speed and control in the midfield, even a knack for scoring goals that they've never had before. But if they can't plug holes in the middle, they won't last long against the big boys, even if they survive Group D on Friday morning. Will longtime friend and coach Bruce Arena have the motivational magic to turn Agoos around or the cold-bloodedness to yank him? That's the question that'll determine how far this team can go.

In case you missed the reference in the Koreans' ice-skating-style celebration after they scored on the U.S., it was a not-so-subtle dig at Apollo Ohno's controversial gold medal in the last Winter Olympics, following a South Korean disqualification.

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