With the World Cup beginning Friday in Germany, Mike Penner of the Los Angeles Times argues with himself over whether soccer has finally arrived in the United States.
World Cup Starts Friday, ends July 9 in Germany First U.S. match: Vs. Czech Republic, next Monday, noon, ESPN2
Skinny -- Germany, the host nation and three-time champion, finally is ready to shake off years of angst over the way in which coach Jurgen Klinsmann has built his team, the players he has chosen and the methods he has employed. The Germans should, on paper, sweep their three opponents, Costa Rica, Poland and Ecuador, but the Poles might have something to say about that, especially with Germany's defense being suspect. Coach Alexandre Guimaraes' Ticos have been dreadful in warm-up games in Europe, apparently having regressed since the end of qualifying play. Ecuador has not fared much better, winning only one of its last nine games, and now has striker Carlos Tenorio injured.
Skinny -- One more word out of England about poor Wayne Rooney and his broken foot and neutral fans around the world are going to start rooting for Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago or Sweden. England was a quarterfinalist in 2002, being knocked out by eventual winner Brazil. It has the talent to go at least that far this time around, even without the reptilian Rooney. Sweden has defeated or tied England in all 10 games over the past 38 years, including a 1-1 first-round tie at Korea/Japan '02. The Swedes could continue the streak, although that seems unlikely. England's almost desperate desire to end 40 years in the World Cup wilderness - it last won the Cup in 1966 - should be decisive. Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago are along for the ride.
Skinny -- Fans of the United States have talked all too much about theirs being the so-called Group of Death. They are wrong. This is the most difficult group by a country mile, and any prediction as to its outcome is almost certain to fail. Argentina is a two-time World Cup winner and has a team very much capable of winning a third title. The Netherlands is a two-time finalist, having lost to Germany in 1974 and to Argentina in 1978. Serbia and Montenegro is virtually impossible to defeat, having gone unbeaten in qualifying and yielding only one goal. The Ivory Coast came very close to winning the African Nations Cup this year and is powerful, fast and committed to carrying its continent's colors. Every match will have a huge bearing on the group, and the slightest of mistakes could have the worst of consequences.
Skinny -- Unlike the U.S., Mexico got it relatively easy in the draw and should make it out of the group without undue difficulty. Mexico has suffered tough one-goal losses to France and the Netherlands in its past two tuneups and should be stronger for the experience. Portugal has the advantage of being coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to the 2002 title. The Portuguese reached the final of Euro 2004, which they hosted, and so cannot be discounted. Iran's chances, as always, depend on its ability to distance itself from domestic politics and concentrate on soccer. It has a strong enough team to contend within the group. Angola is a first-timer coming in with eyes wide-open.
Skinny -- In normal times, Italy would be the team to beat in this group. But because a soccer corruption scandal is bubbling merrily along in Italy, these are not normal times, and the under-the-microscope Italians could be vulnerable. Much depends upon how much they can focus despite the unsavory revelations being reported almost daily back home. The Czech Republic supposedly is second in the world only to Brazil, but FIFA rankings come with a block of salt, not a grain. Coach Karel Bruckner is as shrewd as they come and does his homework well. The Czechs will not be surprised. The U.S. needs to win two games to get through. Coach Bruce Arena said it will come down to the final series of games. He may be correct. Ghana is growing in stature but seems outclassed in this company.
Skinny -- This is the group to watch in person or from afar, not only because it includes Brazil but also because any of the other three teams can snatch second place. The Brazilians are a known commodity. Anything less than three resounding victories in the first round will be met by wailing and hand-wringing all the way up the Amazon. Croatia, a surprise third-place finisher in 1998, is penciled in as the runner-up, but Australia has some physical clout and a determination to enjoy its first World Cup in 32 years, while Japan is coached by former Brazil standout Zico and has achieved several noteworthy results under his guidance.
Skinny -- France won the World Cup in 1998 and then crashed out in the first round in 2002, despite fielding much the same team. The French, therefore, are, as always, an enigma. The fact that fans in Paris have turned on them, and that there has been internal dissent within the team further undermines France's chances. It's a weak group, though, and Switzerland is likely the only team that can test the French in any serious way. South Korea finished an amazing and very satisfying fourth when it co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan, but coach Dick Advocaat's team does not travel well and South Korea will be hard-pressed to even get out of the group, let alone make the semifinals. Togo is playing in its first World Cup and has done nothing to suggest it can have any impact whatsoever against these opponents.
Skinny -- This is another group with two clear favorites and two also-rans. Spain, which has a reputation for going so far and no further in international tournaments, should win the group with ease. Only Ukraine has a chance of testing coach Luis Aragones' potentially exciting team. Despite a wealth of player talent, the Spaniards have struggled to score goals of late, however, and that remains a concern for Aragones. Ukraine is defensively sound and can counter well on the break. Tunisia is probably Africa's best representative after the Ivory Coast, but is not a real threat in this company. Saudi Arabia was the weakest team in 2002 and is an odds-on favorite to retain that dubious distinction unless Togo claims it.
Los Angeles Times