This may shock some people, but I feel that (gasp) ESPN is being more than a little disingenuous. Their schmaltzy World Cup ads, about how the tournaments brings the world together, and more specifically how qualification helped bring about a truce to a civil war in the Ivory Coast, may seem like an innocent enough way to tug at the heartstrings of John Q. Public in St. Louis, Missouri, but there's a couple of problems with this assumption:
1 - John Q. Public could give less of a shit about the rest of the world's problems, considering that he has no health insurance and gas costs three bucks per gallon. Plus, he's bummed as hell about Pujols being hurt.
2 - The rest of the world, this wonderful fairyland where people appreciate soccer, isn't that great either.
The problem is that these commercials are engaging in blatant false advertising. Their depiction of the soccer loving world is somewhere between Pollyanna, if one is being kind, and propaganda if one is not.
The sad truth is more often than not, soccer doesn't stop violence between people, it just gives them yet another reason to be violent. The Ivory Coast commercial was particularly ironic, considering that qualifying for the World Cup actually precipitated a short war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.
The two countries were playing a home and home playoff series, where the winner would go on to the 1970 WC held in Mexico. The first game was held in Honduras, and their fans pelted the hotel of the El Salvadorian players with rocks all night so they couldn't rest. Honduras won the game, and some El Salvadorian teenage girl was so upset by the result, she killed herself. Fellow El Salvadorians martyred her, acting like her fanaticism was how ALL soccer fans were supposed to be, so for the second game, held in El Salvador, their fans returned the favor to the hotel the Honduran players were staying at, throwing dead rats along with rocks and totally unnerving the players. El Salvador beat Honduras 3-0 the next day and qualified for the World Cup. Relations between the two nations were tense already, and the ensuing soccer riots pushed things over the top and led to a six day war, with over 2,000 dead. Cute, fuzzy story, huh?
Or perhaps you caught the ESPN feature yesterday, about how there is still significant racism toward black players in Europe, no matter which team they play for. People are throwing bananas on the field, making monkey chants, and even the Spanish team's coach, Luis Aragones, was caught on camera making racial remarks about French star Thierry Henry. Even more disturbing, it seems that Neo-Nazism is on the rise in Germany, and there are significant fears about something ugly happening in the stands, to the point that FIFA commissioner Sepp Blatter is threatening to forfeit games or play them in empty stadiums.
This is hardly a new development. As long as soccer's been around, soccer hooligans have been around, and they use THE GAME as just another reason to be hateful and violent. Now that African players are regular participants in all the major European leagues, the hate has just escalated. Despite the way Europeans look down their noses at the unsophistication of Americans, they're hardly enlightened themselves when it comes to attitudes about race and religion.
There is no utopia, anywhere. Remember that.
So please enough platitudes about how soccer ends wars. If that's true it's only because the games are wars in and of themselves. The fans start fires in the stands and throw rockets on the field. The chants are anything but a call for homogenization. While it'd be nice to see more Americans appreciate the game, I've never been the least bit envious of the so called "passion" that soccer garners abroad. In the end, it is just a game. But not to some people.
PS..in case you didn't see it, Part I is below this column, so read that first.
Group C: Argentina, Serbia & Montenegro, Ivory Coast, Netherlands
In my mind, with England's injuries, Germany's inconsistent play, and Portugal's constant bafoonery, Argentina has to be the favorites in this half of the draw. Their group isn't easy at all, it's probably the second toughest after the US one, but a one way to look at it is that they'll use it to toughen themselves up for the rigors that lay ahead. For whatever reason, maybe it's lowered expectations now that some of their big names of the past have been eased out, but this is probably the loosest any Argentine team has been going into the big one. The other heavies here are the Netherlands, obviously, but there's something about them that gives me an uneasy feeling, and I'll try to clumsily put it into words below...
- Argentina - With them it all depends on the 19 year old hotshot midfielder Lionel Messi. He's been talking big, saying he's the next Maradona. Supposedly, he was very good for Barcelona this year. Yes, there's Hernan Crespo and Juan Román Riquelme, but Messi is supposed to be The ONE. We shall see. However, the odds are already against him since he's got a thigh muscle injury and he's been deemed out for their first game against the Africans. Anyway, besides him, I don't recognize too many other names. No Gabriel Batistuta? No Ariel Ortega? No Diego Simeone? It seems a bit dicey, right? But really, what did any of those guys do for them? I haven't even heard of their goalies. Why not stick Maradona's fat ass in there? He could cover practically the whole net. Have you seen that guy lately? Oy vey. Hand of God, ass of Buddha.
- Serbia & Montenegro - Not much of a surprise, actually. They only allowed one goal in 10 qualifying games (while scoring 16). That can't be too much of a fluke. I think they'll eke out 5 points or so in the three games and get in the second spot. My best friend, a Greek, likens the play of S&M (gotta love that abbreviation) to his homeboys. I guess that means they'll play boring as piss, score their one goal per game off a corner kick header and have sex with each other after the games. For what it's worth, their top (only?) striker, Mateja Kezman, has been hot, scoring five goals in his last seven games for them.
- Ivory Coast - Or the pretentious name they like to be called, the Cote d'Ivoire. Pretty fucking weak they made it in, considering they lost both their head to head games to the Indomitable Lions. Still, I think they pull a mini surprise and beat the Netherlands, denying them a spot in the second round. One thing they do have going for them is striker Didier Drogba, who had a pretty good season for Chelsea, the best team in the Premiership. His boss over there thinks so highly of him, that he starts him over the previously mentioned Crespo. Still, he's already 28, so he may be peaking on the world stage a bit late.
- Netherlands - You're gonna think I'm nuts. They absolutely dominated qualifying, to the tune of 27 goals for to three against. They won both their games, home and away, against the Czechs. Still, in every WC one powerhouse always plays miserable, and this green bunch I feel is the safest bet to draw the short straw this time. The Netherlands have been much criticized for always coming up short when it counts in the past but really, I think that's unfair. In '90 they lost to eventual champion Germany, and in '94 and '98 they lost to Brazil. But this time, they'll truly earn "The Choking Carrots" label. Why? Their inexperience, that's why. I'm not convinced these youngsters have what it takes to step their games up against world class defenses like S&M and Argentina. I don't see the forwards being given enough chances. .
What this group should have been: Argentina, Netherlands, Egypt, China
Egypt - They had the awful luck of being placed in a qualification group with both the Ivory Coast AND Cameroon, and as one might expect, they didn't do too well. But they might be the most in form African country at the moment. They won the African Nations Cup, which was held after WC qualifying, and beat the Ivory Coast twice in doing so, once in the group stages, 3-1, and again in the Final, on penalty kicks after a scoreless 120 minutes. They also beat Senegal in the semifinal. They're ranked 17th in the world by FIFA, as opposed 32nd for Ivory Coast, and they're more likely to make a decent showing for themselves I feel. The '10 WC will be held in Africa, and that decision was soundly criticized in many quarters because there is much skepticism in the global community about the quality of African Football. If I were the African Football Federation, or whatever it's called, I would do whatever I could to make sure my continent would be able to give the best representation of itself in the '06 tournament, and to do so, I'd gerrymander the qualifiers if I had to, to get the best teams in there. Right now, I don't see one African team cracking the second round, but perhaps my opinion would've been different with Nigeria, Cameroon, or Egypt in there instead of Angola, Togo, and the Ivory Coast...
China - And to make me a gigantic hypocrite, let me try to explain why when I'm stressing that above all the best teams should be in the world cup, why China needs to be in. It certainly isn't for their play, since they're only 68th, and they all kinds of suck, but there's an exception to every rule and China is the one in this case. Simply put, China should ALWAYSALWAYSALWAYS be in the World Cup. I can't stress this strongly enough. They're the most populated country, one of the top two or three economies (and rising) and it only makes smart business sense to get the Chinese people interested. Doesn't anyone get this? I don't care what kind of fake bullshit draw you have to rig to get them in, put them in a qualification group with Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Antarctica if you have to, but get 'em in there. Can you imagine an Olympics without China? I'm telling you, just get them in there, make a killing in TV money and merchandising, and eventually, the country will shame themselves into earning the right to be in. They're already getting good at basketball. If a country as apathetic about soccer as the US of A can get good at it, then China, which likes the sport already, should be able to catch up in no time.
But why at S&M's expense? Eh. C'mon, cut me some slack. They're a new country anyway. Now they want to split into two even smaller countries, when they already had only 10 million and change in total population. Make up your damn minds. Didn't they just split with Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina like a year ago? And what's up with their lame flag? It's blue, white, and red. How original. I think it's pretty lame that they, Slovenia, and Croatia all have pretty much the same flag. Where's the bitterness? Where's the animosity? I give props to B&H for at least having enough self respect to come up with a new flag. If I were in charge of S&M, my flag would be purple with yellow polka dots stars that spell out, "Fuck Croatia and Slovenia" in Serbian. They just don't do anything to distinguish themselves. And that goes for their conduct on the pitch as well, where they get their rocks off playing staid, paint-by-numbers, defensive football. We've got enough of those already.
Group D: Portugal, Mexico, Iran, Angola
The overwhelming favorites for "Which group will your humble author watch the least," with I suppose, Group A being the only other contender. The only nice things I have to say about these countries are the following: I enjoy Mexican food, I wouldn't mind having sex with Kim, this Portuguese girl I know from Half Moon Bay, I'm friends with a Persian guy, and I've never been personally offended by an Angolan, yet. I'm sure it'll happen eventually. But no, I don't expect anyone here to make too major of a dent in the tourney.
- Portugal - I'll give them a free pass in the group stage. Their competition doesn't look too formidable here. Besides, they still have Luis Figo, and he's pretty good. They went 9-0-3 in qualification, against Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, etc, and scored 35 in 12 games, with only five against. I'd probably be harsher toward them if I wasn't thinking about sleeping with Kim right now. (And I hear she's not too picky.) My friend can't stand Portugal, and I don't understand why. Greece played them twice during Euro '04, and they beat them twice, including in the final. How can you dislike somebody you own? It'd be like a Spurs fan hating the Nuggets. Okay, bad example. I fucking despise the Nuggets. But still, I tell him if he's bitter about not making it to the World Cup, he should dislike Ukraine or Denmark instead. But he lives in Half Moon Bay, around a lot of Portuguese people, so maybe there's something he's not telling me. For the record, he could have Kim anytime he wanted to -IF he wanted to. But he doesn't- officially.
- Mexico - They got rid of Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the guy who used to put the ball between his feet and do the bunnyhop. Also, no Luis Hernandez, the white guy who kinda looked like a cross between Fabricio Oberto and pornstar Evan Stone. And worst of all, no Jorge Campos at goalie. I always enjoyed his clownish antics, trying to liven up an inherently dull game by hanging on the crossbar like a little kid.
But that's not the odd part. Lots of soccer fans around the globe have pride in their national team. No, the odd part is, every four years, like clockwork, as soon as Mexico gets eliminated, every Mexican soccer fan all of a sudden pretends they're Brazilian, and starts rooting for them with all their hearts. I swear to God this is true for those of you that don't follow soccer. Why Brazil though? They don't even speak the same language. Why not Spain or Argentina? I asked Carlos, this guy I used to work with at California Pizza Kitchen back in 2002 this, and he replied that it's because those teams don't play with the flair that Latin teams are supposed to. He said the Brazilians play like how Mexicans play. More like how they WISH they could play....
All I know is all the BOKs (Back of Kitchen) were giving me lots of shit during the whole '02 WC, about how much Turkey sucked, and about how they'd be gone after three games. I said nothing. Then HELL ON EARTH happened. Mexico lost to The Gringos in the second round. You've never seen a quieter, more somber kitchen in your entire life, I'm telling you. The BOKs were so despondent, I didn't have it in me to crow at them. Meanwhile, Turkey kept winning. They beat Japan, and then Senegal, to make the semis. Then they lost to Brazil. And I got taunted mercilessly the next day, during my whole shift, as if I was in the middle of Rio de Janeiro or something instead of the bay area.
So that's my Mexico World Cup story. Please take this piece of advice. The day after Mexico's knocked out, don't go to any restaurants. Eat at home. Fast if you have to. Just trust me on this one.
- Iran - Of course they had to be put into this group. It's the B.O. group. All that's missing is having India instead of Angola. Or Armenia.
- Angola - Then again, if Armenia made the World Cup and Turkey didn't, I'd have to go on a cross-country killing spree.
Greece - As I've said before, I believe the Greeks deserve to be here, by virtue of them winning the Euro Cup in '04. That proves they're a quality side, beating France, the Czech Republic, and the host country, Portugal, in the Finals. And their pungent aroma and all their swarthy chest hair would fit right in here. In fact, for this group only, I'd demand that everyone has to play in low cut tanktops. And everyone's gotta grow mustaches too.
Why Angola? Is that a serious question? They might have a chance if the field was 26 miles long and it was 115 degrees on the field. Or maybe that's Kenya. Whatever, I'm tired. I already complimented them by saying they don't have body odor. Isn't that enough?