Sport should come out winner

Thursday, June 13, 2002 Page S7

DAEJEON, SOUTH KOREA -- About two weeks ago, I was predicting
that this World Cup would showcase African soccer and we'd all be enjoying that lithe, lovely style of Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal and South Africa for weeks. Pay no attention. I also predicted that Argentina might win the World Cup, and, as I write, the Argentines are packing their bags to mosey on home.

The African surge is not going to happen. We're left with the marvellous Senegalese team, but I wish that Senegal wasn't the only African team left in the competition.

It's not a matter of the smart money being on any one team. It's about soccer's appeal to the neutrals and transcending the core support in established soccer countries.

So, watching Spain play South Africa here yesterday was a good idea for two reasons. First, Spain had already qualified for the next, knockout round and it was interesting to see whether there's a real passion for scoring goals in that vaunted team. If Spain was going to take it easy, I figured, then this was a methodical team and not a goal-scoring machine with players eager to make a mark.

Second, a neutral would want South Africa to win and qualify for the next round. With Nigeria and Cameroon departing the World Cup, it would be good for the game and the tournament if two African teams stayed here. The fast, athletic soccer of all the African teams makes them splendid entertainment.

Many predicted a draw for this game because South Africa would qualify for the next round with a draw and Spain wouldn't need to exert itself. Before the game, Spain's coach, Jose Antonio Camnacho, declared sniffily, "We wouldn't know how to play for a draw."

Indeed. Spain, ranked eighth in the world going into the World Cup and permanently in the top 10 for the past four years, seems to have conquered its peculiar World Cup jinx. Instead of arriving with enormous expectations and then being frozen with nerves in the first round, the country's team knuckled down to making it into the final 16.

After handily defeating Slovenia and Paraguay, Spain had only one obvious flaw going into this game: it allows goals all the time. That's not a good thing when entering the knockout stage, where allowing a single goal by a determined opposition could mean an exit from the World Cup.

South Africa plays an aggressive version of the poetic African style. As talented and athletic as African teams can be, they often have a tendency to fail in the face of stubbornly defensive European teams. The South Africans tackle hard and play with boundless enthusiasm. They had already developed a knack for coming back and they refused to be crushed when they allow goals.

It was an exceptional game. The goals kept coming, and South Africa delighted every neutral in the stadium by continuing to attack with verve when they went behind.

The standout South Africans were players we don't often see on the main stage of European club soccer. Beni McCarthy, who showed an exquisite touch here, plays for FC Porto in Portugal. Zuma, the guy with the golden hair, plays in Denmark for FC Copenhagen. Both teams tend to be off the radar of people following European Champions League soccer. Both players are outstanding, entertaining guys to watch.

It was heartbreaking to watch South Africa go out of the World Cup at the end of the game. Their loyal supporters danced and sang and took the defeat with a smile. But the players deserved another week on the world stage. Dejected, they slumped for the first time when the final whistle blew.

From Group B, we are left with the cream of European soccer in Spain's team and then the peculiar Paraguayans. Agitated and agile goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert is leading his team into the next round. Paraguay is maddening to watch and Chilavert's substantial stubbornness and grit can become irritating. He glowers, while the South Africans keep their grins.

South Africa also had a large group of travelling supporters, larger than the groups following Nigeria, Cameroon or Senegal. Judging from the supporters' paraphernalia, there's some marketing of soccer in South Africa and commercial endorsement is growing.

That's all good, but what matters as the World Cup continues is not just support for the big soccer countries. What matters is entertaining soccer for people at home in their living rooms who will be drawn to the sport because they see entertaining play and soccer played in a variety of styles. It can't just be about watching Italy or England.

Watching Raul or the quick style of Mendietta of Spain is fine, but you can see their skills and methods almost every week if you follow European soccer. It's the dazzle of the new that you want when World Cup time arrives. The African countries provide it.

For the next round, Senegal will carry the banner of African soccer, and, I think, the heartfelt support of neutrals looking for a buzz from this tournament. Next time for African soccer. That's a prediction worth praying for.

In the meantime, let's pray that splendid Papa Bouba Diop scores another one for Senegal. His celebratory dance can put a smile on your face for the whole day. (external - login to view)
btw, way to go sweden for throwing argentina out!

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