So, the end is upon us at last. Sexy Jurgen is about to collect his third-place medallion; Portugal actually managed two goals in one game (though one was at the wrong end); we must wait on a bed of sharpened pins and needles to see if tomorrow's match pays the rich dividends it promises. It's time to render some sketched-in-water verdicts on Deutschland '06.
Debate over this tournament's quality, entertainment value and lasting legacy has been a-boil all over the SuperWeb for weeks. As Lynda from APM noted in comments to the "Let's Fix Football" post below, World Cup diagnoses tend to come in two waves. First, a couple cracking-good group games sets off a hosannah of "THIS WILL BE THE BEST TOURNAMENT OF ALL TIME!" hysteria; then, a few dire 0-0 or 1-0 knock-out games cues up the "FOOTBALL IS DOOMED BY MODERN TACTICS AND CYNICAL PLAY" hit parade.
(To appreciate that pattern, you have to discount the never-ending drumbeat of "THE WORLD CUP ISN'T A PROPER TOURNAMENT BECAUSE TOO MANY CRAP TEAMS GET IN (BESIDES ENGLAND NEVER WINS IT)! I CAN'T WAIT FOR LEAGUE TWO TO START SO WE CAN GET BACK TO *REAL* FOOTIE!"
The truth? This has been a perfectly fantastic World Cup for just about every normal fan on the globe. So in picking this blog's first-ever World Cup Bests/Worsts list, I found myself spoiled for choice on the side of good. But since it's no fun to end on a sour note, let me dispense with the (also fairly plentiful) Things to Abhor:
—The fact that I purposefully skipped the Tunisia/Saudi Arabia game, convinced it would suck, only to have several people tell me it was one of the most entertaining (if/because meaningless) group-stage matches.
—Ditto the fact that I didn't watch Argentina/S&M because I needed to sacrifice one match-time to my so-called "career", and thus have only seen a grainy YouTube version of the 24-pass Cambiasso wonder goal.
—Peter Crouch hair-foulling studly ex-Portland Timbers defender Brent Sancho to deflate the Trinidad party.
—Portugal, also known as the thinking man's Ukraine, plowing all the way to the semis by scoring one goal in three games.
—The 4-5-1 formation. I'm not one of these "soccer doesn't have enough scoring" types, obviously...but nor am I one to insist beyond all reason that there are "lots of really entertaining 0-0 draws." I can understand an over-matched team—a Trinidad, say—marching out in hopes of nicking a 1-0 win. But France has no excuse.
—The refereeing. Well, duh.
—Argentina 0 : 0 Holland. A dour early glimpse of the lack of enterprise that would ultimately doom both these teams.
—Pekerman's absurd handling of Argentina's 1-0 lead over Germany, his failure to chuck Messi into the XI in this crucial situation, his removal of Riquelme...the whole damn thing.
—Donovan. I feel bad for the guy—he seems like a nice, intelligent boy who has his life priorities order to a much greater degree than your average Premiership WAG-shagger. But his failure on this stage is symptomatic of his own game's one-centimeter depth and The Problem With American Soccer, i.e., our general lack of worldly football maturity, invention and killer instinct. Donovan can go on telling himself that he's "already proven himself at the highest level" because he's won 19 MLS titles or whatever, but it just isn't true. Sadly, he probably blew his chances of making a quality European move when he waltzed into the Ghana penalty area and didn't even bother to LOOK at the goal, let alone have a crack.
—The Problem With American Soccer. At risk of contradicting myself, I'd say it's perceptually overblown. We had a bad World Cup. There will be a changing of the guard at key positions. We'll either make South Africa '10, or not. Life (and football) will go on in this country.
—Eastern Europe. Discounting Ukraine's fluke quarterfinal run, this former font of soccer excellence seems pretty dry. The Czech Republic, Serbia, Poland and Croatia all withered. Russia and Romania didn't even make the field. Hungary hasn't been good in decades. What is going on?
—Marcello Balboa. Just because you were a half-dirty, brutish defender with the finesse of a sledgehammer doesn't mean everyone needs to play that way.
—Racist Spanish fans, xenophobic England fans and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Minorities in every case, clearly, but what a bunch of pricks.
—Ghana. One great game versus Czech Republic + Diving, time-wasting, Reyna-capping, misfiring and whining through the next two games = the least appealing "underdog" since...Portugal.
—Brasil. What can you say?
And now for...THE BEST!
—Ben Olsen, Eddie Johnson, Deuce Dempsey and Jimmy Conrad. Maybe the USA should leave all its Europe-based players out, and send an all-MLS national team to South Africa. You know—guys who actually work for a living?
—John Terry. He's the scariest person on Earth, ergo a fine defender.
—Cote d'Ivoire. The saddest departure of the group stage by far, in part because of their sexy-sexy-SEXY football, in part because of their rad uniforms.
—Argentina. I will offer whatever dark, unholy sacrifices the Soccer Gods demand to see Riquelme, Maxi Rodriguez and Messi together again on a World Cup pitch. Preferably sans Pekerman.
—Ecuador. Who knew? Plus, the "Spiderman" tribute to a fallen teammate was one for the ages.
—Sexy Jurgen. Klinsmann's California dreaming transformed soccer's least-charismatic powerhouse into a team worth watching and rooting for, perfectly complementing the fresh, fun atmosphere that seemed to prevail throughout Germany.
—Ricardo LaVolpe. As soon as I saw him chainsmoking on the sideline during Mexico's win over Iran, I knew he'd be one of my favorite characters of this World Cup. And that tie! (He also managed to out-coach Argentina in the Round of 16.)
—Charity draws. Speaking of Mexico, Ukraine and England, I'd like one of their groups in 2010, please.
—Spain. The perennial choke artists choked on cue, but provided some awesome football in the meantime.
—Leo Beenhakker & His Fabulous Trinidad & Tobago SOOOOO-Ca Warriors! A very cool team with a very cool (albeit 100-percent nicotine-colored) coach provided some unforgettable moments for the tiniest nation ever to qualify.
—Germany 4:2 Costa Rica. An energizing start that told me in no uncertain terms that this World Cup would be fun.
—Italy. A little less obviously, but these Italians crept up on this World Cup before unleashing their undeniably potent, unusually attractive calcio on the world in the last two games.
—Australia. Least obviously of all, I found the Socceroos, for all their alleged thuggery, pretty engaging. The USA should play with that kind of hell-for-leather commitment and zeal. And hire Guus Hiddink away from Russia as soon as possible.
—The way Portland (and Chicago, the other city I saw some Cup action in) grabbed World Cup '06 in a bear hug and never let go. I've watched in packed bars, coffeeshops, squares, bakeries, taquerias and living rooms, and it has been a fantastic party. (The contrast with the semi-clandestine nature of 2002 is unbelieveable.) They say the US isn't a football country, but it holds within it a mighty (and totally fun-loving) Soccer Nation. It's been great to see it come to visible life.
So, there we have it. I will try to weigh in after tomorrow's Grand Finale, but may be too emotionally spent/drunk to string a sentence together. (Not that I haven't tried to overcome such obstacles in the past.) In any case, thanks to those of you who've given Eleven Devils a digital listen over the last couple months. After tomorrow, the blog will be on hiatus until late July, when it will be time to gear up for the Portland Timbers' triumphant run to the USL First Division championship!