World Cup 2014 Preview and Predictions

Brazil-2014-World-CupThe 2014 World Cup starts in São Paulo next Thursday as the host country, Brazil, take on Croatia. Although I made a gut-reaction to the draw when it was made, a lot has changed since then.  Most notably, Radamael Falcao – who I predicted would be the Golden Boot winner – is out of the tournament having injured his ACL in January, an absence that will severely hamper Colombia’s chances of making the latter stages.  Also, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo head to Brazil short of full fitness, so their ability to lift their respective countries to a new level is questionable.

Group A

The most obvious place to start is with Croatia the hosts, Brazil, who will be playing a World Cup on home soil for the first time since 1950, when they were beaten in the final match by Uruguay.  Neymar is the player most likely to inspire the Seleção to their sixth triumph, having been the cornerstone of their success last summer in the Confederations Cup.  However, over the last two club seasons with first Santos and then Barcelona, Neymar has not reached the high levels he set in the earliest part of his career, but is definitely the one Brazilian in 2014 who could put the team on his back and take them a long way in the World Cup.  With the pressure rising on the hosts, Neymar’s jovial personality, along with David Luiz, should help Brazil’s squad relax and ease the pressure on them.  Since they reappointed Luiz Felipe Scolari – who took them to World Cup glory in 2002 – as manager, the team unity has improved dramatically and it would shock nobody if they went all the way this summer.  If the tournament were merely a measure of midfield talent, then I would rate Brazil as joint favorites with Spain and Germany, since the collection of Neymar, enforcer Luis Gustavo, Paulinho, Fernandinho, Ramires and Willian are as good as any you would find at this year’s World Cup.  However, up front Hulk, Fred and Jo are hardly up to the standards of legends like Ronaldo or Romario, while in goal, Julio Cesar looks like his best years are behind him and he has spent the last few years playing for Queens Park Rangers and Toronto FC.  I do not think the gaps in their squad will cost them in the group stages, which I expect them to come through comfortably, but in the second round they will face either Spain, Netherlands or Chile (sorry Australia) and against that level of opponent, they could be found out.

Brazil face Croatia in their first match and the Europeans will be without their main striker, Mario Mandzukic, who was sent off in the second leg of their playoff against Iceland and is suspended for the contest.  In his place will come the Brazilian born Eduardo, while they will also have a Champions League winner in the form of Luka Modric in their starting lineup.  Modric is just one of four former Tottenham players in Croatia’s squad, joining Niko Kranjcar, Vedran Corluka and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, who spent some time at White Hart Lane on loan, though never made an appearance for Spurs.  With a tough opener, it does not get any easier for Croatia who must play in the tropical Amazonian conditions of Manaus in their second game against Cameroon, though if they can play a possession game against the African champions, the heat might actually favor them.  The big question for Cameroon is whether or not they can keep Samuel Eto’o happy, since the veteran striker refused to play a match against Cabo Verde in 2012 because of what he described as an “amateurish” setup of the national side – move over Roy Keane.  The strength for the Indomitable Lions is in the centre of midfield, where they have Stephen Mbia and Alex Song, while the best option up front might not actually be Eto’o, but rather Vincent Aboubakar, who scored 16 for Lorient in Ligue 1 this season.

Finally in Group A comes Mexico, who would not have even made it to the playoffs had they not been rescued by the USA scoring late on against Panama to keep El Tri in fourth place in the Hexagonal qualifying group, despite their own loss to Costa Rica.  It is not just the struggles in qualifications that suggest Mexico may perform badly in Brazil, they will also be without their best player, Carlos Vela, who has made himself unavailable for selection due to his poor relationship with the country’s football association.  However, they have made it to the Second Round of the last five World Cups and new manager Miguel Herrera has fostered more of team spirit in the squad.  Up front, Oribe Peralta is a proven goalscorer, while Javier Hernandez, who did not have a great season for Manchester United, still provides a threat to opponents and could make a good impact off the bench in particular.

Predicted Group Standings: 1. Brazil 7 points; 2. Mexico 4 pts; 3. Croatia 3 pts; 4. Cameroon 1 pt. Continue reading

World Cup Memories – Germany 2006

Unknown-2In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am doing a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts:Italia 90USA 94France 98, Japan/South Korea 2002

By the summer of 2006, my support of the English national team had worn very thin and I expected nothing other than a disappointing exit from the World Cup in Germany, most likely on penalties.  My negative expectations were colored by the end of Tottenham’s season, when they had missed out on finishing above Arsenal in fourth place – and thus qualifying for the following campaign’s Champions League – in their final Premiership match. Memorably, they lost to West Ham with many players feeling the ill effects of having some dodgy lasagna the night before.  While my love of club over country had always existed, it was growing stronger as I was, by that point, a Spurs season ticket holder and also traveled to several away games each year.  As well as Tottenham being my main footballing interest, my desire to move to the United States – which had been growing ever since my first trip to Brooklyn in 2000 –  made me feel even less connected to the patriotic fervor that always surrounds the English national team in the lead up to major championships. By the end of the tournament, I was officially done with the England football team and within 9 months, I finally made the move to New York.  Before all that though, came some football!

Group Stages

Group A: 1. Germany; 2. Ecuador; 3. Poland; 4. Costa Rica

Although they had made the final of the 2002 World Cup, Germany had been a team in decline since their 1996 European Championships success in England.  However, under the stewardship of Jürgen Klinsmann, a new wave of youth players were brought through for the World Cup in 2006, which was to be played in Germany.  Instead of the traditional manner that the country had previously played, which was controlled and measured, Klinsmann brought in a vibrant, pacy, attacking style of play that won over not just the German public but also many football fans from different nations.  Up front, two Polish born strikers led the line and Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski had an immediate impact in the first game against Costa Rica, with the former claiming two goals in a 4-2 victory for the host nation.  More than just being a win to start the tournament, the exhilarating performance by Germany gave their supporters hope, while their first and fourth goals were fantastic strikes by Phillip Lahm (a mint finish…) and Torsten Frings, meaning that Paulo Wanchope’s brace was mere consolation for Costa Rica.

Neither of the Polish-born strikers scored in Germany’s second match against Poland, but the hosts still picked up another win thanks to an injury time goal by Oliver Neuville; then Klose got two and Podolski the other in their final group game with Ecuador to give Klinsmann’s team a 3-0 victory and a perfect 9 points in the first round.  Although they lost that final fixture in Group A, Ecuador still qualified for the knockout stages as they had already beaten Poland 2-0 and Costa Rica 3-0.

Group B: 1. England; 2. Sweden; 3. Paraguay; 4. Trinidad and Tobago

It only took three minutes for England to get their first goal at the 2006 World Cup, as a David Beckham free-kick was turned into his own net by Paraguay’s captain, Carlos Gamarra. That was as good as it got for Sven Goran Erikkson’s team for the next 170 minutes of playing time however, as they ended up beating the South Americans 1-0, then took 83 minutes to break through against the minnows, Trinidad and Tobago.  A second goal in injury time from Steven Gerrard – past Shaka Hislop, who he had also beaten in the last moments of the FA Cup final a month before – could not hide the fact that England were far below par, but they had picked up six points from their opening two matches and qualified for the knockout stages even before their 2-2 draw with Sweden.  The Swedes finished in second place despite their disappointing 0-0 draw with Trinidad and Tobago to start their campaign, as they beat Paraguay 1-0 thanks to an 89th minute strike from Freddie Ljungberg.

Cambiasso finishes a breathtaking move for Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro
Cambiasso finishes a breathtaking move for Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro

Group C: 1. Argentina; 2. Netherlands; 3. Côte D’Ivoire; 4. Serbia & Montenegro

Watching Argentina in their first match against Côte D’Ivoire, I was mesmerized by the beautiful play of Juan Roman Riquelme, whose passing and control of the game was like seeing a metronome playing football.  Riquelme’s pass to Javier Saviola for Argentina’s second goal in that match was pure magic and their performance against Serbia in the second round of fixtures made me fall in love with the team.  Argentina won the match 6-0, but their second was absolutely beautiful – a 26 pass move that ended with Esteban Cambiasso playing a ball into Hernan Crespo, who back heeled it to Cambiasso once more and the midfielder provided the finish to the best goal I have ever seen live.  The final goal of the match was scored by a very young Lionel Messi – who also provided an assist for the fifth – which remains to this point the only time he has found the net in the World Cup.

What had been billed as a group of death before the tournament, Group C actually ended up being a saunter for Argentina and the Netherlands, as the Dutch also won both of their first two fixtures, meaning both had qualified prior to playing out a goalless draw.  Arjen Roben scored the only goal in the Netherlands’ contest with Serbia; then Robin Van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy were both on target against Côte D’Ivoire.  Although their involvement ended early in their first World Cup, Côte D’Ivoire still had one thing to cheer about as they came from 2-0 down to beat Serbia 3-2 in their final group match.

Group D: 1. Portugal; 2. Mexico; 3. Angola; 4. Iran

After they had reached the final of the European Championships in 2004, there were high expectations for Portugal in 2006 as they headed into the World Cup led by the manager who had won the trophy with Brazil four years earlier, Luiz Felipe Scholari.  The biggest asset for Portugal was that they had three of their best players of the last 15 years all available at once, as Luis Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo all lined up for them.  They had no problems in the group stages, winning all three of their matches and finishing top of the group, while Mexico sneaked through by drawing against Angola and beating Iran 3-1.  And there’s not much more to say about Group D, so moving on…

Group E: 1. Italy; 2. Ghana; 3. Czech Republic; 4. United States

Italy came into the tournament with their domestic game in severe crisis, as the calcipoli scandal was unfolding, where Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio were found to have been match-fixing through the selection of favorable referees for their fixtures.  However, the national side were seemingly gelled in the face of adversity and qualified top of their group thanks to a victory over Ghana in their first match; a draw with the United States in a game that saw three people sent off; then a 2-0 victory over Czech Republic.  The Czechs had started well in the tournament, beating the US 3-0 in an impressive performance, highlighted by two fantastic goals from Tomáš Rosicky, but they followed that up with a 2-0 defeat to Ghana before the defeat to Italy in their final match.  The Black Stars were the only African nation to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup, as they confirmed their place with a 2-1 victory over the United States in their third group game, with Stephen Appiah scoring the winner from a penalty spot in stoppage time at the end of the first half.

Graham Poll doing his magic card tricks
Graham Poll doing his magic card tricks

Group F: 1. Brazil; 2. Australia; 3. Croatia; 4. Japan

As they will this summer, Brazil started their 2006 World Cup campaign with a game against Croatia and eight years ago, they earned a 1-0 victory thanks to a beautiful left foot shot from Kaka.  The reigning champions had Adriano partnering Ronaldo up front in Germany and the former got his first World Cup goal against Australia in Brazil’s second match, which they won 2-0 to clinch qualification with one fixture to spare.  Nevertheless, the seleção did not let up in their final group game against Japan, racking up a 4-1 victory that included two goals for Ronaldo, making the joint all-time leading World Cup goalscorer with Germany’s Gerd Müller.  Somewhat surprisingly, Australia joined the South Americans in the Second Round, as they came from behind to beat Japan 3-1 in their opener, with all three of their goals coming in the final six minutes – two of which were scored by Tim Cahill.  In their final match in Group F, Australia came from behind twice to draw with Croatia 2-2, but that contest was most memorable for a mistake made by English referee Graham Poll, who issued three yellow cards to Josip Šimunić before finally sending him off.  The next time Poll came to referee at Tottenham, we offered him sympathy by singing “World Cup, and you f*cked it up”.

Group G: 1. Switzerland; 2. France; 3. South Korea; 4. Togo

Following their goalless performance in Japan/Korea 2002, France were eager to make amends at the World Cup in Germany four years later, but they were once again kept off the scoresheet in their first match against Switzerland, which ended 0-0.  Thierry Henry did end their drought in the 9th minute of France’s second game against 2002 semi-finalists South Korea, but a late goal from Park Ji-Sung denied them a victory and put them on the brink of a second straight group stage elimination.  Switzerland and South Korea had both beaten Togo, so heading into the final fixtures, they were both on 4 points, while France sat on 2. There were no slip ups by the French this time around however, as they beat Togo 2-0 to qualify for the second round, while Switzerland beat South Korea by the same scoreline to claim top place in the group, without conceding a goal.

Group H: 1. Spain; 2. Ukraine; 3. Tunisia; 4. Saudi Arabia

Whatever the opposite is of the “Group of Death” (forgoing the obvious, “Group of Life”) that is what Spain faced in the first round of the 2006 World Cup.  They opened up by thrashing Ukraine 4-0, in which they were unnecessarily aided by a very soft red card for Vladyslav Vashchuk, who had at most given Fernando Torres a slight tug as they tussled for the ball in the area.  Spain then had to come from behind to beat Tunisia 3-1, before finishing off with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia to end the group stages with the maximum 9 points.  Ukraine recovered well from their opening match thrashing, as they then won 4-0 themselves against Saudi Arabia, before beating Tunisia 1-0 to claim second place in the group.

Second Round

I am going to do this in ascending order of excitement that the round of 16 matches produced:

Switzerland 0 – 0 Ukraine (Ukraine with 3-0 on penalties) – this match was like watching paint dry, in slow motion.  It was so dull that the Swiss players could not even make the penalty shootout exciting, missing all of their spot kicks to become the first nation ever eliminated from a World Cup without conceding a goal.

England 1 – 0 Ecuador – David Beckham scored directly from a free-kick to send England into the quarter-finals…not much else happened.

Italy 1 – 0 Australia – In the final minute of injury time at the end of 90 minutes, Italy were awarded a very cheap penalty that was converted by Francisco Totti to eliminate Australia from the competition.

Germany 2 – 0 Sweden – Germany still looked good, but two early goals from Lukas Podolski effectively ended the match as a contest before it had really begun.

Brazil 3 – 0 Ghana – Ronaldo claimed his 15th career World Cup goal in the 5th minute to move him one ahead of Müller for most all-time in a routine victory for the Brazilians.

Spain 1 -3 France – All the good work that Spain had done in the group stages unravelled in the first knockout round, as they took the lead against France, but then conceded three times, including late goals for Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane.

Argentina 2 – 1 Mexico Argentina fell behind early against Mexico, but Hernan Crespo got them back on level terms in the tenth minute and then the contest went all the way to extra time.  In the 98th minute, Maxi Rodriguez won it for the South Americans with an absolutely stupendous volley from the edge of the box.

Portugal vs Netherlands - the first World Cup game with a naughty step
Portugal vs Netherlands – the first World Cup game with a naughty step

Portugal 1 – 0 Netherlands – While the result may not make this contest sound like the most entertaining, it was one of the best games of football I have ever witnessed.  In what became referred to as the Battle of Nurmberg, 16 yellow cards were issued by referee Valentin Ivanov, as well as four reds in a game that saw numerous flash points.  So ridiculous was the officiating and state of the match by the end, three of those who had been dismissed – Khalid Boulahrouz, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Deco – were pictured all sitting together on a step behind one of the dugouts, with the latter two (who were teammates at Barcelona) chatting about the events that had occurred on the pitch.  Oftentimes commentators will state that nobody wants to see players squaring off or a game “ruined by sendings off”, I could not disagree more – I absolutely love watching those types of contests and I think many other people agree with me.

Quarter Finals

The most obvious place for me to start with the quarter-final ties is where my time as an England supporter ended, with their defeat on penalties to Portugal.  The match itself went pretty much as most England performances have gone in the last two decades when they have been getting knocked out of major tournaments: there was a red card to a crucial player, this time Wayne Rooney; ire from the fans towards an opponent instead of the idiocy of the Englishman who has gotten himself sent off (in 1998 it was Diego Simeone, in 2006 Cristiano Ronaldo for winking after Rooney’s dismissal); and then a spirited performance ending in a penalty defeat.  At least on this occasion, there were no delusions that the shootout would end in anything other than a loss, as Portugal’s keeper Ricardo was renown for his ability to save spot kicks, while of the four England players who took a penalty, only Owen Hargreaves – who had spent all of his professional career in Germany with Bayern Munich – found the net (with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher all missing).  Everything about the manner of the defeat had annoyed me, but what ended my tenure as an England supporter was my discovery the next morning, I went to my car and discovered that a rear panel had been kicked in and severely dented, most likely from drunken fans who had gone on something of a rampage following the elimination from the World Cup.  What my poor little Toyota Yaris had to do with England’s defeat on penalties to Portugal, I do not know – but it summed up a dissatisfaction I felt with the national team and I have not supported them since.  My animosity toward them was exacerbated when John Terry was named as the captain, around the same time he was sent off at White Hart Lane for saying…something…to Ledley King – for the next half-dozen years I actively rooted against England, now I am just completely indifferent to how they do.

In the other quarter-final match ups: Argentina were also eliminated via a shootout, as the hosts, Germany, progressed after coming from behind to tie the game at 1-1 with ten minutes remaining of the ninety; Italy had a relatively simple 3-0 victory over Ukraine, who had not conceded in their three fixtures since the 4-0 loss to Spain; and in a repeat of the 1998 World Cup Final, France knocked out Brazil 1-0, with Thierry Henry scoring the only goal.

Semi-Finals and Final

In the semi-final between Germany and Italy, it took 118 minutes for either side to break the deadlock and when the Italians did find the net, it was an absolutely beautiful goal, one that deflated the host nation.  Andrea Pirlo played an incisive pass into the area for Fabio Grosso, who hit the ball first time with his left foot, around Jens Lehmann and into the corner of the net, putting Italy within two minutes of keeping up their record of appearing in a World Cup Final every 12 years since 1970 (’70, ’82, 94 and 2006).  As Germany pushed for an equalizer, they left too much space at the back and it allowed a breakaway from Italy that Alessandro Del Piero finished wonderfully to ensure Italy went on to play in the final in Berlin.  There they faced France, who knocked out Portugal thanks to a penalty scored by Zidane, but that was won with a a blatant dive by Henry, who went over Ricardo Carvalho despite there only being minimal contact.

4081zidaneThe 2006 World Cup final came down to two players: Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi.  Before Zidane famously head butted Materazzi in the chest – apparently because of something that was said about his sister – the two had been involved in both of the goals that were scored.  The Italian defender was the offender in giving away a penalty to France in the 7th minute, which Zidane converted with a chip that hit the underside of the bar, went just over the line, before bouncing out again.  Some call it a cool, calm spot kick, others called it lucky – but it was a wondrous moment from the magician who was playing in his final match before hanging up his boots for good.  Eleven minutes later, Materazzi rose highest at a corner to head Italy level and that is where the scoring ended.  Ten minutes before the match went to a penalty shootout, Zidane turned around off the ball and did his infamous headbutt into Materazzi chest and his magnificent playing career was brought to an end when the referee eventually showed him the red card, but seemingly only after being advised to do so by the fourth official, who had watched the incident on a video replay.  Zidane should be remembered for that incident, but also as one of the greatest players of any generation and someone who could do wonders with the ball and performed at his best when the pressure was at its highest level (he scored the crucial goals in the 1998 World Cup final, plus the winner for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final – the best goal to ever win a trophy).  David Trezeguet was the only player on either side to miss a penalty in the shootout and that was enough to give Italy their fourth World Cup triumph, their first for 24 years.

Finally, the return of Larry – who you can follow on Twitter @uccoachlarry – with his memories from the 2006 World Cup which he attended in person (all of his pictures from the trip can be found here)


USA fans before the match with Ghana in Nurmberg

Germany marked the first time I had the opportunity to travel to a World Cup, and I managed to score tickets to three matches, so I packed a dozen books, an iPod, and left for two weeks.  For the first match, Sweden against Paraguay in Berlin, I received my seat due to a last-minute allocation, getting a discount due to a partially obstructed view. I boarded an extremely crowded subway car for my ride out to the Olympic Stadium, the Swedes making their customary yellow-kitted wall of noise.  I grabbed a stadium schnitzel, and, believe me, I was giddy to learn my seat in Row 5 was so close, the Paraguay bench was the object in my line of sight.  Don’t remember much else significant about the match, except for Paraguay’s extremely capable defensive teamwork.

For the rest of the week in Berlin, I touristed and traveled in the mornings, and found a bar or two to watch matches in the late afternoon and evenings.  The WC2006 committee gave all ticket holders free train passes for the length of the tournament, so I even took a train to the Polish border to have a Zywiec in its native country.  On the return to Berlin, we just stopped for no reason, and I exited when I noticed everyone else doing so.  Through some intricate hand miming, I discovered the train couldn’t continue into the city, therefore I was instead to look for a bus marked, “Schienenersatzverkehr.”  Guess I also could have just followed the crowd.

After a week, I transferred my base of operations to Frankfurt and met my (now) wife for her week of vacation.  Naturally, she arrived jet-lagged, but on the day the Netherlands met Argentina there, so we had a very nice pork knuckle lunch near the main square as Dutch fans serenaded all within the town limits.

The next day, we headed to Nuremberg to see the United States and Ghana.  We had a great lunch of tiny sausages, I ran into a couple of people I knew, and we went off to the stadium.  Of course, I only had one ticket, so she found the official FIFA fan fest area to watch on her own.  The US crowd did our anthem proud, Dempsey got the red, white, and blue level, but the team couldn’t recover from the first-half stoppage time penalty conceded.

Aussie Aussie Aussies!
Aussie Aussie Aussies!

We continued our travels, visiting Heidelberg during its bridge festival, taking a Rhine cruise, and watching matches wherever we happened to be.  We watched Ukraine versus Tunisia at the fan fest in Frankfurt, with seats lining the Main River and the 30 foot screen placed squarely mid-stream.  That horror show of a match between Portugal and the Netherlands, featuring 16 cards and four expulsions also stands out.

Next stop in the list was Kaiserslautern for a Round of 16 match between Italy and Australia.  Typically, before the match, K-town (Ramstein AFB is not far away, and most service men and women seemed to use this moniker) crawled with Aussies having a great time.  As I again only had the one ticket, my wife scouted a place to watch and found the local branch of the Hofbrauhaus for viewing.  Again, the match proved mostly tactical, featuring careful play from the heavily favored Italians, and they advanced on a highly dubious penalty in the last minute of stoppage time.  Then the Italians finally made their presence felt in town with a long, flag-waving, whistle-blowing victory parade.

The next day we left our hotel, and I hopped a train to take me back to Berlin so I could fly home.  I arrived in Hanover for my train switch not long after the match between France and Spain had ended.  Judging merely from the singing and friendliness of both sets of fans, I had no idea which team had won.   As I walked toward my car for my Berlin leg, three more friends from college greeted me with bear hugs.  I had the chance to sit outside the Berlin train station reminiscing with friends before boarding that last flight home.

And then, who can forget that Zidane head butt.  I still have a hard time believing Italy won that cup given their display against Australia.




World Cup Memories – Japan/South Korea 2002

379In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am doing a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts:Italia 90USA 94, France 98, Germany 2006

The World Cup in 2002 could not have arrived at a better time for me, as it started a few weeks after I had finished the exams for my final year of University, but I was still on campus for the first round with nothing to do but to get up early to watch the games in the bar.  Half way through the tournament, I headed to Northern California for a couple of weeks to visit some relatives, which meant that I was viewing the quarter-finals onwards at very strange hours, with the impression that I was the only person who cared about the World Cup for many miles around.  It also resulted in me being nonplussed when England did exit in the last 8, since staying up until 2am to watch the match on the edge of the Redwood Forests enabled me to be removed from the usual nationalistic euphoria that accompanies the national team, especially as they approach the latter stages of a major tournament.  Full disclosure: the final started at 4am on the west coast and, despite my best efforts to set enough alarms to wake up in time for the kick off, I only managed to join the game at half-time – though the second-half was when both of the goals were scored. That is jumping ahead however, so let’s start off with not the group stages, but a game nine months before the World Cup even began.

Germany 1 – 5 England – September 1st, 2001

“Five one, even Heskey scored” became the refrain from the England fans to taunt the Germans, who were thrashed on their own turf in a qualification game for the 2002 World Cup.  Sven Goran Eriksson – the country’s first non-English national team manager – was hailed as a genius who was going to lead the nation back to World Cup triumph once again; while Michael Owen – who had continued his progression from the boy wonder tag he had earned when he scored the fantastic goal against Argentina in 1998 – scored a hat-trick against Germany.  The fact that the opponents were nothing like the quality of their predecessors – who had knocked England out of the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships on penalties – did nothing to abate the enthusiasm in the nation, especially as it marked the second consecutive competitive victory over Germany, after they had failed to achieve any between 1966 and 2000.

-However, I was in a completely different place, both figuratively and literally, to enjoy that victory for the country in which I was born.  I had spent the summer of 2001 in western Massachusetts, working on a summer camp and had then spent a couple of weeks touring the north-east; based in Brooklyn using an Amtrak pass to visit Philadelphia, Washington D.C, and Boston. Towards the end of my trip, I decided to pay for a flight up to Buffalo so that I could see Niagara Falls, a decision that meant my funds for the summer ran out a couple of weeks earlier than I had originally planned for, so I changed my flight home from September 15th to the 1st.  Obviously there ended up being major benefits to my leaving New York when I did, but at the time the only relevance the alteration of departure date had to me was an early end to the best summer of my life.  I did not even realize that I was flying home during the England vs Germany match and I think I remember hearing people talking about the result on the airplane, but it is possible that I did not find out the score until I landed at Heathrow Airport and saw the jubilant headlines on all of the newspapers. Of course, that result did not actually gain qualification for England to the World Cup and they had to come from behind to earn a 2-2 draw against Greece to clinch the place, with David Beckham earning his own redemption for the red card from 1998 as he scored from a free-kick in the final minute of injury time.

In the build up to the finals, Beckham was injured while playing for Manchester United in a Champions League quarter-final on April 10th, a matter of weeks before the World Cup was to start on May 30th.  Not only were England’s hopes considered to be riding on how quickly the midfielder could recover, but everyone in England learned the word “metatarsal”, especially when Gary Neville suffered a similar injury that ruled him out of the squad for South Korea and Japan. My fervor for the England team had diminished as I could only stand the disappointment of being a Spurs supporter if I did not take the travails of the national side too much to heart, plus my enthusiasm had been decreased even further in 2001 when Sol Campbell – an important defender for both club and country – had defected to arch-rivals Arsenal.  That is probably enough background however, so onto the tournament itself – the first not only to be held in Asia, but also to have co-hosts as matches were played in Japan and South Korea, both of whom were given an automatic place in the competition. Continue reading