The reason the World Cup now has 32 teams rather than 16, as it did in 1982, is that it didn't look sufficiently global back then. (Effectively, it was a mostly European competition with a few African and Latin American sides thrown in.) Now, it's kind of like the U.N. -- everyone gets their say, but only a few say anything that matters. Thus we have no-hopers like Togo, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago and even arguably the U.S. serving as warm-up acts for the same old soccer powers who always end up dominating the thing and who act as a kind of permanent Security Council lording it over everyone else: Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, Argentina, etc.
Personally, I wish it were more of a round-robin competition in which the very best sides all played each other until a victor emerged. Wouldn't you have liked to have seen Brazil play Argentina, for instance? Or how about Argentina's melancholy playmaker Riquelme square off against the monkish Zidane? How would Italy have done against Spain? Obviously, there's a charm to having total underdogs in the mix, since you never know when someone might surprise you. Greece won the 2004 European Championships, for instance, stunning far more illustrious teams. On the other hand, they then failed to qualify for the World Cup.
But aside from the disappointment of not seeing certain sides play each other -- I would have loved to watch a repeat of 2002's Mexico-U.S. encounter -- there were the individual let-downs, the biggest of which was Ronaldinho. This was supposed to be his coronation, but instead of gaining a crown he crashed out against France wearing a silly headband with a giant "R" on it. Argentina's Lionel Messi was criminally underused, and Wayne Rooney was obviously too affected by his injury to show us what he was capable of. The African teams once again came up short, with Ghana, in its match against Brazil, putting on one of the worst shooting displays I've ever witnessed. On the other hand, they played some great soccer until they came near the goal.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the U.S. In 2002, we came very close to beating runners-up Germany in the quarter-final. And if Italy manages to beat France on Sunday without conceding a goal, then the only one they will have given up in the competition will have been to us. Granted, it was an own goal, but despite this year's setback, the U.S., a team with more players than fans (as someone quipped), put up a plucky fight. And since our regional qualifying group is weak, we'll continue to qualify for the World Cup like clockwork, thereby obliquely illuminating certain Old World hypocrisies. For instance, I thought Europeans, unlike nasty Americans, despised flags? Strange, then, how they all seem to be waving them. The American team, on the other hand, had to move around Germany in a flagless, unmarked bus, presumably so as not to cause offense to tender European sensibilities.
It was also sad to see Mexico exiting in the round of 16. They were magnificent against Argentina, particularly captain Rafael Marquez, who was one of the players of the tournament, and it took an absolutely amazing, once-in-a-lifetime goal from Maxi Rodriguez to knock them out. It seemed way too soon.
-- Brendan Bernhard
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