By Paul Gardner
First, the unworthy farce of the snow-job against Costa Rica. Well, OK, three points is three points. But it would be better, somehow nicer, if those three points were hauled in by playing soccer, don’t you think?
Heaven knows what was played in Denver last week, by both the USA and Costa Rica. Both sets of players were subjected to ridiculous conditions in a game that, quite clearly should never have started, and even more clearly, should have been called off in the second half.
Looking for reasons why it was allowed to continue, we find some non-soccer justifications. You don’t want to postpone a game when the stadium’s already crammed with people, now do you? Or when the TV guys are ready to go? Or when you’re going to have trouble fitting a replay into an already crowded schedule.
Actually, all of those reasons make sense, though they have nothing to do with what happens on the field. Jurgen Klinsmann’s reasoning was, inevitably, partisan -- “I would have done anything kind of possible not to stop” -- are not worth wasting time on, shallow words spoken by the guy whose team was leading, 1-0.
As for Costa Rica’s futile protest, and its peremptory rejection by FIFA, this is also disturbing. However that protest may be described, it could not be termed frivolous. The conditions complained of were just about as bad as they could get. But FIFA has it regulations, strict ones, about protests. They are, of course, very necessary to prevent that very thing -- frivolous protests.
But to see a reasonable protest summarily dismissed without even being considered reflects no credit at all on FIFA. FIFA is not saying that it’s OK to play in these conditions, merely that the Costa Ricans made a mess of filing their protest by not adhering to the letter of how it should be done.
Which merely adds another layer of bureaucratic, non-soccer reasoning to the barriers against getting a game replayed, or even getting a hearing. The protest was not frivolous, but its rejection was.
So be it. Without playing anything that looked like soccer then (take Klinsmann’s word for it -- “From a tactical side, from passing elements, you couldn’t play today. It was just simply impossible.”) -- the USA snagged three vital points. If we redefine the game of soccer to meet whatever criteria are deemed necessary to play in a blizzard, then the USA just about deserved its 1-0 win.
Whether it deserved to escape from the Azteca with that 0-0 scoreline is much more questionable. Well, no -- it’s not even questionable. The USA was damn lucky here: the AR flags for a penalty kick call and the referee ignores him -- that’s unusual, but the USA got away with that one. Later came one of those calls that are just plain inexplicable, with referee Walter Lopez simply ignoring an iron-clad penalty kick call against Maurice Edu for his almost uniquely clumsy tackle on Javier Aquino.
OK, so what? Even if both penalty kicks had been awarded, it’s possible that Mexico would have missed them both anyway. The Mexicans were not in good shooting form, as it happened -- of their 19 shots, only three were on target. But the 19 shots do emphasize that most of this game was played at the American defensive end of the field. The USA managed just one shot. And the corner kick count was 15-2 to the Mexicans.
No one’s denying that the Azteca is a difficult place to play in, so the USA’s single point is a valuable one. But, hey, maybe the Azteca is not that difficult -- Jamaica came out of there with a point recently.
But forget the might-have-beens. The problem with the Costa Rica and Mexico games is that the amount of recognizable and praiseworthy soccer played by the USA in these two games was minimal. Against Costa Rica that was, so to speak, by design. It was, after all, the USA, with Klinsmann’s blessing, that scheduled this game in Denver, hoping that wintery conditions would upset the Central Americans -- and maybe they did.
But against Mexico, the approach was -- probably inevitably -- strictly cautious and defensive. One shot on goal. Come to that, in three games the USA has scored just two goals. Yet all of Klinsmann’s talk is about team spirit and of how his boys came through, how they were ready for the challenges -- praise that eventually led -- as you knew it was bound to -- to that ultimate of coaches’ complementary cliches, “Everybody worked hard for each other.”
Indeed they did -- but who ever doubted that they would? Who ever alleged that Americans lack team spirit, or don’t rise to challenges? Well, ahem, it’s been Klinsmann who has been most vocal on these possible shortcomings of American players.
It has been pointed out that if you want to sell a cure, your first task is to exaggerate the frequency of the disease it’s supposed to work on. Salesmanship, it’s called. It seems to me that Klinsmann is proving himself an excellent salesman in this manner, having first alarmed us with talk of inferior American attitudes, thus putting himself in a strong position to claim the responsibility when those attitudes are, apparently, swept away.
Sorry, Jurgen -- no sale. Enough with the salesmanship stuff. What I’m waiting for, what I believe you were appointed to ensure, is the appearance of a national team playing good, exciting, goal-scoring soccer, a team with a style of play.
This is not simply an aesthetic request. Teams that play with a style can be relied upon to play consistently. Teams that lack a style will find it necessary to bring in players like the appalling Jermaine Jones (and how did he escape a red card for that flagrant elbow in the Costa Rica game?). Teams that lack a style may well turn in heroic defensive games now and then, but they’re also going to find scoring problematic (two goals in three games sound familiar?)
We’ll be told, guaranteed, that style is irrelevant -- hey, these are the qualifiers, doesn’t matter what you look like, playing ugly is the way to do it, getting the points is all that matters. The implication is always that somehow, after the qualifiers, things will be better. Except that we then have the first round of the World Cup, and all that matters then is qualifying for the next round, so the hell with pretty soccer. And so on.
If I date the arrival of the modern pro game in this country to 1967 (some, no doubt would put it earlier), then we’ve had getting on for 50 years of increasing professionalism to produce a coherent, solid, attractive and style-based national team. If we have not done that, and we haven’t, it is hardly Klinsmann’s fault.
But what Klinsmann has done so far has done nothing to suggest that a team with style is on the way. He appears to be prolonging, rather than solving, the problem.