By Paul Gardner
So the Confederations Cup got itself moving -- rather sluggishly -- with a 0-0 tie, a scoreline that is now virtually traditional for opening games at
Iraq and South Africa both showed a great deal of caution and not much in the way of decent soccer -- or even adventurous soccer. From the home fans' point of
view, it would have been kinder if they'd found themselves playing New Zealand -- now, an opening game against New Zealand, that would surely have had the crowd in ecstasy.
Zealand is a very week team that simply does nor belong at this level. I say "this level" -- I'm not too sure what "this level" is, but I'm quite certain that New Zealand doesn't belong here. It was
pitiful to watch them struggle so ineptly against Spain.
Of course, this was hardly a surprise. The worst drubbing at any international tournament that I have attended -- and there have
been quite a few -- came in 1997. The scoreline was 13-0. This was a World Cup - the under-17 World Cup -- and I'll give you the full scoreline: Spain 13 New Zealand 0. (Iker Casillas and Xavi, both
of whom played yesterday, were on that 1997 Spanish team, though they didn't play against New Zealand).
In South Africa, Spain inevitably looked like world-beaters. Maybe they are -- but
I don't think any court of justice would accept this game as untainted evidence.
If it's any consolation to the bedraggled New Zealanders there are couple of positive things to say about
their performance. Well, they're negative-positives, admittedly, things they didn't do. Firstly, New Zealand did not opt for out-and-out defense -- they tried to play, tried to attack. Sadly they're
not capable of doing that effectively against good opposition. And secondly, the New Zealand players did not resort to physical intimidation. They kept, admirably, to the rules of the sport. This was
a remarkably clean game, even though the Kiwis, seeing themselves repeatedly made to look foolish, must have been sorely tempted to launch a few violent tackles.
As far as the United
States is concerned, this opening day must have been viewed with mixed feelings. For it showed that -- leaving Spain aside -- there are clearly three teams in this tournament that the USA can beat.
Obviously, New Zealand is one of them, though the chances of the Kiwis advancing to the next round are non-existent. The downside is that if the USA finishes second in its group, it will surely face
Spain. The only way to be sure of avoiding that fate will be to win the group and then face either Iraq or South Africa.
Which of the two will progress? Trying to figure that out gets us
further into the morass created by the inclusion of the almost criminally feeble New Zealanders in this competition. In their group, the logical assumptions are that they will lose all three of their
games, while Spain will win all three of its games. So New Zealand goes home, and Spain qualifies as the group winner. Who goes forward with them may well be decided on goal difference.
I don't think Spain will score too many times against either Iraq or South Africa. Because I would expect those teams to do what New Zealand bravely (or was it foolishly?) refused to do -- to play
defensively. Iraq's boss, Bora Milutinovic has always been a cautious coach, while Joel Santana is unlikely to have his South Africans running heads down into the Spanish buzz-saw (and I fear we may
see the cautious approach repeated by other, stronger, teams later in the tournament).
So that, if goal-difference does become the deciding factor, it is likely to mean which team, South
Africa or Iraq, can score more goals against New Zealand.
Hardly a healthy situation -- it turns New Zealand into an all-too-obvious punching bag, while at the same time giving it a large
role in blocking, or failing to block, the host nation's progress to the semifinals.
Talking of unhealthy situations, I wish the Confederations Cup organizers -- or maybe FIFA or, frankly
-- would do something about those awful plastic horns that fans were so brainlessly blowing throughout both games.
A huge part of the atmosphere, even the beauty,
of a live sports event -- and it seems to me that this has always been particularly true of soccer games -- is the "roar of the crowd" and the way that roar echoes the action on the field and the
emotions of the fans, the swelling volume, the crescendos, the pauses, the gasps of disbelief, the frightened silences, the oohs and the aahs -- there's a pattern to it that belongs to the game.
Not with those damn horns there isn't. All we get is one prolonged, monotonous BLAAAAAH! I'm well aware that FIFA is against using technology, but maybe there's some way the clever TV
technicians could banish that awful drone from the telecasts? If not, then there's an obvious way to stop it: simply make it an offense to carry those wretched things into the stadium. They are
potential weapons, aren't they?