By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall June 6, 2006 at 8:28AM
“Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude, it is much, much more important than that!”--Bill Shankly, 1981
You probably know that sometimes this blog dives from the cliffs of cinema into the glorious waters of football (aka soccer). The two are equal passions of mine and at this point in my life, they take up enormous amounts of my time, energy, and focus. If movies are the way in which someone like me seeks a connection with the larger world around him, a sort of emotional travel, then football is probably the closest thing I've got to spirituality. There are moments in football that simply touch a deeper part of me, when something gloriously unexpected happens, the world shifts, and in a strange slow motion you see hope when none previously existed. How else can you explain moments like this, your team down a goal, mere seconds away from defeat, when suddenly....
I love that line... "You could spend a hundred lifetimes waiting for an FA Cup final goal like that...". It sometimes feels, when watching football, that things are hopeless for you, that defeat is certain, and suddenly an act of brilliance will realign everything you've come to expect and you are converted to a life of football love. As you learn the game, you understand that the 90 minutes of a football match are filled with thousands of moments of hope, fear, anger, outrage, bliss, certainty and uncertainty and that all of these feelings will invariably change with every movement of the ball. The idea of leaving a football match early is almost inconceivable. You simply never know what could happen, what moment of glory you might miss if you turn away for a single instant. It is like that; for me and for many, watching that thunderbolt of a goal by Stevie Gerrard in the dying seconds of the FA Cup final felt the same way I imagine St. Paul felt when he was struck down on the road to Damascus. The world seems new and you just can't shut up about it. Clearly, this post is an example.
This Friday, the most important football tournament in the world kicks off in Germany at 11:55am EST. The 2006 World Cup will be, quite simply, thirty days of football heaven. Club football, like Liverpool vs West Ham, is probably more important to most supporters of the game; 'club before country' is a oft-heard refrain. However, the World Cup unites supporters of all clubs to support their countries; rivals put aside their differences for the entire month and get behind their national team. Everywhere in the world, sick days are being lined-up, vacations have been sorted, and the entire world is ready to watch as the 32 nations that spent the last two years qualifying for the tournament step onto the biggest stage in sports. It is a huge honor just to be involved in the tournament, to be listed among the 32 teams who have qualified to compete, but for most nations, qualification is not enough. If you make it to the final, you want to win. For many, the coming month will be a rollercoaster of emotions as national pride goes on the line and the dreams of glory ebb and flow with each touch of the ball. For me, that means I will be watching the USA fighting to gain respect and win matches against some of the best teams in the world. We have a good, dangerous team, but we're massive underdogs, and that makes the side a lot easier for most Americans to love. We have a very difficult draw, and I don't expect us to win, but I hope that we will and I believe we can. I didn't think we'd do so well in the 2002 World Cup either, but the USA shocked the world and landed in the final eight of the tournament before being screwed out of a victory by a German handball (which went uncalled) and some poor finishing by our strikers. Not that I'll ever get over it. It was an amazing tournament...
I personally plan to watch every minute of every game in the tournament (thank you, TiVO!), but for those with less free time than me, the BRM presents the Top 10 matches of the group stages for you to watch and enjoy.
In chronological order, here are the ‘don't miss’ games of the 2006 World Cup group stages. June 10, 2006 England vs Paraguay, 9:00am EST The English side is filled with players with whom most Americans will be familiar; David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard. But Paraguay is a dangerous South American side with some big wins in qualifying (they beat favorite Argentina 1-0), and they have been talking a lot before the match, which only fuels what will probably be an intense game. Also, Liverpool striker Peter Crouch (he's 6'7" and weighs about nothing) has been selected to start, and maybe he'll break out The Crouchbot, his goal celebration 'robot dance'... Will we see the Crouchbot? June 11, 2006, Serbia-Montenegro vs The Netherlands, 9:00am EST The Netherlands, Argentina, Serbia-Montenegro, and The Ivory Coast are all in the same qualifying Group C, aka The Group of Death because every team is good enough to move on to the second round. This match, featuring an entertaining, technically proficient Dutch team against a scrappy, tough team from Serbia-Montenegro will set the tone for Group C and will make The Group of Death all the more interesting. Mexico vs Iran, 12:00pm EST Political themes aside, this match features a tough, physical and defensive Mexican side against Iran, a team that beat the USA in 1998. This is a chance to see the USA's greatest rival, Mexico, in action against a very difficult team. I love to root against Mexico, but will I be able to root for Iran? This should be a cracking match. June 12, 2006 USA vs The Czech Republic, 9:00am EST Game on. This is the first match for the USA against a VERY difficult opponent, The Czech Republic. Pavel Nedved, Jan Koller and Milan Baros lead a dangerous Czech attack against the speed and grit of the US team. I am looking for two things from this match; the US has to keep possession of the ball and control the middle of the field, and Landon Donovan has to take the mantle of the team and lead with a GREAT performance. Not a good performance or a ‘nothing to be ashamed of’ performance, but a great performance. I won't be able to breathe for 90 minutes. Can we upset the Czechs? The 2006 World Cup is a turning point in the career of the USA's Boy Wonder, Landon Donovan June 14th, 2006 Spain vs Ukraine, 9:00am EST Two European teams with great players clash in this Group H battle. Spain are one of my favorite teams to watch; I love Alonso, Reina and Garcia for their Liverpool connections, but I also like players like Joaquin, Fernando Torres, and Raul. On the other side of the ball, Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko is one of the most dangerous players in the world. The Ukraine striker just completed a huge £35 million move to Chelsea and he has a lot to prove. Should be a great match with world-class players. June 17th, 2006 USA vs Italy, 2:30pm EST Second game of the group phase for the USA against the Italians, a great team; physical, professional, and in the middle of a great match fixing scandal. Will the scandal distract Italy from focusing on the task at hand? Can the US overcome their record of losing in Europe? Will Italy remember their in-depth training in the art of diving? June 18th, 2006 Brazil vs Australia, 11:30am EST In a recent 'friendly' between Australia and The Netherlands, Aussie Luke Wilkshire was sent off for a second yellow card after a horrible tackle on Holland’s Giovanni van Bronckhorst. And that was just a friendly. When the chips are down against Brazil, heavily favored to win the entire World Cup for the sixth time, I expect this game to get rather physical. Can Australia's physical style overcome the joga bonito of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano, Ronaldo and the gang? Should be a good match. Ronaldinho gets all the ink, but Kaka might be the most dangerous player in the tournament June 20th, 2006 England vs Sweden England can't beat Sweden. Well, not since 1968 anyway. In the past 38 years, Sweden is 4-0-7 against England. Add to it the fact that England's manager Sven Goran Erickson is a Swede and that most of Sweden's best players are playing in England and Spain and know the English side very well, and this becomes an instance of familiarity breeding contempt. I am putting my money on Henrik Larsson, the ex-Barcelona striker who came on in the Champions League final and with two touches of the ball, changed the entire game. Again, a great match. Can Henrik Larsson, in the twilight of a wonderful career, go out with glory? June 21st, 2006 Argentina vs The Netherlands, 2:55pm EST Argentina are a team that many predict will be there until the end of the Cup as possible winners, and they have the pedigree to back up those expectations. The Netherlands have never won the Cup, but their technical approach to football and their quick, technically fluent style always makes them contenders. This match between powerhouses from South America and Europe should be a classic, and expectations are high for both teams; Argentina crashed out of the 2002 World Cup in the group stages and the Netherlands didn’t even qualify in 2002. Both teams would love to win the Group of Death and will be playing with a chip on their shoulders. Also, I expect this match to announce Lionel Messi to the world as a truly great player. The kid is physical, fast, great with the ball, and reportedly has had ‘Hand of God’ stitched into his boots, recalling Diego Maradona's infamous handball goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. I like the sass, but can his boots back it up? Can Lionel Messi bloom into the second coming of Maradona? June 22nd , 2006 USA vs Ghana The final game of the group stages can mean one of two things; either your team are out of contention for the second round and want to leave the tournament on a high note or they are fighting for a spot in the second round and the game becomes tremendously important. In 2002, the USA were playing for a spot in the second round when they lost to Poland. Only a miracle win from host South Korea over Portugal allowed the USA to advance. This time, we’ll know the situation after out match on June 17th. If the USA are in contention for a second round spot, this game becomes the most important game in ages. I think we can be in a position to compete for the second round, but I also expect Ghana to be a very tough opponent and maybe the surprise of the group. No matter what, this will be a tough, physical game for us, and I can only hope it is meaningful and that we are victorious. Come on Captain America, let’s shock the world again! Go USA!