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SOCCER MIKE PENNER

Minnows Make Quite a Splash in First Week

June 06, 2002|MIKE PENNER

FUKUI, Japan — So where were you when the United States defeated Portugal in the World Cup?

Most of Los Angeles was no doubt asleep, replenishing energy reserves for the Lakers' NBA Finals opener. The Los Angeles chapter of the American Soccer Underground, as fervent and as dedicated as any secret society, was caffeinated and captivated, reveling well past 4 in the morning in the country's biggest soccer victory in more than 50 years.

I was standing in a small soccer stadium on the west coast of Japan, along with a couple dozen other journalists conducting interviews at the Mexican team's late-afternoon training session. Under normal circumstances, Mexico and the United States are the most intense of soccer rivals, pounding one another regularly in Gold Cup competitions and regional World Cup qualification. But over here, thousands of miles from home, they are brothers united with two common goals: first-round survival and repairing the global reputation of North American soccer.

A Mexican colleague was making fast recovery runs from the stands to the press box, which was equipped with the live feed from the U.S.-Portugal match, and back to the stands to report the game's unfathomable progress.

"It is ONE-NOTHING, United States!" came the first breathless announcement. Some of us looked up and started laughing. Yeah, right. That's a good one. Had to be an own goal by Portugal, right?

A few minutes later, he hustled back again.

"Now it is TWO-NOTHING, United States!"

This time, it really was an own goal.

Soon, we were packing up our notepads and our tape recorders in hope of seeing some of this for ourselves when our incredible instant messenger came sprinting up again.

"Now ... THREE-NOTHING!"

That couldn't be right. We looked at one another with arched eyebrows.

Nah. The U.S. hadn't scored three goals in a World Cup match since

In 1994, when the United States hosted the World Cup, the home team scored three goals, total, in four matches.

In 1998, when the United States finished 32nd out of 32 teams in France, the tally was one American goal in three humiliating defeats.

And now you're telling us the Americans are 3-0 up on Portugal? The Portugal of Figo and Pauleta, the Portugal favored by many to reach the World Cup semifinals, the Portugal that had been expected to shred the hapless U.S. defense into damp lumps of red, white and blue confetti?

If this is right, one photographer somberly declared, "this is history."

Maybe it's the strange sea creatures here that pass for dinner, maybe it's all that green tea, but something is happening in this World Cup that isn't supposed to happen in World Cups.

Senegal defeats France in the tournament opener?

Mexico clamps down on Croatia, the bronze medalist of 1998?

South Korea, winless in 14 previous World Cup matches, runs circles around and through a bunch of lumbering Polish defenders who look as if they never fought off the jet lag?

Japan and Belgium, without offering any advance indication that such a thing was feasible, combine for four highlight-reel goals in a span of 13 minutes?

Ireland, playing without its deposed captain, Roy Keane, rallies to tie Cameroon, then rallies again, in the 92nd minute, to tie Germany--a development so unlikely and unexpected, Irish Coach Mick McCarthy is left bug-eyed and slack-jawed, looking as if he had just seen a Martian spacecraft swoop in to laser-melt the goal posts?

McCarthy's face is the official emblem of the first week of 2002 World Cup, now complete.

We are seeing things we can't believe, and we can't wait for the next opportunity to see more.

Sure, some of the usual names have been among the most impressive here. Argentina defeated Nigeria, 1-0, on a header by Gabriel Batistuta, as overworked a script as there is. Brazil held off a furious challenge by Turkey, thanks to a sensational goal by--guess who's back?--Ronaldo. Italy overmatched Ecuador, as was predicted, although in something of an upset, the defensively obsessive Italians actually forged upfield often enough to score twice in the first half-hour.

But the early hours of the tournament have belonged to the underdogs, the tiny fish in the big pond--"minnows," as the Brits call them.

It was a good first week for Asia and Africa and the much-maligned North and Central American region known as CONCACAF, whose representatives here--Costa Rica, Mexico and United States--are a collective 3-0. Tournament co-hosts Japan and South Korea, previously a combined 0-17-4 at the World Cup, are undefeated, having totaled four goals, a win and a tie. And the Africans have been a joy to watch, playing attacking, vibrant soccer whether they win implausibly (Senegal), lose narrowly (Nigeria) or draw (Cameroon).

The gap between soccer's haves and have-nots is shrinking in a hurry, as U.S. Coach Bruce Arena tried to inform us last week. We didn't listen then, but we are certainly watching now.

The minnows have been a delight. The ones on the soccer field, that is. As opposed to whatever that is they're serving at the concession stands, covered in rice and wrapped in seaweed.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Without Pedigree

How surprising is the 3-0 start by CONCACAF's three representatives--Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States--at the World Cup? Consider:

* Only once since CONCACAF was organized in 1961 have its teams combined for three victories over an entire Cup. That was in 1986, with all three victories by Mexico.

* Costa Rica, in 1990, was the first CONCACAF team to qualify for the second round without the benefit of being host. Only six times has a team from the region advanced beyond the first round, three when that nation was the host.

* The region went from 1970 to 1986 without a victory in the World Cup.

* The three victories this year bring the total by CONCACAF teams to 15 in 12 World Cups, nine by Mexico.

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