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SOCCER MIKE PENNER

Agoos an Example of Age Gap

June 11, 2002|MIKE PENNER

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Jeff Agoos is 34, three years older than any other starter who was in the U.S. lineup against South Korea on Monday and 14 years older than either of the outside midfielders playing in front of him in the game at Daegu, South Korea, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan.

That is worth mentioning, because Agoos is having the kind of World Cup that needs some explaining. Two games into it, Agoos has already experienced a defender's nightmare trifecta: He has scored an own goal, been whistled for a penalty and been beaten by a smaller South Korean opponent for a header that cost his team a victory.

Not all of this is Agoos' fault. He can't do anything about the numbers on his birth certificate, and he's not the one making out the U.S. lineup. Before Bruce Arena, a longtime Agoos loyalist, was calling the shots, two other U.S. World Cup coaches gave Agoos long looks during training camp. Bora Milutinovic cut Agoos in 1994. Steve Sampson gave Agoos a spot on the roster, but not a minute of playing time in '98.

There's a billboard in Yokohama's upscale shopping district touting local tourism that reads, "Slow Is Beautiful." The bright mind who came up with that marketing slogan obviously had no rooting interest in the World Cup. In this tournament, slow means old, and old has never been more out of style than in 2002.

Not very long ago, veteran players could hang around the World Cup because experience was considered an asset and a few old hands were essential to any serious run at the championship.

Maradona played in four World Cups, Juergen Klinsmann in three, and both were still scoring important goals in their mid-30s. Roger Milla was 38 when his four goals lifted Cameroon to the 1990 quarterfinals--and 42 when, in 1994, he became the oldest man to score a goal in a World Cup. Romania pleaded with Gheorge Hagi to delay his retirement until after the 1998 tournament--and because he did, Romania was able to qualify for the second round.

But then, that was 20th-century soccer. In this millennium, it has become a sport in a hurry, a game with no patience. Did you notice how long 33-year-old Gabriel Batistuta, still as dangerous a striker as there is in this tournament, lasted when Argentina fell behind England? In dire need of a goal, Coach Marcelo Bielsa substituted Batistuta in the 60th minute, rushing in a pair of younger legs.

"Date of birth" has become the World Cup's most vital statistic, which helps explain why France is 90 minutes away from abandoning its title defense in the first round, why Croatia lost to a very ordinary Mexico, why Japan and South Korea are both undefeated after two games, why Michael Owen continues to give Argentina fits, why Poland is 0-2 and out of contention, and why the United States is still in the running for first place in Group D.

Speed is the hot commodity in Japan and South Korea, stamping footprints all over the things that used to matter at the World Cup--pedigree, tradition and history. Argentina, Germany, Italy and Brazil all used to get away with a lot simply because they were named Argentina, Germany, Italy and Brazil.

No more. Italy lost to Croatia when Croatia's Coach Mirko Jozic figured out why his aging team, third place in 1998, had lost its opener to Mexico and began benching his aged. In came the Croatian youth movement, down went Italy by a 2-1 count.

Argentina had England's number, or so everyone thought. Everyone forgot or dismissed how Owen had diced Argentina's defense four years earlier, when he was 18. Owen is 22 now and the turbojets don't fire quite the same, which means Owen is faster than only 90% of the forwards in the tournament. Argentina couldn't handle him without fouling him--and when Mauricio Pochettino did that, inside the penalty area, England had the break it needed for a 1-0 victory.

France is in the incredible position of needing a two-goal victory over Denmark today to avoid becoming the second defending champion--Brazil in 1966 was the first--to be eliminated in the first round. More incredibly, France has played 90 minutes against Senegal, making its World Cup debut, and 90 against Uruguay, in its first World Cup since 1990, and has not scored.

How is this possible?

Les Bleus got gray, and Coach Roger Lemerre did nothing about it. France won the 1998 World Cup largely on the strength of its exceptional back line. Marcel Desailly, Frank Leboeuf and Bixente Lizarazu were all over 30, though, when they helped add the 2000 European championship to the French trophy case.

Lemerre's players kept getting older, but they gave him no compelling reason to replace them--until the opener against Senegal, when Leboeuf, 34, was badly beaten by El Hadji Diouf, 21, whose low cross bounced off a scrambling Emmanuel Petit, 31, and fell to Papa Bouba Diop, 24, who scored the game's only goal.

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