12 June 2006

Victory Is Bittersweet

As many of you know, I was cheering for Australia, so you'd think I'd be over the moon at their last-minute come-from-behind triumph over Japan. And I am happy that Australia not only scored their first three World Cup goals ever and notched up a win that gives them at least a fair chance of going through to the knockout stage. And I should be even happier that justice was done after Japan took the lead on what should never have been a goal: after complaining long and loud that the Australians played "dirty," the Japanese used an American football-style body block to take Aussie keeper Mark Schwarzer out of the action while what otherwise would have been an innocuous lob sailed into the net. The Egypytian referee, perhaps mindful of strained relations between native Australians and "men of Middle Eastern appearance" (official Aussie-speak used by police and respectable newspapers in place of "thieving wogs"), made like Arsène Wenger and never saw a thing. For an alternative view you can check this commentary by an Aussiephobia-blinded smartarse (you might argue, with some justification, that the snarky and effete snobs of the Guardian shouldn't even attempt to cover any activity more athletic than hitting policemen over the heads with picket signs, but they do excel at snideness, an essential quality when dealing with football as played by the English).

As cross as I was over the unmerited goal, I gradually came round to appreciating the superior effort of the Japanese; they played as a team, with unbounded spirit, while the Australians floundered about like a pod of beached whales, and when it began to look like they had little chance of scoring, I acknowledged that even had the disputed Japanese goal not stood, a 0-0 result would have done Australia few favors anyway in a group most likely to be dominated by Brazil and Croatia. As the second half went on, Australia finally had several chances, all stymied by the Kawaguchi's sterling goalkeeping. That's why, when Cahill finally knocked in a sloppy ball after a penalty-area scramble, my heart went out to Kawaguchi. Not so much because the goal was undeserved - Kawaguchi had after all punched the ball out into the scrum instead of putting it beyond reach - but because the look of dismay on his face was just so heartbreaking. After a flawless performance he'd made one small mistake and broken the hearts of an entire country. And by the way he bowed his head ever so slightly, you could tell he knew it.

In the last few minutes of the game, first Cahill and then Aloisi put in goals that Kawaguchi had no chance to save, and Australia had come back, if not from the dead, at least the severely comatose, for a victory that will launch a lot of hangovers in Sydney tonight, but as much as I wanted the Aussies to win (and now I can only hope and dream of the day when they humble the gifted but obnoxious Brazil), I really felt for the Japanese. They may already be on their way out of this year's World Cup, but they're a team that will be back bigger and better in future years. I could see them contending with the best within the next four or eight years.

Other notes: I'd resolved not to join the chorus of complainers about the American announcers on ESPN and ABC (an endless source of amusement to the Guardian's correspondents), but after hearing them refer several times to Australia's (and Middlesbrough's) Mark Schwarzer as "the Premiership's best keeper," I must ask whether they have ever heard of Peter Cech (facing the USA today for the Czech Republic)? Edmund van der Sar? Paul Robinson? Jens Lehmann? Among others. Schwarzer might be the 10th or 12th best, but never mind that; the same commentators have been hailing the USA's Casey Keller as "the best in the world." Um, yes, whatever.

Anyway, time now to cheer on the USA, clueless flag-waving commentators or not. I have a constitutional inability not to cheer for any team containing Fulham's Brian McBride, who is truly a class act on and off the field. Unfortunately, the Czechs have already put in a ridiculously easy goal with only five minutes gone despite the US generally looking the better side. Could be a long way back, but let's hope the Yanks can take a cue from the Australian playbook and put this one away 3-1.

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