World Cup preparations in full flow
4 June ~ For most fans, the hope that accompanies the anticipation of a World Cup tournament lies less in the expectation that our country might win, and more in the possibility of a "good" tournament. We want as many classic, memorable matches as possible. We want the emergence of creative breakout stars, or maybe to see an established player have the impact of Pelé in 1958 or Maradona in 1986. And few but the tedious advocates of defensive perfection would complain if it rained goals like it's 1954.
Fat chance of that in the 50th year of the 21st century. Still, hope in football is as inexorable as death, raw sewage and alienation in real life, so a trip to the Philadelphia Union's neat and perfectly located waterside stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania, offered the chance to see two of Brazil 2014's outsiders – Greece and Nigeria – limber up last night for the coming goal drought.
You have to give some credit to Greece. They make it to major tournaments without you even noticing. Sometimes you check the record books just to make sure they really did win Euro 2004. You look at your World Cup wall chart, and there they are, no kidding, lining up with Colombia, Japan and Ivory Coast in Group C. How on earth did they get there? Mainly by winning 1-0 against Latvia, Lithuania, Lichtenstein and Slovakia. Although they finished level on points with group winner Bosnia, they scored just 12 goals to Bosnia's 30. Then they went wild by scoring three at home against Romania in the play-offs.
Nigeria – in Group F with Argentina, Bosnia and Iran – hardly unleashed the attack dogs either, registering just seven goals in six qualifying group games against modest opponents in Malawi, Kenya and Namibia, before scoring four times in two play-off games to ease past Ethiopia 4-1 on aggregate. Although they are reigning African champions with a wealth of recent World Cup experience, they are – like Greece – a team that tends to defend first and thrill last.
Little surprise, then, that the first half generated just one real scoring chance, when Genoa midfielder Ioannis Fetfatzidis had a rush of the blood to the head and dribbled past two Nigerian defenders, but his low shot was saved one-handed by Vincent Enyeama. A few long-range efforts from both teams aside, the careful build-ups from midfield were broken up by niggly fouls or careless mistakes. As former DC United coach Ray Hudson once famously put it after his side's third successive 0-0 draw: "You know what they say – without any penetration, it's just masturbation."
In the second half we remained in the realm of self-abuse, although things livened up with a five-minute period of end-to-end play that briefly thrilled the mixed crowd of 10,000. There were a few sporadic but well-engineered chances for both teams, with competent saves at either end, but no one was going to risk injuring himself this close to the real competition. Final score: 0-0.
That might seem like both a predictable and a portentous scoreline, especially given the pleading cry from the Nigeria fans of "All we are saying/Is give us a goal". But the second 45 minutes were really not bad to watch. Neither side is ugly or cynical, and the 23-year-old Fetfatzidis showed more individual skill in this game than the collective Greek squads of the past decade. Watch out too for Nigeria's Victor Moses, despite his quiet season at Liverpool, and the rangy wide forward Michael Uchebo. Or maybe that's just pre-tournament hope rearing its empty head again. Ian Plenderleith