Pointless exercises

World Cup hosts of the immediate past and future lost all their games in France. Rich Zahradnik & Sam Wallace sift the debris

USA I sat in my living room on July 4th safe from Paris and the Germans, safe from Nantes and the Yugoslavs, and, praise to the heavens, safe from Lyon and the Iranians. I watched the day’s two quarter-final matches as any American fan should expect to watch them, a neutral connoisseur enjoying some of the best in the game (Argentina, Holland, Croatia) along with some of the luckiest (Germany).

Two good matches behind me, I couldn’t resist, I had to turn on NY MetroStars versus Colorado Rapids. After all, I hadn’t seen an MLS game since leaving for France more than three weeks earlier, and the MetroStars had somehow climbed from near bottom to second place in their division, all in the absence of myself and US squad members Alexi Lalas and Tab Ramos. A funny thing happened on the way to Denver. That night the Rapids, with one of the worst attendance records in MLS, drew 46,722, the 11th largest crowd in league history, almost ten times larger than their usual.

The Rapids had promised fans the best Independence Day fireworks show in Denver. The LA Galaxy pulled in 53,655 the same night, also with fireworks as part of the package. The US team returned from France a complete failure, 32nd out of 32 teams, bested in the overall tournament league table by such football powerhouses as Japan, Jamaica and Tunisia. But the folks in Denver and LA didn’t care. I had to ask myself: are fireworks really more important than the national team to the success of football in the US?

Before I give the answer I came up with, let me say I am not sanguine about the US’s performance in France, nor are any of the avid fans I met there and know here. I am dismayed. The world, including many readers of this magazine, probably said: “Ah well, pretty much what we expected of the Yanks. Never will play the game well. 1994 was a fluke. Like 1950.” As all other fans from the other 31 countries in France, we went to show well before the world. And we didn’t. We were dismal. We were crap. We were dismal crap.

A dismal, crap national team, however, may not slow the growth of the league here. Americans can be insular, and particularly about sport. If our leagues and our teams are doing well, we care little for what the rest of the world is up to. So if the MLS can draw fans in with fireworks and can showcase the best in the league with an All-Star Game – a hooligan’s dream this year: Americans v Foreigners – then the league’s success may well continue in spite of France 98. League executives were counting on the tournament to showcase the best Americans of the MLS, but, seemingly, they did just as well buying a bunch of bottle rockets and roman candles.

A dismal, crap national team may not slow the growth of the MLS, but the opposite may well have been true. When the MLS was founded three seasons ago, almost all the US players overseas came home. This surprised me. I expected the better players to stay abroad a few more years while the league got going. Their return hasn’t been good for the national team: playing for the Columbus Crew does not have the same impact on Tom Dooley’s game as playing for Bayer Leverkusen.

Coach Steve Sampson bore a good deal of the responsibility for our performance in France; the players, quick to load it all on Sampson, bore responsibility too; even injuries, to our two best, Ramos and Eric Wynalda, hurt. But the level of competition  the best US players faced week in and week out had  its effect.

On July 4th, 1994, I urged the US on against Brazil in the second round of the World Cup. We lost 1-0 and Brazil went on to win the title. That result, plus a victory and a draw in the first round, got the world to notice we could play a bit. You know where we were on July 4th, 1998. Jump to July 4th, 2002. Where would I want us: barnstorming through the second round of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, or drawing 60,000 to a MetroStars-Rapids match with fireworks by Disney? It’s not a choice I can make, but asking for both may be asking for too much.


Japan How we delight in the little eccentricities of other nations that the World Cup throws up. Those funny South Korean players who decided it would be disrespectful to the senior members of their entourage if they played a round of golf. Or the Japanese fans who cleaned up the stand at Nantes and left their rubbish in neatly stacked bin bags. Such politeness! For the Japanese public, however, the Asian sideshow has been the focus of the World Cup and it has been a rather stern reminder of their standing in international football.

Japan has never been a nation to take failure lightly. At no time were they unrealistic about their chances against Argentina and Croatia, but the media’s in-depth analysis of Jamaica’s Marcus Gayle and Robbie Earle suggested that here was a chance to do what South Korea had failed to do in four World Cups – win a game. Three defeats later and there has been something of a sea change in attitudes towards this relative success. The nation’s most respected studio analysts, Luis Ramos and Sergio Echigo, both ex-players who were born in Brazil but are now Japanese, have been less than generous in their assessment of Japan’s World Cup debut. Even Japan’s goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, perhaps the player who emerged from the tournament with the most credit, has complained about a lack of application on the field.

Bearing the burden for most of the criticism have been Japan’s two strikers, Shoji Jo and Masashi Nakayama. The former even suffered the ignominy of being attacked by a disgruntled fan when the team returned to Tokyo. It is perhaps a reflection of the passiveness of Japanese fans that it was only a soft drink that was sprayed all over Jo’s team blazer. And all this for smiling. The devil-may-care cheerfulness that endeared Japan to the rest of the world has not gone down well back home. Ramos says his favourite word in the language of his adopted country is konjo – guts or determination. The grinning Jo and Nakata, he pointed out, simply looked as though they didn’t care enough.

Qualification for the World Cup was supposed to launch careers in Europe for some of the brighter stars in the Japanese squad. Before the tournament the playmaker Hidetoshi Nakata was so revered in Japan that national TV station NHK had a special “Nakata-cam”, which tracked his movements for a small inset picture in the corner of the screen. Nakata’s subsequent surly comment that “the World Cup was… like playing in any other tournament” and his inability to muster any enthusiasm for his fellow professionals cast doubts on his desire to play in Europe, although he now seems to be heading for Perugia in Italy.

Nakata’s absence from next season’s J-League will be a big blow to the domestic game. The J-League, faced with ever-falling attendances and disproportionately large wage bills, needs the stars of Japan’s World Cup campaign to renew public interest. Yet it seems unlikely that the standard of football in the J-League will be adequate preparation for the next World Cup squad.

The team is remarkably young and the majority will be around the next time. Shinji Ono, an 18-year-old midfielder, made a promising appearance against Jamaica. He was selected ahead of Daisuke Ichikawa, another 18-year-old who must have been the only World Cup hopeful to give TV interviews wearing his school uniform.

But despite this promise, Croatian coach Miroslav Blazevic’s prediction that Japan would be one of the favourites for 2002 just sounded like a man trying too hard to land a lucrative coaching job in the J-League.

The behaviour of English and German fans has not done much to calm the nerves of the 2002 hosts. I was asked recently by a Japanese colleague whether “Hooligan” was actually the name of an English town. English fans intent on causing trouble in four years’ time will discover cities with almost zero levels of street crime and petty vandalism. They will, however, be dismayed to discover that every member of the Tokyo riot police is an aikido black belt.

The 2002 World Cup will come too late for one man. Japan’s 31-year-old striker Kazuyoshi Miura was the top scorer in the qualifiers for France, but was controversially axed from the final squad at the last minute. Extraordinarily, the Verdy Kawasaki player shares his name with one of Japan’s most notorious jailbirds, who in July was acquitted of his wife’s murder 17 years ago. Kazuyoshi Miura Not Guilty screamed the headlines of the Yomiuri Shimbun. The footballer Miura will also be glad to have escaped blame for Japan’s performance in the World Cup, although there are many who believe that, had he been at the scene of the crime, things might well have turned out differently.

From WSC 138 August 1998. What was happening this month