Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup Diary: Week One

Opening Game

I was planning to catch the opening match between South Africa and Mexico but since I’m in California that means a 7:00am start time. But I figured, why not? And if you’re going to watch the Mexican national team play soccer while in Los Angeles, you may as well head down to Olvera Street. To a New Yorker, Los Angeles doesn’t feel much like a city because it’s all sprawl and there’s no real center. No heart. But if any place can lay claim to being the heart of L.A., it is Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles and the historic home of LA’s latino heritage. Shortly after dawn, we drove to downtown Los Angeles. There was no traffic.

Olvera Street is pedestrian thoroughfare of smooth red tile, lined with kiosks and vendors selling crafts, clothing, candy and souvenirs and where you find historic adobe buildings and authentic Mexican restaurants. It’s a nice mix of charm and kitsch, but it’s a gem within an otherwise blighted downtown and its historic roots and quality food are real enough. At 7:00 in the morning the kiosks aren’t yet open but some of the restaurants are. Of course they are showing the game. We go to Café de Camacho at the south end of the street. It’s a newer place that serves flavored coffees and has brightly colored walls displaying paintings for sale. We had no problem getting a table. It wasn’t very crowded but nearly everyone there was wearing the green Mexico shirt and cheering for El Tri. Spirited but civilized. Instead of beer and meat pies, it was coffee, muffins and breakfast burritos. Much more my speed.

Mexico dominated the play, but it was South Africa, the host nation, who drew first blood. Siphiwe Tshabalala sprang free on the left wing and blasted a perfect shot past the Mexican keeper. The stadium erupted. Cafe de Camacho groaned. Unluckily for Mexico, an apparent Mexican goal was ruled off on what appeared to be an incorrect offsides call. Retribution came late. Mexico kept up the pressure and in the 80th minute, Rafa Marquez, the veteran defender for Barcelona equalized. Café de Camacho roared with excitement. The 1-1 tie was a fair result but one that frustrated Mexican hopes. Mexico is a soccer-mad nation with a talented squad but they are also cautious in their hope. They routinely qualify for the World Cup and advance to the round of 16 but they have never made it past the quarter-finals. The next two games – against France and Uruguay are expected to be tougher. But with some better finishing, Olvera Street might yet see some festive partying.

The U.S. Team

The much-anticipated game between U.S. and England did not produce the dramatic upset Americans were hoping for, but it was hardly a let-down either. As a practical matter, a 1-1 tie with England is an excellent and extremely fortunate result. The U.S. goal was a gift from England’s Keeper, Robert Green, whose mishandling of an innocuous shot from Clint Dempsey produced a howler for the ages. The best news for the U.S. was that its defense, a real question mark going into the game, performed solidly. Tim Howard and Steve Cherundolo, at right-back, were the best U.S. performers of the match. Jozey Altidore showed some signs of danger but needs to be more involved.

I was reading some of the reader comments on ESPN Soccernet last week. One comment read “The England game doesn’t matter that much – the key game is the 2nd game against Slovakia.” Exactly right, save for one detail. The U.S. opponent isn’t Slovakia – it’s Slovenia. What concerns me isn’t the fact that Americans are bad at geography. It’s that they don’t appreciate how tough their opponent is. I don’t mean to be pessimistic but I think it’s nuts to suppose that the U.S. should be heavily favored in this game, but that’s exactly what is being reported. I’ve already noted what’s impressive about Slovenia. The U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. That’s five tournaments. And each time, the U.S. has played a team from Eastern Europe and each time it has lost. I’m predicting another 1-1 tie. (Soccer haters love those). If it happens, the American sports media will howl, but we shouldn't be at all surprised.

Santa Barbara

My vacation took me to Santa Barbara on California’s beautiful central coast. It’s not an obvious place for watching soccer, but Santa Barbara has a richer soccer heritage than you might expect. The local college, University of California at Santa Barbara, was the NCAA men’s soccer national champions of 2006. The main drag, State Street, is full of stores, galleries, restaurants and bars – and these cater to upscale shoppers as well as college kids and beach bums.  The restaurants, sports bars, English taverns, Irish pubs and coffee houses are all televising the World Cup matches. In the evenings, it’s all about the NBA finals – Lakers vs. Celtics. But by day, soccer rules.

On Thursday morning, we’re watching Mexico again. This time, they’re playing France, who drew nil-nil in an uninspiring opening match against Uruguay. We’re at Moby Dick, a sea food restaurant on Stearn’s Wharf. It’s an unusual soccer-viewing environment. Outside our window pelicans are hovering over the Pacific and we’re having grilled salmon and a crab-melt sandwich. Nearly all of the patrons watching are rooting for Mexico, surprising only because we encountered so many French tourists in Santa Barbara. Mexico’s 2-0 win is well-deserved. Defender Carlos Salcidos is an intense-looking guy and he put on a master class at left fullback. It’s hard to feel sorry for France. Not only because of the controversial way they qualified, but because they’re playing a dull and listless brand of soccer. Franck Ribery is a nice player but he’s no Zidane. Only Florent Malouda was lively. Mexico beating a Western European power in a World Cup match is a very big deal. As beautiful as Santa Barbara is, I wonder what it’s like right now on Olvera Street.


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