The stars have gone out
The World Cup began only two weeks after the Champions League final. The players and countries who dominated this World Cup were not the old, cereal box names like Zidane, Henry, Figo, Veron, Raul, Del Piero and Kluivert (whose Holland had not qualified in any case) but rather the new stars: Ronaldinho, Ballack, Miroslav Klose, early flameout El-Hadji Diouf, Hasan Sas, Gilberto Silva, Yildiray Basturk, Khalilou Fadiga, Landon Donovan, Park Ji-Sung, as well as the more famous Rivaldo, Oliver Kahn and a Ronaldo back from the dead.
It’s true that some of those ‘star’ names sound like the barrel being scraped, for it was a very poor World Cup. The cream did not rise to the top. If the 2004 Champions League showed that a tournament of rank upsets could be fun and dynamic, the 2002 World Cup conversely showed that the same phenomenon at international level left the oceans dry of any talent come the business end. France, Portugal and Argentina were all eliminated in the group stage and Italy did not last much longer. Holland, as mentioned, weren’t there at all. It left here-today, gone-tomorrow countries like Turkey, South Korea, USA and Senegal to fight for a trophy somewhat shorn of any meaning.
The tournament didn’t contribute to any of the previous nor subsequent patterns of world football and can almost be viewed as the ‘black hole’ of international tournaments that decade. Some of the upsets, however, were spectacular. Two wins in particular caused eyes to be rubbed in disbelief. Senegal, an exciting team of young unknown talent who would score the most mesmerising end-to-end goal one game later, beat the invincible France 1-0 in the opening match; and an energetic South Korea scored two goals in the 88th and 117th minutes to eliminate Italy, whose 1-0 lead had lasted (almost) the entire match. South Korea’s winning goal was a golden goal, an ephemeral development for a few years in which the first goal of extra time would immediately win the match, South Korea winning there and then in the most dramatic manner on Ahn Jung-Hwan’s header.
Meanwhile Uruguay, needing four second-half goals against Senegal to progress to the second round, cut loose as no one knew they could and overturned a 0-3 halftime deficit to almost achieve a miracle, agonisingly missing an open goal to seal the win in the last seconds. Senegal 3 Uruguay 3 could thus be filed into the same neglected drawer into which we had left a dusty Spain 4 Yugoslavia 3: the greatest game, but soon forgotten anyway.
Contrasting draw crucifies Argentina and redeems Brazil
The 2002 World Cup saw the premature demise of one of Argentina’s greater assemblies of talent. The world had been there for the taking for Veron, Batistuta, Crespo, Ortega, Sorin, Zanetti and the rest. But they were crucified in the draw, where England and Sweden kept their defence extremely tight (to the point of keeping all four defenders in the penalty area and ignoring the flanks) to emerge victorious. I was a fool for expecting something better from this terrible time, stated an emotional Argentine to the cameras back in Buenos Aires, experiencing the unmitigated disaster of that country’s 2001 economic collapse. An extremely talented team was wasted.
Another, Brazil, had passed through the worst year (2001) of their entire history and were forgotten in the predictions. But they were given an absolute marshmallow of a group stage while everyone eliminated everyone else, and given time to get their act together. Unlike the rock-solid world champions from France, Italy and Spain, their defence was torn apart at will in their matches against Costa Rica and Belgium, but their no-name keeper Marcos saved them and they eventually cobbled it all together.
The attacking fulcrum of the 3 Rs, who had no experience with each other in qualification (Ronaldo and Ronaldinho had not been involved in that fiasco), appeared like they had been playing together their entire lives – Ronaldinho, the exceptional jinking midfielder with the lightning dribbles and the long hair, potentially the greatest player of all time; Rivaldo, Mr Consistency when it came to goal scoring and generally putting the team on his back; and Ronaldo, who had been injured for three straight years and somehow both looked groggy and inconsistent and yet scored eight goals (!), including the improvised winners in the semi-final and final. In the next years Ronaldo joined the Real Madrid circus and was reborn, a phoenix from the ashes; Ronaldinho similarly took flight; Rivaldo, the most dependable of the three was incredibly, unexpectedly ‘finished’. They had been one of the most potent tridents in history, each instinctively understanding the others’ game, encapsulated by a crucial goal against England in which Ronaldinho streaked the length of the field dodging tackles and feinting before slipping the ball to the waiting Rivaldo who finished effortlessly.
The administrative World Cup
The lessons from the 2002 World Cup had not occurred on field but off it. It was speculated that the top dogs had not delivered on their infinite, Nike-fuelled hype because they had been too tired and injured after a hectic season; not given enough time to recover. Zidane, for instance, had gone straight from the Champions League final to immediately playing some worthless warm-up matches in Korea (allegedly dictated that he appear by sponsors) to being injured and missing the World Cup in the space of about two weeks with zero rest. Without him and the similarly injured Robert Pires, France utterly imploded. UEFA quickly adjusted the Champions League fixture to include one more knockout round but four less games overall, uncharacteristically on zero notice. Even concrete feet can run at times.