It is a truth not quite universally acknowledged that interest in the World Cup diminishes sharply once one’s country’s team has been eliminated, unless one is actually hosting the affair. There were thus, by Sunday night, probably just four countries in the world still tuned in to the 2002 proceedings: Germany and Brazil, naturally; Japan, mainly to see how International Stadium Yokohama looked on television (it looked terrific); and South Korea, doing long-distance honors as cohost. Well, all right, and a couple of billion other die-hard fans, but they hardly count. Most of the rest of the world, going about its business, missed a momentous final game.
Those delinquent viewers should have watched: It was worth it, a fitting end to a largely successful, if not athletically spectacular, tournament. Congratulations are due to Brazil for a well-deserved win, of course, and to the dazzling Ronaldo, who put 1998 behind him forever. Still, justice would have been served had either one of these soccer powerhouses taken home the prize. Both had glorious records to defend. Both had fallen into the doldrums in the past year. Both staged surprising comebacks in time to make the final against all the odds. A win for either would have been a heartwarming story.
But, as they say in the United States about a very different version of football, on any given Sunday any team can win or lose. (Hey, it’s football, not rocket science.) They also say, “The point is, can you win or lose like a man?” On Sunday, the lucky team was Brazil. They had Ronaldo. But both loser and winner finished with style.
In fact, from a soccer point of view, the best thing about this tournament was its unpredictability. It sounds odd to say that Germany and Brazil were unpredictable finalists, but it’s the truth. And what about South Korea’s amazing run? They had entered the tournament hoping just to make it into the second round. They ended up semifinalists, an achievement that deserves unqualified praise. And then there were joyous Senegal, valiant Turkey, the upstart Americans and, last but by no means least, our own team, which performed well beyond most people’s expectations. All have cause for pride.
Conversely, stars fizzled out and high flyers went home early (no need for names; they know who they are). In all such long-drawn-out sporting events, from golf tournaments and cricket matches to the Olympics, tedium is inevitable. This time was no exception, but the giant-slayers kept it to a minimum. The quality of play was not that high — the average number of goals per game was only 2.48, the lowest since 1990 — and some of the officiating was controversial, to say the least, but there was nothing boring about the outcomes. And that is a prerequisite for a memorable tournament.
The results are what go down in the record books, but what about the rest of this year’s World Cup? So much was riding on it for the two hosts — more, probably, than it should ever have been asked to bear. Organization is one thing, but diplomatic and cultural relations are surely best left out of it. The jury is still out regarding the tournament’s overall success, but here’s our instant assessment: There were good parts and bad parts, but the good outweighed the bad by a long shot. There were problems, certainly: Tickets were not distributed efficiently, resulting in empty seats and disgruntled fans; hotel rooms were overbooked; visitor numbers sagged, leading to shortfalls in projected revenues in both host countries; and, worst of all, there was the sour taste left by a series of bad calls by referees and linesmen. (Even FIFA President Sepp Blatter admitted some were “a disaster.”) All these shortcomings need to be addressed by organizers of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
At the same time, so much went smoothly. The dreaded hooligans never materialized, whether because they weren’t coming to start with or because they were frightened off by well-prepared police forces is hard to say. Even in an atmosphere of heightened international tension, there were no security scares, let alone disasters. And the cohosting arrangement went off without a hitch, despite the bitterness and suspicion that had bedeviled it in the beginning. As Mr. Blatter said on Thursday, “It was an interesting, it was an attractive, it was an entertaining World Cup.” He’s right, but don’t let his matter-of-fact tone lull anyone into missing the significance of that achievement. In its way, it was as remarkable and as heartwarming as Brazil’s victory on the field.
As for the fans, it’s not quite over. Tuesday sees the announcement of the winner of the Golden Ball award for most valuable player. That’s the great thing about sport: No matter who wins or who loses, there’s always another prize tomorrow.
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