JOHANNESBURG – The Americans are leading charmed lives these days. England, meanwhile, must be wondering what it did to tick off the soccer gods.
The World Cup’s knockout rounds start today, and who keeps going has as much to do with who you play as how you play. Heavy hitters Argentina, England, Germany, Portugal and Spain are bunched together on one side of the draw, and only three – at most – will still be alive after the round of 16. The Americans, however, wouldn’t see a higher-ranked team until the semifinals.
“From the way the draw has gone, we’ve avoided some of the traditional favorites at the World Cup,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. “Having said that, winning any game at the World Cup is tough.”
No need to tell defending World Cup champion Italy or runner-up France that. They’re both gone, having finished last in their groups, without a victory between them. All the African teams but Ghana are out, too. So much for that home-continent advantage.
For those lucky 16 that survived the group stage, things are a whole lot simpler. There’s no more adding up points. No sweating out the future for 10 days. No mental gymnastics to figure out what impact the results of other games will have. Win, and you’re into the next round. Lose, and you’re on a plane home.
The road becomes much, much harder, though. And some teams certainly have it worse than others.
Landon Donovan’s teammates better buy his lunch for the next, oh, decade or so. Not only did his game-winning thriller send the Americans into the round of 16, it gave them the top spot in Group C. Big deal, you say? Actually, it is.
A very big deal.
By topping the group, the Americans get Ghana in the second round and, if they advance, the winner of Uruguay-South Korea. Yes, Ghana is the same team that knocked the Americans out in the group stage four years ago and Uruguay has looked good in South Africa. Ghana is missing its best player, though, injured midfielder Michael Essien. Uruguay was a lowly fifth in South American qualifying, needing to beat Costa Rica in a playoff just to get here.
And no matter how you look at it, Ghana and Uruguay aren’t nearly as daunting as Germany and either Argentina or Mexico. That’s what England faces, all because it scored two measly goals less than the Americans did in Group C.
“To win a major tournament, you’re going to have to beat the best,” England’s Jermain Defoe said. “But we’ll just approach it like any other game.”
England and Germany are old foes, and the Germans are still bitter about Geoff Hurst’s just-over-the-line goal (or was it?) that helped the Three Lions win their only title in 1966. Never mind that Germany got its revenge four years later, coming from behind to knock England out in the quarterfinals.
“Such a game should be a semifinal,” German great Franz Beckenbauer said in his latest column in the German newspaper Bild. “Stupidly, the English blundered by finishing second in the group.”
Making it worse is, if England gets by Germany, Argentina will likely be waiting in the quarterfinals.
The Albiceleste, with star striker Lionel Messi, are one of only two teams to cruise through the group stage unscathed (the Netherlands is the other). Contrary to Beckenbauer’s griping, finishing first in the group doesn’t necessarily do you any favors.
Spain’s reward for winning Group H is a backyard brawl with Portugal. The first crack in the South American juggernaut will come from … another South American team.
All five South American teams advanced, and Chile is the only one that failed to win its group. La Roja’s “punishment” for failing to make it a clean sweep? A game with five-time champion Brazil, which edged Chile by all of a point in World Cup qualifying.
That, though, is the beauty of the knockout round. It’s no best-of-7, not even best-of-3. It’s one game: Win, or join the other losers on the sidelines.
“We’ve always said, ‘Get out of our group and then go from there,’” Donovan said. “Now we feel like I’ve always said, that we can compete with and beat every team in the world. (Today) happens to be Ghana, and we’re going to throw everything we can at them.”