World Cup examined: Who are the real winners?

by Rob Kim | 7/8/02 5:00am

This summer's World Cup tournament was a huge success, with renewed global interest in soccer, particularly in the U.S., after their stunning advance through the tournament. Arguably, it was the many upsets and surprises that established this World Cup as one of the most memorable in recent history, as South Korea and Turkey's presence in the semifinals can attest to. But besides Brazil and their Penta, or 5th Cup victory, there were many other winners at this tournament, and quite a few losers.

Winner: Ronaldo. For a man who was seemingly on the brink of despair after his meltdown at the '98 Cup final, his triumph during this year's Cup finally put the Boy Wonder's career in full circle. Ronaldo echoed his Brazilian predecessor Pele, winning the Golden Boot and tying the legend's World Cup career goal record at 12. Criticized for faltering in the clutch, Ronaldo baffled the German backline with two goals in the final . With help from compatriots Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, Ronaldo established himself as soccer's top talent.

Loser: France and other Euro soccer titans. After winning in the '98 Cup and the 2000 Euro tournament, France was a heavy favorite going into the tournament. However, key injuries to FA Player of the Year Robert Pires and superstar Zinedine Zidane doomed France. A pitiful performance by Les Bleus seemed to echo throughout other European camps such as England and especially Italy, whose conservative play allowed South Korea to come back and win in the knockout round. Other teams like Portugal killed themselves with seemingly idiotic play; Joao Pinto's fist assault on the referee in their match against South Korea was a low point in the Cup.

Winner: African-Asian style of play. The exciting brand of full-speed, never-say-die soccer exhibited by teams like Senegal and Korea was a breath of fresh air during this tournament and for a game that has been criticized for its sluggish play at times. A shakeup of sorts, their play served as a wakeup call to established powers and rubbed off on other teams, such as the U.S., whose fast-paced attack with their young speedsters could hardly be described as reckless.

Loser: FIFA refs. At certain points in the tournament, the ref work seemed to recall the NBA playoffs : the wrong calls were made, and vital calls were ignored altogether. The most glaring mistake was Hugh Dallas' no-callduring the U.S.-Germany quarterfinal, when Gregg Berhalter's potential strike was inadvertently blocked by Torsten Frings' "arm-ball". Let us not forget John O'Brien's clear handball during the Mexico-U.S. match in the Round of 16. Other inefficiencies came during Korea matches against Italy and Spain, when a Morientes header was overruled as a goal kick, even though the ball never crossed the line. Is FIFA's potential experiment with multiple referees the solution? Whatever happens, more accurate officiating is a step in the right direction.

Winner: Goalies. Although Oliver Kahn's MVP belonged to Ronaldo, goalies gained much respect this year, when in the past goalies had been labeled the scapegoat. Kahn's play in goal cemented his place as the best goalie in the world; honorable mentions go to Turkey's Rustu Recber and Brad Friedel's stops for the U.S. Their play made penalty kicks unpredictable, which is an incredible feat.

Question mark: US Soccer. The U.S. performed admirably during this World Cup. Luck was involved, but the Americans played hard, all the way up to their date with eventual finalist Germany. The U.S. success led to increased Cup interest back home, where people actually got up early in the morning to watch the U.S.'s elimination games. "I'm sad that it's over; it took me a long time to get into and now I just want to watch more soccer," said Natalie Babij '05. How long will such interest last? Will the U.S.'s success mean increased support for Major League Soccer , or will fan fervor go by the wayside again until the 2006 Cup?

Combined with the success of African and Asian nations, the U.S.'s showing gave the tournament a breath of fresh air. Critics have said that the level of play this year was not up to par as past cups, but the "balancing of powers" displayed this year made the tournament enjoyable and far more important in the long run. While support for soccer in the U.S. probably won't reach the levels of other countries, World Cup 2002 was refreshing for soccer; the game truly became global.