Traditional powers strugglingPosted: Wednesday June 12, 2002 2:38 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
SEOUL -- Theories abound about why so many traditional powers are struggling at the 2002 World Cup.
This is the first one to be played in Asia and the sights and sounds of South Korea and Japan carry a certain degree of culture shock. Time differences to native lands and heat have jangled more than a few body clocks.
Age was blamed on the failure of the French, yet it was the rather young striking corps that kept hitting woodwork and goalkeepers. The creaking back line anchored by Franck LeBoeuf conceded only two goals, but the attack scored zero.
Eleven days after scoring a brilliant goal for Real Madrid in the European Champions' League final, French midfielder Zinedine Zidane suffered a thigh injury in a warm-up match against South Korea.
With Robert Pires already sidelined, the French midfield was greatly weakened. A long list of injured players cast clouds of uncertainty over many teams.
Portugal's struggles in its first game and Argentina's ghastly collapse are clear cases of a trend in global soccer: There's a new wave of parity as heavier playing schedules take a greater toll on the great players and smaller countries gain more and more confidence.
"You go right from the league into World Cup preparations," says U.S. keeper Brad Friedel, who plays with several internationals in the English Premier League with Blackburn Rovers.
"It makes it difficult for those teams to maintain a high level of intensity for every single game. It's happened to the French, the Italians, the English, the Portuguese. Those are contributing factors. It's not the be-all and end-all.
"They're still world-class players, but they're going to have to dig down deep to find fresh legs from people on the bench."
The fresher teams have done a lot better than many of the traditional powers. Denmark helped oust the French, Sweden eventually put out the Argentines.
A few CONCACAF players do ply their trade overseas, but the numbers are low. Its teams were 4-0-2 heading into the final group games.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena believes having players with European experience is important, but just as crucial a factor is testing as many players as possible in severe conditions.
"I think experience is the big factor," he says. "The gap has closed. You look at our roster and you look at France's roster and you're probably going to pick most of the French players. We're not hurt by that at all.
"But we do have experience in these types of events, whether it's been previous World Cups, the Confederations Cup, and difficult qualifying."
Prior to playing South Korea in front of a raucous crowd of more than 60,000, the U.S. players were asked about handling such a tough environment.
They cited trips to Saprissa Stadium in Costa Rica and Azteca in Mexico City as more than adequate preparation.
"Saprissa is a very tough place to play and that shows in our record at Saprissa," says Kasey Keller. "Azteca's not an easy place to play, but actually the L.A. Coliseum playing Mexico is more intimidating than the Azteca playing Mexico.
"I've actually played for one of the teams [Millwall] that has one of the most intimidating places to play. That makes that side of it a little easier."
Only Spain and Brazil of the teams laden with top-class players have rolled in the first round. Germany and England survived some adversity. Most of Ireland's players are in the English Premier League, but only a few play clubs that went deep into the European club competitions. And one who does, Roy Keane, flipped out in pre-Cup training camp and was sent home.
The Spanish players who play in Spain seemed to have coped better than the foreigners who play there.
"There are not only a lot of games, but a lot of big games that mean a lot of money to clubs and countries and individual players," says Friedel. "When you have that many games, it means that much your adrenaline gets flowing and it takes a lot out of you."