Indulge me here for bit as a take a trip down memory lane.
Four years ago, my roommates (one of them paid rent, the other had asked 3 months ago if he could crash for a couple of nights) and I mostly did our World Cup viewing en Espanol. The reason? Our cable was pirated, thanks to an illegal box that our smarmy but friendly slumlord had given us, which meant we got HBO on Channel 16, Spice on Channel 61 (just eight dials short of the obvious joke) and ESPN on Channel 28, but no ESPN2. And since most World Cup matches were on the Deuce, we had to turn to the easily excitable commentators on Univision and TeleFutura. Why am I telling you this, you might be wondering? Trust me, it's important. It's the proverbial gun on the wall in Act One that will be fired by Act Three.
So four years ago, USA was in a much different position in the World Cup than it is now. The Americans upset mighty Portugal in the first match, got a valuable draw against the co-hosts, the Koreans. Now, all USA had to do was earn a draw or better against Poland, whom both Korea and Portugal dispatched easily. The only question was whether the US would go in as the #1 or #2 seed out of the group.
But within 6 minutes of the match, Poland jumped out to a 2-0 lead and USA's World Cup, which had started so gloriously, looked like it was going to end. Realizing that USA's hopes of coming back in the Poland match was all but gone, we switched over to Korea vs Portugal.
The only way USA would advance was if Korea beat Portugal. The score stood at 0-0, and if the two scores held, USA was out. There wasn't much hope here either, as two teams looked content to finish the match 0-0. A draw would send Korea to the next round as the group winners and the Portuguese as runners-up. The last thing either side wanted to do was risk losing. In fact, there's a video still of Luis Figo, the Portuguese captain, flashing "0-0" to the Korean captain.
Then something happened. Completely against the run of play, Park Ji-Sung scored, giving not only the lead to Korea, but handing a lifeline to USA. Portugal had several chances to tie the game, pretty incredible when you consider that they were down 2 men by the end of the game.
Feeling secure about the Korea vs Portugal result, we switched over to USA vs Poland. Americans were now down 3-1, but the players knew, or at least had a feeling that they got away with one. Players on the bench were celebrating and Korean fans in the stands were singing. The Univision (or TeleFutura? I don't remember) camera showed Landon Donovan as he came off the field. When one of the bench players informed him of the result of the other match, Landon let out a clearly audible "Fuck yeah!"
And for me, that summed up the last day of the group stage. To let everything that you worked for slip away, and then to somehow get it back at the end of the day due to sheer luck? What can you say other than "Fuck Yeah!"?
This time around, the Americans in the opposite position, having started the World Cup in hopeless fashion and now have no room for error. But they managed the improbable the last time around. Nothing says it can't happen again.Thursday, June 22Group E(pt = points - 3 for win, 1 for draw, 0 for loss; GF = goals for; GA = goals against; GD = goal difference)Italy
(4 pt; 3 GF; 2 GA; GD) - advance with draw or better vs Czech Republic; clinch 1st place with win vs Czech Republic, or draw vs Czech Republic and Ghana loss or draw vs United StatesGhana
(3 pt; 3 GF; 2 GA; GD) - advance with win vs United States, or draw vs United States and an Italy draw or better vs Czech Republic to advance; clinch 1st place with win vs United States and draw in Czech Republic vs ItalyCzech Republic
(3 pt; 3 GF; 2 GA; GD) - advance with win vs Italy; clinch 1st place with win vs Italy and Ghana draw or loss vs United StatesUnited States
(1 pt; 1 GS; 4 GA; GD) - advance with win vs Ghana and Italy win vs Czech Republic
Ghana vs United States (10 am ET - ESPN/Univision)
Czech Republic vs Italy (10 am ET - ESPN2/TeleFutura)
Here's the other Group of Death, the rare group where every team has a realistic chance of advancing to the next round. Italy only needs to tie the Czech Republic to advance, but the 2nd place finisher will presumably face Brazil, so the greasy Italians will be going for the win...
...which would help the United States, who can advance with a win over Ghana and an Italy win (they can also advance with a Czech Republic win, but good luck erasing that -3 goal deficit). Of course, the Yanks play Ghana, who easily beat the Czechs, who, in turn, made the Americans look absolutely silly, so file this one in the "Easier said than done" drawer.
I say watch the United States, but root for Italy in the scoreboard in the corner of the screen.Group F(pt = points - 3 for win, 1 for draw, 0 for loss; GF = goals for; GA = goals against; GD = goal difference)Brazil
(6 pt; 3 GF; 0 GA; GD) - already qualified; clinch 1st place with draw or better vs Japan or Croatia draw or better vs AustraliaAustralia
(3 pt; 3 GF; 3 GA; GD) - advance with win vs Croatia, or draw vs Croatia and Japan loss or draw vs BrazilCroatia
(1 pt; 0 GF; 1 GA; GD) - advance with win vs Australia and Japan loss or draw vs BrazilJapan
(1 pt; 1 GS; 3 GA; GD) - advance with win by at least 2 goals vs Brazil and Croatia win vs Australia
Japan vs Brazil (3 pm ET - ESPN/Univision)
Croatia vs Australia (3 pm ET - ESPN2/TeleFutura)
Ah, my beloved Japan. After two very disappointing results, the Samurai Blue needs to win by at least 2 goals. Against Brazil. And then hope Australia doesn't win and
stay ahead of Croatia in goal differential. Sheeee-yeah. I am cautiously pessimistic.
So my heart says watch Japan vs Brazil. But my head says Croatia vs Australia - Socceroos probably only need a draw to advance but should go for the win anyway. Croatia must win. Plus, there are a few Australian-born guys on Croatia and a few ethnic Croats on Australia, so that's fun.Friday, June 23Group H(pt = points - 3 for win, 1 for draw, 0 for loss; GF = goals for; GA = goals against; GD = goal difference)Spain
(6 pt; 7 GF; 1 GA; +6 GD) - already advanced; clinch first place with draw or better vs Saudi ArabiaUkraine
(3 pt; 4 GF; 4 GA; 0 GD) - advance with win or draw vs Tunisia; Tunisia
(1 pt; 3 GF; 5 GA; -2 GD) - advance with win vs Ukraine Saudi Arabia loss or draw vs SpainSaudi Arabia
(1 pt; 2 GF; 6 GA; -4 GD) - need to win by at least 3 goals vs Spain and Ukraine loss or draw vs Tunisia
Saudi Arabia vs Spain (10 am ET - ESPN/Univision)
Ukraine vs Tunisia (10 am ET - ESPN2/TeleFutura)
Ah, the group of snooze. There's Spain, and then there's everyone else. At least Ukraine looked commanding against Saudi Arabia and Tunisia let another early lead slip away, meaning the Carthage Eagles need a win against Shevchenko and company. I suppose Saudi Arabia's still in it, but they need to beat Spain by at least 3 and even that won't be enough. In a word, don't count on it.
Ukraine vs Tunisia is the match that matters, but Spain's playing some good soccer. Keep the clicker handy, I say.Group G(pt = points - 3 for win, 1 for draw, 0 for loss; GF = goals for; GA = goals against; GD = goal difference)Switzerland
(4 pt; 2 GF 0 GA; GD) - advance with draw or better vs South Korea, or France loss or draw vs Togo; clinch 1st place with win vs Switzerland;South Korea
(4 pt; 2 GF 1 GA; GD) - advance with win vs Switzerland or France loss or draw vs Togo;France
(2 pt; 0 GF 0 GA; GD) - advance with win vs Togo by 2 goals or moreTogo
Togo vs France (3 pm ET - ESPN/Univision)
Switzerland vs Republic of Korea (3 pm ET - ESPN2/TeleFutura)
The G stands for "Goal Differential", because that's what everything could come down to. We're assuming France will win here, but let's not forget, Lay Blews still
haven't scored a World Cup goal since 1998. But a France win and a draw between the Swiss and the Korean will tie things up at 5 points a piece.
If that's the case, the Swiss are okay based on their goal differential advantage over Korea. So the question will be whether France can match Korea's 2-1 win over Togo. Win by a bigger margin or score more goals, France is through. A 1-0 win - a real possibility - means Korea is through.
But it won't come to that if Switzerland or Korea has anything to say about it. Even the Swiss have something to play for, since 2nd place means a 2nd round match against Spain. Even Togo has motivation, since they just so happen to be a former French colony.