Six o'clock in the morning--what an ungodly, uncivilized hour for a major sporting event. Not that one can't be ungodly and yet civilized, something Europeans seem to specialize in, or godly yet uncivilized, a uniquely American specialty. But to be both--that's just plain nasty. Yet six was the hour I dragged myself out of bed, at the beck and call of my almost-teenage daughter, to watch the World Cup final on Sunday--before the morning papers had even arrived. Understand, first of all, that my daughter is a soccer fan while I most certainly am not--except where the idle pursuits of daughters are concerned--which is why she got the assignment to set her alarm and wake her grouchy old bear of a sports columnist father. A dutiful columnist, I might add, and so if one in four people drawing breath on the planet was going to watch the championship game between Brazil and Germany--a statistic the ABC Sports announcers kept pounding home--I supposed I had to pay it some sort of mind.
Call me not a fair-weather but an end-of-the-day soccer fan. I thankfully missed the U.S. resurgence, catching only the loss to Germany in the quarterfinals, a game that served to confirm my low opinion of the sport. The U.S. outplayed Germany yet got nothing for it--except the right to come home and renew the tub-thumping about how soccer is once again gaining popularity on these shores. Which may be, but at the rate it's gaining, it will merely surpass the popularity of bowling and pitching pennies by the 2006 World Cup. I maintain it's a dreary game that translates poorly to television. As a contest in which one team tries to beat the other at putting an object in the other's goal, give me ice hockey--if not football--every day of the week (at least between October and the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs). In both soccer and hockey the scoring and the scoring chances seem to come out of nowhere, sometimes thanks to patterned play, sometimes thanks to chaos, but hockey is so much faster and the smaller rink so much more conducive to TV coverage that it's really no contest as to which is more appealing. Watching both semifinals last week--at the almost equally nasty hour of 6:30 AM--I kept thinking, as Germany finally ended the home-field run of South Korea and Brazil shaved Turkey on a distinctly unpretty, trickle-in goal by the "great star" Ronaldo, that no red-blooded, hands-on American should have any interest in the sport. All things being equal, I'll take even lacrosse.
Yet all that said, I love the aesthetics of two distinct styles of play confronting one another in any sport, and even more than that I love seeing great players play great. On both those counts the cup final was rewarding (if still less than captivating). The Brazilians played with their usual individual panache, a style that served them ill in the 1998 final in Paris against France; but this time their great players delivered--Ronaldo foremost among them. The Germans dictated the tempo through most of the first half, with their big, physical players dominating loose balls in the midfield, with their precision passes, and with the booming kicks of their goalie, Oliver Kahn. If the Brazilians nevertheless had the best scoring chances, they made little of them. Ronaldo, the buck-toothed star with the long, low, gliding strides, muffed two clear shots on the goalie. Having choked in the 1998 final--a label I am loath to apply to any athlete but one that seemed more than fitting back then--he seemed to be doing it again.
The Brazilians had the more apparent personalities, and many of them were familiar, even to a reluctant soccer watcher like myself, from the 1998 tournament. There was Cafu, who with his close-cropped widow's peak and stern gaze looked the part of the capable lieutenant in those 70s drug movies, and on the opposite side Roberto Carlos, a white-shoed, shaved-headed midfielder who at one point--the long-shot cameras zoomed in to catch the nuances of the play--controlled a high-bounding ball, bounced it off his head, and punted it 40 yards with a swirling kick to get it out of the Brazilian end. Then, of course, there were the three Rs up front--Ronaldo, in silver shoes, Rivaldo, in white shoes, and Ronaldinho, whose flowing 80s Jheri curls distracted all attention from his shoes and whose amazing precision free kick had vanquished England. Against these world-famous players, it took a while for Germans like Bernd Schneider--who attacked as relentlessly as a wound-up schnauzer--and Torsten Frings, who wore the scruffy, unwashed look of a German tourist, to establish themselves. The Germans' handsome star, Miroslav Klose, looked good but was a nonfactor throughout.
This, after all, was to be the Brazilians' day. After Ronaldo missed his early chances, and the Brazilian Kleberson clanged a shot off the crossbar, and the Germans' Oliver Neuville sliced a free kick from just outside the box around the defense and toward the Brazilian net, where goalie Marcos got just enough of his fingertips on it to deflect it off the post--Neuville responded by maniacally scratching his head as if he had just come down with a case of flesh-eating dandruff--the game was still scoreless midway through the second half. But when a German defender fell just outside his box, leaving the harried Ronaldo alone for a moment, Ronaldo controlled the ball and passed to Rivaldo on what looked to be a textbook give-and-go. Rivaldo didn't give it back, however, instead firing a low, spinless knuckleball right at Kahn. It handcuffed him. While he blocked it he couldn't catch it, and Ronaldo ran up to kick in a garbage rebound goal that even Phil Esposito might have disdained. Twelve minutes later, Ronaldo put the game away with more style. He took a crossing pass that went under the legs of Rivaldo, who drew the defense only to let the ball roll by untouched, and guided a pinpoint shot along the grass and into the lower right corner of the net.
For Ronaldo, it was his 8th goal of the tournament and his 12th overall in World Cup play, tying him with the great Pele--and in the same number of games, 14. He had begged injury while playing poorly in the 1998 final, and had since suffered and recovered from a knee injury. He returned this year, with his hair shaved into a pattern like the "press play" symbol on a cassette deck or CD player, to establish himself as the best soccer player in the world, and the Brazilians as the best and most character-filled team. In short, the World Cup final was worth getting up for, which is about as effusive a compliment for soccer as I can muster.
Y et even as an unrepentant baseball fan, I'd have a hard time defending last Friday's first game of the Cubs-White Sox interleague series as a superior sporting event. It might have been exciting for Sox fans, but it was a disgrace where the Cubs were concerned, and with its dragging pace and frequent interruptions--12 walks by the Cubs alone, and 11 pitching changes overall--it was something no baseball fan could be proud of, clocking in at over three and half hours. Not even the worst case of stoppage time in history would make a soccer game last as long.
For the Cubs it was a beautiful day gone horribly wrong. They pounded Sox starter Dan Wright for six runs in the second inning, helped by a booted grounder to Sox shortstop Royce Clayton that would have ended the inning; and they chased Wright from the game while scoring two more in the third. The Cubs had an 8-0 lead, and Kerry Wood on the mound.
But Wood developed a bad case of wildness, starting with a walk in the third and another in the fourth, when he also conked Paul Konerko in the coconut with a spinning curveball that never really curved. Konerko took a knee but remained in the game. "It didn't really hurt, but it totally dazed me," he said afterward. "I knew it was going to go away." Manager Jerry Manuel added that Konerko didn't just stay in the game but practically demanded to. It was a good thing, too. He came around to score, and the next inning tagged Wood back for a three-run homer that cut the lead in half, 8-4. Wood opened the sixth inning with another walk and a hit sandwiched around an infield out, and left for the day. Yanking Wood was a defensible decision, but like most of manager Don Baylor's pitching moves this season, it turned out to be the wrong one. Jeff Fassero got nobody out. Joe Borowski came in, gave up a sacrifice fly to Frank Thomas and a single to Magglio Ordonez that tied the game, then another Konerko homer that put the Sox up, 10-8.
After the Cubs' Roosevelt Brown climbed the wall trying to stab the line drive, and Konerko rounded the bases and the fireworks exploded over the left-field bleachers, I have to admit I felt giddy. Sox fans, who held a narrow advantage over Cubs fans in the record regular-season crowd of 46,027 at Comiskey Park, went ape. But my excitement was tempered by the contempt I felt for the Cubs in blowing an 8-0 lead--and in squandering their immense promise for the season.
Neither team had really inspired much confidence going into the series. Both seemed at an ebb, just as they were in their first meeting this season at Wrigley Field. The Cubs came in fresh from their longest home stand of the year--their last, best chance to salvage the season--when they'd only managed to split the 12 games. The Sox, meanwhile, had been swept by the Atlanta Braves and gone to Minnesota for their first meeting this year against the first-place Twins three games under .500 and six games back. They needed a sweep or at least three wins out of four to get back into the race, but blew a late lead in the opener and lost 5-4. The Sox wound up splitting the four games and leaving the same six games back that they'd arrived.
Once they'd lost their lead, the Cubs gave up in gutless fashion. They squeezed a run across in the seventh, but then Kyle Farnsworth blew up in the eighth, giving up three more runs. The Cubs season was over, but the Sox had displayed some grit that boded well. Konerko was particularly bold afterward. "You just get sick of being average. Pretty much for a year and a half now we've been mediocre," he admitted. "I think there's a feeling in the clubhouse that's really good right now," he added. "I feel like this team's ready to roll....If we can finish strong like we did last year, we should win the division."
Indeed, the Sox held the initiative most of Saturday and won 5-4 on a Carlos Lee homer off Juan Cruz, one of many Cubs pitchers who have gone from promising to awful under the tutelage of Baylor and coach Larry Rothschild. Though the Cubs came back against Sox ace Mark Buehrle to win 9-2 on Sunday, that could hardly be described as a face-saving victory. I have to admit that under the influence of the heat and my early rise, I slept through part of it on the couch. Waking, I remembered that even after the Sox' exciting win Friday, when their fans roared and the celebratory fireworks burst over the Dan Ryan, it seemed to me as if both teams' hopes were popping in the sky above Comiskey like so many gonfalon bubbles.