World of Wonder


Pelé in 1970. Maradona in '86. Zidane in '98. Every four years, one World Cup player makes history. Henry A. Kissinger-Nobel Peace Prize winner, former secretary of State, soccer fan-shares his golden moments before this year's June 9 kickoff.

On June 9, host country Germany will inaugurate a month of football frenzy by playing Costa Rica in the opening match of the 2006 soccer World Cup. For two weeks, there will be three matches a day as the 32 survivors of a global competition (involving more than 100 teams over a period of three years) are whittled down to 16.

In eight groups of four, each team plays the others in its group. The top two teams of each group advance to a sudden-death round also lasting two weeks and culminating in the final on July 9 in Berlin. Billions around the world will be glued to their television sets at all hours of the day and night; millions will find ways to interrupt their work schedules to watch at least some of the 64 matches. National morale in winners and losers will be affected, particularly as the competition nears its end.

I will be one of those viewers and have arranged my schedule to accommodate its necessities. Most fans would find it difficult to describe what it is about soccer that so enthralls them. They would probably identify it with their passionate adherence to their favorite club team-a passion that, in America, is matched only by the most fanatical adherents of football teams.

I grew up in Fuerth, a little town in southern Germany where soccer had the status of football in Green Bay, Wis. Though playing with local amateurs, its team inexplicably won the German championship three times during my boyhood. I have not lived in Germany for many more decades than I care to admit, yet I still follow the fortunes of that team which, in the age of high-salary professionalism, has been relegated to the second division. Fuerth periodically seems on the verge of rising to the top league but, as happened this year, always manages to fall just short-guaranteeing the mixture of misery and hope that is the soccer addict's lot.

The emotions evoked by club teams are, compared to those inspired by the national team, like a raging stream to Niagara Falls. Club teams play at least once a week between August and June. National teams play only a fraction of that number a year and, for the highest prize, only once every four. There is no margin for error or for deferred passions. Victors are heroes; losers are treated as if they have inflicted a personal insult. A Colombian player who had contributed to the elimination of his team in the 1994 Cup by scoring on his own goal was murdered when he returned home.

Manipulating a ball by foot along a 110-yard-long field into an opposing goal requires skills analogous to ballet. Teams that concentrate on individual skills, like the Brazilians, astonish with their virtuosity and abandon. On the other hand, they sometimes are so infatuated by their individual artistry that they forget to score goals and are overcome by more single-minded, strategically oriented teams.

Only the rarest players-like Maradona for Argentina, dribbling past four or five English players in the 1986 World Cup-are able to score by essentially solitary efforts. Typically, games are won by team efforts. The seductive quality of soccer resides in the almost intellectual focus with which the best teams move the ball down the field to solve the riddle of how, with each side moving at high speed, to get a ball past 11 opponents, one of whom (the goalie) is permitted to use his hands to intercept the ball. This turns the game into a kind of geometry of finding uncovered open spaces from which to launch an unimpeded shot on the goal. The great field generals like Zinedine Zidane of France or Franz Beckenbauer of Germany are blessed with the uncanny skill of distributing the ball among their teammates in a manner that seems unimaginable in the abstract and self-evident in execution. Soccer at its highest level is complexity masquerading as simplicity.

Over the decades, the game has become increasingly strategic: when I first became a fan, the 10 field players were distributed as five forwards, three midfield players and two defenders. As a result, the attackers usually outnumbered the defenders-especially as the players, not as well conditioned as today, more or less stayed in their assigned positions. Since then, a radical change in deployment has taken place. Forwards rarely exceed two, and the remaining players are deployed in various ways available to the defense, of which the 4:4:2 system is among the most widely used. One of the most dramatic changes was the introduction of the “sweeper,” charged with reinforcing the most threatened position on the field. Beckenbauer gave this role an additional significance by acting like an American football free safety on defense and like a quarterback in directing the attack with his subtle passing. The result was a kind of total football: whatever the assigned position of the player, he had the additional task of reinforcing the center of gravity, attack or defense, depending on the situation.

The practical consequence is that goals are harder and harder to come by and that defense tends to dominate over offense. Teams-especially national teams-play first of all not to lose. Since the number of points on the field from which a shot on goal has a prospect of succeeding is finite, a disciplined defense can occasionally thwart a technically superior team. Thus a superbly coached Greek team defeated a Portuguese team of probably superior individual players in the final for the 2004 European Football Championship, and a very disciplined German team overcame a marvelous team from the Netherlands in the World Cup of 1974.

I have attended seven World Cup finals (and I have firm plans to attend one of the semifinals and the final in Berlin this year). Each has produced a distinctive drama. My first exposure was in 1970 in Mexico City, and it introduced me to the exuberant style of Brazilian soccer. Led by the incomparable Pelé and an all-star cast of irrepressible virtuosos, the Brazilians overwhelmed a very good Italian team by a score of 4-1. Pelé scored first-then the Italians responded. This should have given the so-called Azurri (because of their blue jerseys) an opportunity to apply their Machiavellian skill in frustrating the opponent into rash errors by a give-no-quarter defense. But Brazil did not play by the book. It abandoned whatever theoretical formation with which it had entered the game and threw every player into a wild offense, literally running the Italian team into the ground. Brazilian panache was aided no little by the high altitude of Mexico City, which wore down the defenders already exhausted from a brutal semifinal between Italy and Germany. This match was won by Italy, 4-3, in overtime (with five of the goals scored in that 30-minute period), and was so rough that Beckenbauer, having dislocated his shoulder, completed the game with his arm in a sling.

While offense triumphed in 1970, an unintended shift of emphasis helped turn the tables in 1974 between the Netherlands and Germany in Munich. The Dutch team was elegant and offense-minded, inspired by one of the all-time greats, Johan Cruyff. A penalty kick gave it the lead in the first minute before a stunned crowd. It proved a poisoned chalice. For it tempted the Dutch team to abandon its finely tuned offense in favor of protecting the lead. The Germans, led by Beckenbauer, thereupon threw everything into attack, reinforced by a frenzied home public. This led to a 2-1 lead just before halftime, which Germany defended tenaciously through the second half against an increasingly frantic Dutch side.

In 1978, the Netherlands found itself once more in a final before a rabid hometown crowd in Buenos Aires. In a game of wild fluctuations, the Dutch, in the last minute, tied an Argentine team playing with Brazilian flair and European killer instinct. But as happened four years earlier, the Dutch could not stay the course and lost in overtime. The Argentine victory produced a moment of respite from the near civil war conditions and brutal official repression racking Argentina. For 48 hours, Buenos Aires celebrated with such tumultuous abandon as to hide the bitterness of the national divisions.

In 1982, the drama came before the final. In a second-round group match, under the different Cup rules of the period, Italy overcame the most attractively playing of all Brazilian teams by one of its deadly counterattacks, exploiting the recklessness of the Brazilians, who played to win, not satisfied with the tie that was their admission ticket into the final-and which was only minutes away. In one semifinal, Germany defeated France, scoring two late goals after falling behind by two goals in overtime to send it to a penalty kick shootout against a French team demoralized when one of its star players was flattened by the German goalie as he was heading for a score.

I regretted not being able to attend the '86 final due to other obligations I had at the time. In 1990, in a very tactical defensive game, I witnessed a systematic German team overcome an Argentine side that substituted toughness for its usual dexterity. Argentina reached the final primarily because of the uncanny ability of its goalkeeper to parry penalty shots in shootouts, saving two against Italy. What added particular piquancy to that feat was that the goalkeeper was a substitute for the injured first-team goalie.

The most disappointing match for me was the final of the 1994 World Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. As honorary chairman of the American organizing committee, I had hoped for a high-scoring match that might do for American soccer what the Giants-Colts football game of 1958 did by generating public interest in pro football. Unfortunately, the game was decided in a penalty shootout after 120 minutes of scoreless tactical maneuvering.

The final in 1998 in Paris supplied a mystery. An elegant French team defeated a Brazilian squad which, after a brilliant semifinal victory over the Netherlands, turned inexplicably lethargic. Its star player, Ronaldo, was scratched from the public lineup amid injury rumors an hour before the game and then re-inserted without participating actively.

Altogether, in the seven finals I watched, I saw Brazil, Germany and Italy three times each, the Netherlands and Argentina twice. The only other start went to France. Will this elite be broadened in the World Cup about to begin? Not having seen most of the national teams of this tournament, a prediction is difficult. The United States plays in a very tough initial group. To reach the elimination round, it will have to overcome at least one of two powerhouse European teams, Italy and the Czech Republic, as well as a talented team from Ghana. England has the players to reclaim a major role, though the recent injury of its star forward, Wayne Rooney, reduces its prospects. In qualifying, Argentina won more games than any South American team, including Brazil. But its composure is not always equal to its talent. Italy looked overwhelming when defeating Germany a few months ago, and could advance unless it is held back by a developing scandal regarding refereeing. The German team has been a puzzle. It has an inventive new coach and passionate public support. But in the preliminary games, it had trouble against major opponents. This may be the year for African teams to emerge; their technical brilliance has so far been thwarted by lack of international experience. In the last World Cup, two Asian teams-Korea and Japan-showed great progress. This World Cup will reveal how much of this is owed to the fact that the Cup was played before admiring home fans. And there is always Brazil, which will guarantee excitement and exuberant fans. We will know the answer by July 9. In the meantime, 64 games in a month are guaranteed to slake the thirst of even the most frenetic fans-myself included-if only very briefly.