There was a week in March of 2013 when the USA survived Costa Rica in a snowstorm outside Denver and four days later played a gritty scoreless draw also at altitude in Azteca.
Nobody was calling the hideously-named Concacaf region The Group of Death. More likely, it was the group of schnorrers, run by long-time FIFA insiders like Jack Warner of Trinidad and Chuck Blazer of New York, who had their personal siphons into the exchequer, until banished in disgrace. That scandal has been Concacaf’s biggest notoriety under the laissez-faire regime of Sepp Blatter.
Currently, that unheralded confederation from North and Central America has produced three teams making extreme trouble in their groups in the World Cup tournament in Brazil. (The fourth regional team, Honduras, is just about done after losing to Ecuador on Friday.)
The United States under Jürgen Klinsmann has 3 points from Ghana and goes against vulnerable Portugal Sunday.
American soccer fans are obsessing over the real stuff of World Cup life -- Portugal's injuries and a suspension, potential changes in the U.S, lineup, players like Alejandro Bedoya who have come a long way to start in this World Cup.
Mexico, revived under its fourth coach in a year, stunned the host team with a 0-0 draw the other day, helped by the keeper Memo Ochoa, who has made Mexico forget Jorge Campos and his gaudy soccer wardrobes and saves.
And now Costa Rica. The Ticos, coached by the Colombian, Jorge Luis Pinto, who never played professional soccer, outmaneuvered and outhustled Italy, 1-0, on Friday, to qualify for the Round of 16. They had more heart and more tactics than Italy, which reverted to the jaded outfit of 2010 that went nowhere but home. Italy lacks even one Gennaro Gattuso-like firebrand (Mario Balotelli’s temper does not count.) And can I just drop the name Roberto Baggio one more time? Do Italians appreciate Il Codino a bit more now?
Costa Rica deserves to move on, after figuring out that Andrea Pirlo was testing the back line. Late in the half, Costa Rica bombarded aging Gigi Buffon until the ball got past him.
Costa Rica always plays tough against the USA. So does Mexico. That is the charm of life in Concacaf, with its memories of incursions by American troops and corporations. It is always a Group of Peril in those stadiums – batteries and bilingual insults flying from the fans toward the Yanks. But at the moment, Concacaf is also its own little Group of Death – death to England trouble for Uruguay and Italy in Costa Rica’s Group C, danger to Croatia in Mexico’s Group A, and who knows what the Americans might do.
My own memory of Costa Rica is of happy, noisy fans. I tell that story in my new book, how back in 1985, a thousand or two fans romped over the hill in California, blowing horns, chanting and rooting Costa Rica to a 1-0 victory that knocked the USA out of qualifying in the second round. The next generation was in Recife, Brazil, on Friday, dressed in red, enjoying new status -- members of a regional Group of Death.
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I will be taking the show on the road in a few days, speaking at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Monday, June 23, and the Midtown Scholar book store in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday, June 24. Then on Wednesday, June 25, I will be part of presentation at the Museum of the City of New York, talking about the new anthology, For the Love of Baseball, in which I have a chapter on Casey Stengel. I suspect I will drop a word or two about the World Cup and be available to sign any books you might want to bring, or just talk about these two great sports.
For information, see Book Appearances on the left or press this link.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.