Back a decade or three, American sports fans (and, dare I say it, the flower of the American sporting press) used to characterize soccer (a/k/a The Real Football) as an un-American pastime reeking from scoreless ties (plus the reliance on feet, how grubby.)
However, on Friday, Americans watched a match that was scoreless for 88 desperate minutes – and I think it was impossible to miss the drama.
For the breakfast show, direct from Yekaturinburg (where the last tsar and his Romanov family were executed in 1918, but I doubt the sportscasters made much of that on Friday), Egypt tried to salvage a draw against Uruguay, a perennial World Cup qualifier.
This was a classic World Cup opening match, when panic and caution often collide – four teams playing in their own little playpen, to eliminate one or two teams from the next round.
Uruguay expected to win the match and the group; Egypt wanted to survive, perhaps with 1 point for a draw. This is the format that has produced some yawners between teams that did not want to lose, but this match had a sub-plot: Egypt will then play the two other teams in the group, Russia and Saudi Arabia, not as good as Uruguay. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive.
I need to add that this four-team group format is about to be scuttled by the friendly folks from FIFA, when they expand their quadrennial jamboree from 32 to 48 teams (worth perhaps an extra $1-billion) when the 2026 World Cup is held in Canada, Mexico and the land of the Big Mac and the infamous 32-ouncer.
For this World Cup, some teams may seem to waltz in the group stage, but nobody wants to play their hearts out and then lose in the 89th minute as Egypt did on Friday, winning hearts but blowing the 1 point.
One yielded free kick, one leap by a Uruguayan player above two defenders, one exquisite header, and Egypt lost the point – but kept a hopeful goal differential – and most likely fans will now root for them to score and win against Russia and then Saudi Arabia. (I am leaving all snarky geopolitical comments out of it.)
Another subplot was that the two managers were geezers – Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay, age 71 and leaning on a cane because of Guillain-Barre syndrome, and Hector Cúper of Egypt, age 62.
Cúper had tantalized fans with talk that Mohamed Salah, the superstar for Liverpool, whose shoulder was tactically mauled by Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid early in the Champions League final, would be ready Friday, but Salah never even warmed up.
Perhaps Cúper was keeping Salah away from Luis Suárez, the Hannibal Lecter of footballers, who has bitten at least three opponents over the years. Suárez flashed his choppers; Salah watched in tears as Uruguay scored late.
The touch-by-touch drama made for compelling soccer, even here in the States. And in the familiar four-team group format, the drama and the tactics are just beginning.
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.