Four shots on goal.You can find any number of excuses to explain the U.S.'s failure at the 2006World Cup-a brutal draw, horrible refereeing, a coach undermined by his loyaltyto certain players-but the fundamental reason was the Americans' chronicinability to create scoring chances. No team in the World Cup took fewer shotsthan the U.S., not even such lightweights as Trinidad and Tobago (seven) andTunisia (eight). And the ultimate blame for that lies in a youth system thatrewards order over imagination. ¬∂ While the problem with U.S. basketball is thedecline of fundamentals, the bugbear of American soccer is essentially theopposite. Where is the individual flair on the ball to split swarming defenses?Where is the improvisation to build attacks on the ground? The answer isn'tcomplicated: It's being developed on playgrounds in Brazil and Ghana, not onthe regimented fields of American youth soccer. "There's probably too muchcoaching [in the U.S.]," says U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who announced hisinternational retirement last week. "When I grew up, I just went to thepark and we put up two cans for goals and played seven-on-seven for hours. Nowwhen I see youth soccer, I see too much organization, too many kids standingaround in line waiting to shoot." ¬∂ It's worth noting that the U.S.'s bestplayer in Germany, 23-year-old midfielder Clint Dempsey, spent his formativeyears inventing moves on the dusty plains of Nacogdoches, Texas-not sucking onorange slices in suburban youth leagues. Likewise, Reyna has kept his sons,Jack, 7, and Giovanni, 4, from joining structured soccer leagues. ¬∂ "I rollthe ball out and we just play," Reyna says. "They can worry aboutlearning tactics when they're 15 or 16, but until then it's all about lettingthem enjoy it." With that, Reyna hugged his two boys and left the World Cupstage, taking an underachieving U.S. team with him.
Yet as theAmericans began looking toward the next Cup (Will manager Bruce Arena returnfor a third four-year term? Has Landon Donovan [left] squandered his chance atsuperstardom? Will Freddy Adu be the man in South Africa 2010?), the realbusiness of the tournament, the knockout phase, was only getting started. Andthe teams advancing to the quarterfinals knew how to find the goal.
Forget Goleo VI,the creepy pantsless lion. The real mascot of the World Cup is Diego Maradona,whose hyperactive cheering from the stands has hogged camera time fromArgentina's majestic team. Two decades after his finest hour, at the 1986 WorldCup, Maradona remains revered in his homeland. Small wonder that Argentina,fruitlessly searching for "the next Maradona," has come up empty in theWorld Cup since '86 while the Brazilians, who don't care about finding "thenext Pelé," have won two championships.
Could theArgentines' agony be over? Heading into Friday's quarterfinal against Germany,they had played the best soccer of the tournament, not least because the nextMaradona tag is no longer affixed to any of their starters. "We talkedabout this from the moment we left Buenos Aires. This is a team, and we want toshow that," says midfielder Maxi Rodríguez, who at week's end had scoredthe goal of the Cup, a sick 22-yard strike to sink Mexico 2-1 last Saturday."No matter who is on the field, this group plays at a high leveltogether."
The sea change ispersonified in 28-year-old playmaker Juan Romàn Riquelme (previous page), whodirects the attack with a subtlety that contrasts with El Diego's look-at-mebravado. If the Argentines' uncanny timing seems scripted, it's becauseRiquelme, like a first-rate basketball point guard, understands everyteammate's place on the field. "For us, the way he manages the ball isimportantísimo," says striker Javier Saviola, the frequent beneficiary ofRiquelme's surgical passes in the box. The result is often a magical,highlight-reel strike-followed by a quick camera cut to Maradona celebratingmaniacally.
It's great theater,of course, a perfect balance of show and sideshow, to say nothing of the answerto a vexing problem. Who needs a next Maradona when the solution is to abandonthe search altogether?
Imagine Willie Maysurging the Giants to bench Barry Bonds in favor of a prospect. That's roughlywhat happened last week when Sir Geoff Hurst, the man who scored a hat trickfor England in the 1966 World Cup final, suggested captain David Beckham(above) be replaced by Aaron Lennon, a 19-year-old with one internationalappearance before the World Cup. Hurst's complaint: England is "slow andpredictable" with Beckham on the pitch.
Beckham's response:Bend it like only he can. In a 1-0 win over Ecuador on Sunday, the 31-year-oldmidfielder scored on a sublime 25-yard free kick that curled over the wallbefore swerving past the reach of keeper Cristian Mora. A Becks free kick alsoset up England's goal against Paraguay, and his cross to Peter Crouch providedthe go-ahead goal against Trinidad and Tobago.
Hurst has a point:Beckham doesn't have the energy he once had. But that's like criticizing Bondsfor not being able to leg out doubles anymore. And Lennonesque athleticismdoesn't always win World Cup games. In Japan and Korea in 2002, 46% of goalscame from corners or free kicks-Beckham's specialties. Said England coachSven-Goran Eriksson after the Ecuador match, "I have stopped sayinganything to [Beckham's] critics. He is maybe the best player in the world onset pieces."
And that makesEngland dangerous every time they take the pitch. No matter how slow orpredictable the team appears.
All you need toknow about the importance that Italy places on defense is that the country'sgreatest contribution to the soccer lexicon is catenaccio (door-bolt), aphilosophy built on airtight D. Marcello Lippi's team pushes forward a littlemore than Azzurri sides of the past, but there's no mistaking what has gottenthe Italians to the quarterfinals. In their first four matches they had allowedonly one goal-an own goal at that.
Australia had tofeel pretty good about its chances of breaking through on Monday when Italiancentral defender Marco Materazzi was shown a red card in the 50th minute,forcing Lippi to bring on seldom-used Andrea Barzgali. Not so fast. "Theydefended better with 10 men than 11," said Aussie defender ScottChipperfield. And when Francesco Totti scored on a penalty with the game'sfinal kick, Italy had another of its famed 1-0 wins.
Italy has a handfulof world-class defenders-none better than captain Fabio Cannavaro (above), whosnuffed out several dangerous Australia attacks. But the system matters more.Lippi has been shuffling players in and out of the back line all tournamentbecause of injuries. So it shouldn't trouble the Italians to be without thesuspended Materazzi in their quarterfinal match against Ukraine on Friday, norwill they panic if the man he was filling in for, Alessandro Nesta, can'treturn from his groin injury. "It's hard to pinpoint one particular thingor player," says Aussie midfielder Brett Emerton. "I think organizationis the key-and they're very well organized."
On the list ofThings Germany Is Known for Producing, attacking football used to rank next toworld-class comedians. But that's all changed. J√ºrgen Klinsmann, hired as coachafter a dismal 2004 European championships, has instilled a simplephilosophy-go forth and score-that has turned Die Mannschaft into the mostexplosive team at the World Cup.
Klinsmann, a starGerman striker in the '90s, did more than change the squad's style. He changedthe squad. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was stripped of his starting job andcaptain's armband. Other vets were dropped altogether for younger, moreathletic players. For leadership Klinsmann turned to midfielders MichaelBallack and Torsten Frings and striker Miroslav Klose, all in their late 20s."I told them, 'Grab that moment,'" says Klinsmann, 41. "The waythey've guided the younger players is tremendous."
The strikepartnership of Klose and 21-year-old Lukas Podolski (above) is a perfectexample of how Klinsmann has blended maturity and youth. At week's end the twoPolish-born forwards had scored seven of Germany's 10 goals. In a 2-0 victoryover Sweden, Klose twice set up Podolski, who bagged his second goal aftersending the ball to Klose and taking off on a 35-yard run. The final scorecould have been much worse-Germany outshot the Swedes 26-5.
That the drubbingcame two days after a feckless U.S. was eliminated did little to snuff out talkthat Klinsmann, who lives in California, could succeed Arena. Asked about hisjob status, Klinsmann said, "Once the World Cup is over, those things canbe discussed." You can't really blame him for not wanting to talk about thefuture. Not when the present is so fun to watch.
For more World Cup coverage from Grant Wahl and MarkBechtel, and to join in the daily chatter on the World Cup Blog, go toSI.com/soccer.