"Down the Stretch They Come"
Have you sorted out all the possible group scenarios yet for WC 2002? If not, get your calculator ready. At the end of round two of group play, only two teams have advanced to the second phase - Spain and Brazil.
Can you imagine the final 16 without Germany, France, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, and England. (I did not include USA in this group because we will be in the round of 16 - End of story on that issue.) But losing six of the tournament favorites is definitely a reality based on the group standings going into this final round of group play. To say that the world’s biggest sport has achieved some parity at the international level would be an understatement based on the results to date in Korea/Japan.
How many people do you think really predicted Senegal and Denmark to come out of Group A?
Group B has advanced Spain to the next phase and South Africa can advance with a draw against Spain -Paraquay will need some help to advance. Group C has advanced Brazil to the next phase - Costa Rica can advance with a loss to Brazil, but that would depend on the margin of victory for Turkey if they defeat China. Group D will advance the USA to the second phase when (not if) they earn at least a point in their final group match against Poland. Korea also goes through with a draw, while Portugal needs some help from Poland to get through with a draw.
Group F is even more complicated with England and Sweden advancing with draws, but Argentina needing a win against Sweden. Unless of course Nigeria pulls a shocker and knocks off England. Then Argentina can get through with a draw. Easy to understand, right?
In Group G Italy is in a must-win situation against Mexico, the surprising group leader at the moment. A Croatian win and an Italian win and you now have three teams tied with six points. Then you have to go to goal differential, goals for ... what a mess. Mexico is in the fortunate position of being able to advance with only a draw.
Finally, Group H is just as interesting because Belgium and Japan can both advance with wins, sending group favorite-Russia goes home early. If both teams draw, get the calculator.
I can not remember a World Cup in the so-called modern era where the third (and final) round of group play will be this stressful to players, coaches, media, government officials and fans everywhere. I’m sure it was nice to go into the World Cup as a favorite this year, but did it really mean anything? What was Bruce Arena’s quote? On yeah, Bruce said, “That is why you play the games”. If you did not believe that statement before this tournament began and you still feel the same way, you better never leave that bubble you live in.
Get ready for a wild ride during this round, and enjoy the rest of the tournament.