You certainly couldn't tell from the smile on the face of coach Bruce Arena that the United States wound up with the second most difficult group at the 2006 World Cup draw in Leipzig, Germany on Dec. 10, 2005. Arena wore that smile while talking about the Americans' Group E opponents. It might not have been the Group of Death, but rather the Group of Fight for Your Life.
The Americans would kick off their fifth consecutive WC appearance against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen on June 12, meet Italy in Kaiserslautern on June 17 and face Ghana in Nuremberg on June 22. The top two teams in the group would reach the second round.
The Czechs were the second ranked team in the world. Top-seeded Italy was 12th and Ghana, playing in its first World Cup, finished the tournament as the top ranked African side.
"We have our hands full," Arena said.
But when pressed to say how difficult the group was, Arena replied, "Well you guys will all write your stories on that, like you did in 2002. So I'll leave it up to the experts to decide that. We'll decide it on the field, how difficult that group is."
Arena had ties with Italy. His paternal grandparents hailed from Naples, his maternal grandparents from Sicily. Arena learned of the Italian National Team from a poster that hung in his grandfather's Brooklyn deli in the 1950's.
"Certainly with both my grandparents being born in Italy, I always thought about playing Italy in the World Cup and that dream has come true," he said. "Obviously, they are one of the top teams in the world. It will be very difficult."
The U.S. had been in the running to be one of the eight seeds. The Americans were ninth in the FIFA rankings. Their last-place finish (32nd) at France '98 cost them a seed.
"Our success in soccer is only recent - 1998 isn't relevant to 2006, but that's part of the formula," Arena said. "Fair enough. But if you include '98, we'll never come out looking that strong."
The formula that determined the top eight seeds included how teams fared in the past two World Cups 1998 and 2002) and how the teams were ranked in the last three years of the FIFA rankings. The U.S. lost to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals, 1-0.
Defending champion Brazil, the only country to participate in all 18 World Cups to that point, and host Germany were seeded along with Argentina, England, France, Germany, Italy and Mexico. According to the formula used by FIFA, Brazil was first with 64 points, followed by England (51), Spain (50), Germany (48), Mexico (47), France (46) and Argentina and Italy (both 44). The U.S. had 43. The Netherlands was 10th with 39 points.
No teams from the same confederation are allowed to play one another in the opening round, except for Europe, which sent 14 teams to the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
The four other pots included:
- Pot Two -- Angola, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Tunisia (Africa); Ecuador, Paraguay (South America); Australia (Oceania)
- Pot Three -- Croatia, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine (Europe)
- Pot Four -- Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea (Asia); Costa Rica, United States, Trinidad and Tobago (CONCACAF)
- Special Pot -- Serbia-Montenegro (will be placed in group with Argentina, Brazil or Mexico)
Before the draw, Arena did not waste time and energy worrying about how the U.S. would fare, whether it was a best-case or worst-case scenario.
"I haven't spent two minutes worrying about it," he said. "I haven't examined the field because it's a waste of time."
In fact, if he had his way, Arena would rather have played his first game several days into the tournament.
"You get more time to prepare," he said. "You get to understand the flow of the tournament, what's happening, how the referees are calling the games. Anything that's going on you get a little feel for it when you're playing a little later. I hope we start a little bit later than early. However, having said that, I probably put the jinx on me. We'll probably get the opening game."
Asked by reporters if he would like to play a top-seeded team such as Brazil early on because favorites traditionally are slow starters in the World Cup, Arena jokingly looked up to the heavens and put his hands together as though he was praying.
"I'd love to play Brazil first," he said with a smile on his face.
The reporters erupted into laughter.
"I'd rather play them in the final," he added. “I don't think they [other countries] fear us. But I think they appreciate that we're probably a pushover. I think it will take a while for us to build any kind of respect at this level.”
Some 12 years down the road, Arena recently put that draw into perspective.
“In 2002, the thought was, ‘can we get four points after two games,’” he said. “In 2006, the thought was, ‘can we be alive by the third game and have a chance?’ And in both cases, we accomplished that. However, in 2006, we didn't win the last game, which we had to do.
“Let's face it, we get the draw. We have the Czech Republic, who some would have said on paper is better than Italy going into the World Cup. Then they lost [Jan] Koller after the first match against us. But the Czech Republic was one of the top teams in the world. And then facing Italy, too, which is not good, and they ended up winning the World Cup. That was obviously a tough draw.
“This time around everyone projects that it's going to be tough. When you have eight seeds, four European teams and four South American teams, that's as tough as it's going to get. In a worse-case scenario we draw Ghana as well. Ghana is damn good. In a lot of ways they can be a seeded team.”
Back to 2005, when there were signs that the U.S. was emerging as a respected soccer side, especially after the Americans' 2002 success in which they reached the quarterfinals in Korea.
“If the U.S. had a tournament as successful as they had in 2002, it would give U.S. football some big stimulus," said Lothar Matthaeus, who captained West Germany to the 1990 world championship.
But then came what sounded like a back-handed compliment.
"You have big players in the U.S.," he said. "They could practice a little more and . . . try to get the focus away from other sports. It would be beneficial to the U.S. team."
Matthaeus found himself in the spotlight as the program’s spokesman as FIFA unveiled a new award -- for the best young player. There was no such honor in the previous 17 Cups, although FIFA showed a video of promising young players who took center stage at past tournaments.
On the screen above the press conference podium flashed goal-scoring feats of Belgium's Enzo Scifo (1986), followed by Yugoslavia's Roberto Prosinecki (1990), Holland's Marc Overmars (1994) and England's Michael Owen (1998). Then the U.S.'s Landon Donovan (2002) suddenly appeared, scoring a goal in the stunning 3-2 triumph over Portugal.
Donovan scored two key goals to help the U.S. before the Americans met their match against the Germans in the quarterfinals.
"Donovan was the best young player of the World Cup," Matthaeus said.
If he earns a spot on the U.S. roster for Brazil 2014, Donovan could be one of the oldest players at 32.