A sprinkling of goal dust

I WENT into this World Cup, like I go into every World Cup, as an honorary Brazilian. But after swooning to yesterday’s first tango in Gelsenkirchen, today I am happy to proclaim, “Ich bin ein Argentinian.”

Argentina’s 6-0 demolition of Serbia & Montenegro was stunning – even if the vanquished lived up to their initials, if nothing else, by making things harder for themselves through losing a man to a red card. But, by then, Argentina were already home and dry, in the process crafting what was unquestionably one of the greatest World Cup goals ever.

How appropriate that their country’s most famous son was in the stand to celebrate like a proper, demented fan. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Maradona scored the greatest solo goal ever at this level, when the feet of God ran rings around England in Mexico in 1986. But, equally beyond dispute, the greatest team goal scored in a World Cup was Brazil’s coup de grace against Italy in the fantastic final of 1970. You remember it well, of course: a series of feints and dribbles and passes which began deep in the Brazilian half and reached its climax when captain Carlos Alberto ran onto Pele’s almost nonchalant sideways pass and, without even having to break his galloping stride, swept the ball low and hard to the corner of the Italian net. 4-1 to Brazil, and football was going home again.

Even after what we witnessed yesterday in Germany, I would still have that golden goal at Number 1. It was scored in the World Cup final, after all, and against a formidable Italian side at that. But, more than that, there was a joyous exultation in the way Carlos Alberto finished it off that was entirely in keeping with the life-affirming football played throughout that tournament by what was probably the greatest team the world has seen.

Too many superlatives? Not when you are seeking the proper context in which to place Esteban Cambiasso’s wonder goal against Serbia & Montenegro yesterday. 24 passes, leading to an audacious back-heel from Hernan Crespo and then the explosive finish to the roof of the net: Cambiasso may have his name on the score-sheet but practically the whole Argentine team ought to be credited with the assist.

And that was just the highest point of a Himalayan range of peaks from Argentina, a team of such swaggering strength in depth that they could call two young stars off the bench, and then see both Carloz Tevez – with a great solo run complete with nutmeg – and the just back from injury Lionel Messi add further goal dust to a sparkling performance.

A health warning? Well, poor old S&M were dire, and only added to their woes by standing off Argentina and allowing them to play. It’s also only two games in, and we already know from the hard fought victory over the Ivory Coast that Jose Pekerman’s team can be made to work much harder for their points.

But for now this much, at least, can be said with conviction: Argentina have set the standard for all the rest in these World Cup finals. And, in the exquisite move completed by Cambiasso’s strike, we have seen the second greatest team goal ever.

And so, from the sublime to, well, England.

Analysing Sven’s men in this tournament feels a bit like performing an autopsy on a living body. Best to call it a pre-mortem, perhaps. Three goals scored, none conceded and passage safely secured to the knock-out round: on the face of it, all the vital signs are present and correct. But you don’t need to do too much forensic work with scalpel and gown to discern that the pulse is weak, brain death is imminent and just about all that’s really keeping the organism going is a reliance on a possibly faulty life support system known as Rooney.

The kindest interpretation of England’s death-in-progress is that, well, the heat has been brutal, Paraguay are not the worst and Trinidad & Tobago are a resilient, well-organised bunch led by the – altogether now – “wily old Dutchman” Leo Beenhakker. And, yes, full credit to T&T for making life difficult for both Sweden and England – but could you even conceive of them surviving the first ten without conceding to Argentina?

England, all laboured, one-dimensional huff and puff, didn’t make the crucial breakthrough until late on, their one bright moment — Gerrard’s cracker – only coming after Trinidad’s spirited resistance had been broken by Peter Crouch’s ‘Hair of God’ goal.

The good news, of course, is that the long suffering supporters’ calls for ‘Rooney, Rooney’ were finally answered and, as far as we could tell, he got through his comeback without his foot actually falling off. A result, then.

But with Michael Owen missing and Crouch and Lampard misfiring, England are running out of people to turn to for salvation.

Wayne Rooney might yet prove to be a miracle man but, the way things are going, the fans might just as well start clamouring for the return of Jimmy Greaves.

Still, this is not the time in which to end the first week of the 2006 World Cup on a bum note. It’s been a terrific tournament so far, and now, in Argentina’s breathtaking dismissal of Serbia & Montenegro, the most complete team performance so far.

The Dutch also offered a hint of something special in their first half display against the Ivory Coast but unless the next three weeks have something even more magical in store we have already seen the goal of the tournament.

Now all I want is for Brazil to wake up and restore my faith in the natural order of things.

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