World Soccer Heats up, As English Club Chelsea Tries to Hold on

Once The Ultimate Football Game ends Sunday, worshippers of the American pigskin will face months without their game. As these unfortunates should anticipate listlessness and short temper, we shou

Feb 2, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Once The Ultimate Football Game ends Sunday, worshippers of the American pigskin will face months without their game. As these unfortunates should anticipate listlessness and short temper, we should treat them respectfully and with compassion unless we're already ticked at them for something else.

A less conspicuous strain of football fans in America, and a more conspicuous strain worldwide, will be blissfully unmoved. Their games will turn interesting. Worldwide football, the stuff we call soccer, moves to an intensely competitive period of multi-layered stakes in the next few weeks.

None of this concerns American teams, except the United States national team, ranked 11th in the FIFA worldwide rankings while qualifying continues for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The Americans have made it to the CONCACAF (this stands for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) final stage.

For World Cup qualifying, FIFA divides the world into six regions — Europe, North/Central America, South America, Africa, Asia and Oceana — with each region qualifying different numbers of teams depending on their strength in the FIFA rankings. Europe, for example, will qualify 14 nations for the 32-team World Cup Finals, while Oceana (Australia, etc.) automatically qualifies no one.

CONCACAF will qualify three teams for the World Cup, with the fourth place team playing the third place team from Asia for another berth.

The CONCACAF finals stage, which begins Feb. 9, is down to six nations who will play each other home and home in the next nine months. The top three go to the World Cup, with the fourth-place team going to that playoff.

Each of the three CONCACAF teams qualifying in 2002 — the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica — won its group in this year's qualifying semifinals. The U.S. finished third among the three in 2002, coming off its inglorious flop at the 1998 World Cup.

But the U.S. made up a lot of ground at the 2002 World Cup, storming to the quarterfinals with a 2-0 win against Mexico before dropping out with an unfortunate 1-0 loss to Germany. With a dozen of its players working in the elite European leagues, the U.S. believes it can win the region this time.

At worst, the U.S. is likely to finish second in the group, with Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatamala and Panama battling for the final spots. But the early results say Mexico is ahead of the rest, galvanized by that 2002 loss to the U.S. in Korea.

By an aggregate score of 45-1, Mexico has won all eight of its games along the qualifying trail. The Americans have crept through, with three wins and three ties in six games of their semifinal pool. The Mexicans are ranked seventh worldwide, and form makes them the CONCACAF favorites.

We'll see. The U.S. is 6-1-1 against Mexico in the last five years. Mexico hasn't beaten the U.S. in their last four meetings, including twice since the 2002 World Cup. They'll meet March 27 in Mexico City, then Sept. 3 in the states.

Whatever the World Cup says about broader culture, it leaves the distinct impression that the best soccer is played in Europe, even if Brazil has won five World Cups, including 2002. Nine European teams advanced to the final 16 in 2002. No other continent placed more than two.

As the U.S. team illustrates, fortunes can change quickly in international soccer. Eight years, by the timing of international soccer, is quickly. France won the World Cup in 1998, then couldn't make it to the top half of its pool in 2002. Now the French are in a fight just to make it out of Europe.

Four members of the French team — Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira — could also attest to rapid change in the club game. All are members of Arsenal, which routed through the English Premiership unbeaten last season only to find the league totally gone over to Chelsea in 2004-05.

The Chelsea rebuilding undertaken by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003 has come at a steep price, but it's hard to argue with the results.

Chelsea holds a 10-point lead in the Premiership with 14 games remaining. Along the way, the club remains in the running for the Champions League, the FA Cup and the League Cup, leaving them in the thick of four trophy chases. It was considered a significant achievement in 1999 when Manchester United won three trophies.

Chelsea is stacked with talent, which makes some close observers believe coach Jose Mourinho never has to worry about drop-off in whatever squad he picks for each competition. But the Blues can't buy every player, which Mourinho seems to realize.

The Champions League remains Chelsea's toughest test for this season. The draw has seen to it, putting the Blues against Spanish league leader Barcelona in the first knockout round as 16 teams remain for the European Cup.

The British have made an improved showing in Europe, putting four clubs (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool) among the final 16. The German Bundesliga has placed three clubs (Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen), as has the Italian Serie A (Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan). Following are France (Lyon and Monaco) and Spain (Barcelona and Real Madrid) with two, then the Netherlands (PSV Eindhoven) and Portugal (defending cup champ Porto).

The Chelsea story is one of abandon followed by prayers of restraint. Abramovich, the main shareholder in the Russian oil firm Sibneft, bought the club in July 2003 and immediately began upgrading. In addition to spending $114 million for the controlling shares, he also wiped out $152 million in debt. Since then he's spent $380 million on players.

Last year, Abramovich doubled the club's payroll to $218 million. Not surprisingly, the Blues reported English record operating losses of $166 million during his first year. It still doesn't figure Abramovich will run out of money soon. The wealthiest clubs never run out of money.

But Mourinho developed a rep for winning with less last year, when he took the Champions League at Porto, and he's expressed his disdain for "Hollywood stars" and "Gallacticos," which, he says, is pinned to players based on their social lives rather than their soccer skills. He has spent for depth rather than star power.

Mourinho says he doesn't need more good players, since he has enough already. He evidently wants nothing to do with players who think they're larger than the coach or the team. For all the money Real Madrid famously spends on the most glamorous players, it's not in Chelsea's dominant position. Real Madrid is second in Spain behind Barcelona.

Now Chelsea says it has a plan to reduce its dependence on Abramovich within five years. Always sounds good. But we're talking about big egos and high stakes.

Could be that Chelsea drops soon from the Champions League, Real Madrid keeps playing and Chelsea starts thinking it needs that one big piece to go over the top.

Fortunes change quickly in soccer. A couple injuries and a bad season can topple almost anyone.

Every competition increases or decreases a club's prestige and outlook. As always, the change is just begining.