Watch the bouncing ball

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Watch the bouncing ball

The time was 1986. The occasion was a World Cup quarterfinal match between England and Argentina, and Diego Maradona was about to put his mark firmly on the sport.

Gathering the ball near midfield, the Argentine glided through the English defense as if the ball were attached to his foot by a tether, evading a quartet of defenders before coolly beating the opposing goalkeeper. The spectators fell silent, then erupted. Even the most impassioned Briton was made to surrender to the transcendental beauty of Maradona's goal.

Moments like this are what many football aficionados live for. They are the reason why millions of people throughout the planet are preparing to adjust their schedule to those of South Korea and Japan. This is perhaps unfortunate.

The coming World Cup will doubtless be a wonderful one, if for no other reason than that every previous edition has been so. The facts that the tournament appears to have been impressively organized, that most of the world's great football nations succeeded in qualifying, and that only a few of the sport's elite players are out to injury are triple layers of icing on the already appetizing World Cup cake.

Yet even in these seemingly ideal conditions, to watch the tournament only in anticipation of mind-boggling goals is to set yourself up for a let-down. Goals like Maradona's are once-in-a-tournament at best.

Truth be told, even goals of the most ordinary variety are infrequent in World Cup play. While the round-robin stage of the tournament will surely yield a few 5-0 or 4-1 scores as contenders seek to establish themselves against lesser opposition, convention dictates that most teams will emphasize defense over offense in the later stages. The traditional Italian strategy of implacable defense married to piercing counterstrikes has become the prevalent one in international tourney play, resulting in a host of low-scoring affairs and even the dreaded shoot-out.

France won the last World Cup by scoring a total of 15 goals, but only six of these came after the first round. Six goals in four games is an unimpressive tally, and the number would have been slimmer still had not Brazil been so transparent during the now infamous final.

Yet the Bleus secured the Cup by allowing just one score in that same span. This is the way the World Cup is won now, not with a goal-scoring explosion but with a barrage of tackles. It therefore becomes necessary to see beyond the goal.

See the striker as he sets up a teammate by drawing defenders to himself. See him always keeping one eye on the defender nearest the opponent's goal in order to never be in an offside position. See him maybe trip himself up in the box in order to draw a penalty kick. Then look past the striker. It can be difficult to do; he is often the star. But try, and see the midfielders.

The midfielders are among the most skilled players on the pitch because of their ability to play both defense and offense. The central midfielder usually wears the number 10; he is known as the playmaker and is the conduit for most of his team's plays. Diego Maradona was a playmaker, as is the world's best player of the last few years, France's Zinedine Zidane.

The playmaker is expected to assist and direct more than he is to score, but he is also expected to elevate his game when the occasion demands, as Zidane did recently for Real Madrid by netting the winning goal in the Champions League final. Watch the playmaker closely, for his play dictates that of his team.

The defenders are hard to keep track of on television because they are only shown in perilous situations, as an opponent comes charging toward their goalcage. Even in this limited exposure, though, there is plenty to see. Observe closely the difference between a hard foul and a violent foul, the slight difference in timing that makes the first legal and the second not. See how the defenders, unlike the strikers, always jump right back up after a foul against them, far more aware of the danger of remaining prone as a live ball moves around the pitch.

If you are lucky enough to be in the stadium, watch how the defense constantly readjusts itself according to what is happening at the other end of the pitch and what instructions the goalkeeper is shouting.

But what of the keeper himself? To be honest there is not much to be derived from watching the keeper when the ball is down at the other end of the pitch.

This is not to put down the enormous mental effort required of the goalie to stay "in" the game while being ostensibly out of it for long periods of time, only to opine that it is not much fun to watch. The keeper's saves and daring exits are, on the other hand, wonderful entertainment, except when you are cheering for the other team.

These are the things you should be watching for in any soccer game. What is specific to the World Cup is not found on the pitch, but rather all around it. Look at the benches and see the substitutes react to every play as if their life depended on it.

See the coaches visibly struggle beneath the pressure of knowing that anything less than a trophy will result in the loss of their dream job. See the coaches and reserves of the winning team jump into each other's arms after a dramatic win, all bitterness at having been left on the bench temporarily discarded.

But look even further, beyond the sidelines, into the stands, and see the tens of thousands of people, dancing and singing and smiling. Notice how supporters wearing the colors of two opponents share an overpriced bottle of water under the hot sun, how the fans of teams destined to be beaten early still make their way to South Korea and Japan to cheer on their squad.

Observe the general good humor, the joy all around, and understand that this only happens once every four years. Goals may be the essence of soccer, but this is what the World Cup is all about.

by John Abt

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