It was July 9, 2006 and I was standing in the viewing room of the French consulate in Chicago, weeping alongside a room full of other fans of Les Bleus. Yes, I had won the Chicago Tribune’s World Cup pool by betting my heart (Les Bleus all the way, as I will bet again this time out, if they make it.) rather than my mind, because I just knew.
I knew that Zinedine Zidane had one more magical tournament in him. That Patrick Vieira would be able to hold down the midfield, Yaya-style, while Zidane sashayed about on his Xavi-esque flights of fancy, giant feet flapping and distributing. I knew that Thierry Henry had more magical goals in him.
I just knew.
Back then, Henry was an Arsenal player, and Eric Abidal played for Lyon, so I didn’t give a rat’s ass how hard they played. I didn’t care if they would have been required to commit seppuku at midfield to win that match that was ultimately defined by two Zidane headers: a bullet that was saved by Buffon, and to Marco Materazzi’s chest.
This time, it’s different, as our beloved club sends players hither and yon to contest various tournaments with various countries. Most are playing friendlies, which won’t stop us from worrying like fretting mother hens about every step that they take while on the pitch, and how long their national coaches play them.
But Henry and Abidal have two matches, on Saturday and Wednesday, that are serious. Thanks to a massive series of coq-ups, France has to play its way into the World Cup against an Ireland side that makes me nervous as hell. This isn’t only because they are gritty, defense-minded and tenacious. It’s also because if, in dire straits, given the choice between ankle and ball …. well, why not? Abidal has come out in the press to talk about this attribute. Both matches are going to be intense. And Txigrinski has a Saturday/Wednesday date with Greece, as the Ukraine tries to play its way in. Interestingly, with Andriy Shevchenko at the helm for the Ukraine and Henry at the helm for France, both countries are pinning much of their hopes on aging strikers enjoying their last hurrahs.
Yes, I want Henry and Abidal to give their all for Les Bleus. But man, would I be sundered if they picked up serious injuries. And that’s the 24-karat, stone-cold bitch of Internationals. Hearts swell with pride as the gladiators battle for their flag, but the horror enters when you realize that the player has just given his all, his last, which screws your beloved club side. Which is why these times fill me with fear and loathing.
Let’s look at our lads who are scuttling off, and their prospects.
Lionel Messi: Lord, how I quail at delivering him into the hands of Maradumber this soon after his mind has just begun to come right. The nice thing is that the match is in Spain, at the Vicente Calderon, against …. guess who? If you guessed Spain, you’re right (1:30 p.m. CT, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360). Everyone else, go sit in the corner. The real question will be whether Messi will be expecting one of those little dagger balls from Xavi, even though they’re wearing different colors.
Rest assured that the likes of Pique and Puyol will emphatically not be fouling the crap out of Messi every time he approaches their box, because they know what side their bread is buttered on. But also because this kind of friendly should feature beautiful, free-flowing football. There’s no pressure or stress on anyone, as both sides have qualified.
How long will Maradumbass play Messi? Difficult to know, but judging from recent comments about how Messi has to be the leader, take the side by the scruff and show it who’s boss, etc, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see him out there for the full 90. Which would piss me off no end.
But there’s a ton of morbo in this match, as both Cup favorites will want to show what’s what. Prediction: 3-3
As if that weren’t enough,
Dani Alves is sure to get some pitch time when Brazil takes on England (noon CT, Fox Soccer Channel). This is another friendly, and the way that Alves plays as well as how much Dunga plays him, doesn’t get me all that worried. He’s had some fine performances for the Selecao, so look for him to be out there. It wouldn’t even surprise me to see he and Maicon as bookends. Dunga will want to win this one, to put some doubt in a Three Lions side that has found its mojo under the helm of Fabio Capello. Prediction: 3-2 Brazil
Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and Puyol will all feature in the starting XI for a Spain squad that doesn’t really have any worries, or questions to answer. Argentina wants the win a lot more than they do. It’s always hard to figure out what del Bosque will do with our lads, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a half of footy from each of them. And with this being a friendly, I really don’t look for any serious danger. Neither side is inclined to put the boot in, and pretty football will be on display for the packed house. Wish I could be there, were it not in the lair of Satan. Just saying.
Seydou Keita is injured and will not feature as Mali faces off against Ghana.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is injured and, it is said, sore aggrieved over the quality of the jewels surrounding his diamond-like selfness. So he won’t be playing in Sweden’s friendly.
The Yaya will lace up the boots for a match against Guinea that is meaningless, as Cote d’Ivoire is already in with a bullet. But still, the world must quake in terror. Prediction: 3-0 Cote d’Ivoire.
Dmtiro Txigrinski will be holding it down at the back as Ukraine try to play their way in against Greece. The underdog here depends on who you ask, but my money is on the Ukranians, because of our man holding things down at the back. Defense wins championships. The winner of this tie isn’t likely to go all that far in the Cup, barring a very lucky group selection. Prediction: 2-1 Ukraine
Henry and Abidal have two humdingers, for all the marbles (1:55 p.m. CT, TV5). The winner at the end of two matches gets into the World Cup. It’s that simple. On paper, it looks to be a walk for France. But as recent history has shown up, paper isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Because when France goes up against organized, resolute sides, the deficiencies of Ruh-Roh Dumbenench’s coaching becomes all too apparent. Les Bleus go from a team on a mission to a bunch of stars, all trying to win it all on their own. So Ribery does Messi impersonations while Gourcuff tries to distract the defense with the breeze stirred up by him batting his eyelashes.
Henry will spearhead the France attack as he usually does, in a two-match series that will either round off his fitness and return him to us, diamond-hard and ready to kick ass in two crucial fixtures (Inter and El Clasico), or sore and semi-injured, ready to have an attack of the shits on the left wing. Not that he will care. Some Barca fans are right in saying that if Henry had some of the fire during Barca matches that he shows when playing for country, he’d already be a club legend. But that’s hard, because one is a job, the other is your country. Even Messi said that he’d give up all his club trophies for a World Cup win. It’s just like that.
Abidal will feature at left back, if La Stupide has come to his senses, and I expect him to do what he always does: Have some positional issues, run like hell, screw up a few times, then make up for it with stellar overall play.
Ireland is unbeated in the Cup play-ins, scuttled only by a lot of draws dragging down the points haul. France will be handicapped by being away, facing more than 60,000 frantic Ireland supporters who will be screaming for blood. If the side has any backbone, this is the time to show it. Oh, yeah …. no Ribery, or Clichy, or Toulalan, or Gignac. But Henry could do this again:
Prediction: 1-0 France (duh!)
The best part of all this is that I get to watch all three of the main events, Brazil/England, Spain/Argentina and France/Ireland. What a day of footy! Let’s hope that our lads show well, kick out the jams and cover their countries in glory.
P.S. No, there will be no David Trezeguet. Despite rumors that he and Ruh-Roh were going to patch things up and that crossbar-hitting sonfoabitch would be called to the side, it didn’t happen. Is he the kind of poaching, goal-grabbing snake in the grass that France needs against a side such as Ireland? You betcha. But as Trezecrossbar said, “I see football differently from how they see it in France …. but what annoys me more is that Domenech is staying.” 😀