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And age shall not wither them. This was a mightily impressive 3-0 win by the Czech Republic, who lived up to their elevated Fifa ranking by demolishing a disappointingly naive US team – giving the lie to some of us who suspected they were over the hill.
In fact, Bruce Arena began with more 30-somethings on the field (five) than Karel Bruckner, his long-limbed and wily opposite number. But to students of European football it still seems that Karel Poborsky, Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller have been around since the second ice age.
This was a story of the US defending poorly and weaving pretty training-ground patterns that lacked penetration. The Czechs married the bludgeon with the rapier and knewg exactly what was needed to win.
Witness their first goal in the fifth minute. The ball was fed out to Zdenek Grygera, a stripling of 26, overlapping with panache on the right. A peach of a cross was dispatched with minimum fuss by the giant Koller. The big man had done the hard part by losing his marker far too easily.
The second goal, a curling right-foot drive by Tomas Rosicky, was even better. In between, a Claudio Reyna shot that thudded against Petr Cech’s right-hand post was the only US effort of note.
Arguably the most significant event from the tournament’s perspective came in the 42nd minute, however, when Koller came crashing down like so much prime lumber and departed on an artic, sorry, a stretcher. Cue FT folk hero, Vratislav Lokvenc, at 1m 96, a whole 6 cm shorter. Alas for the Czechs, Lokvenc is no Koller, as he quickly showed with a yellow card and a custard-skin finish. If Koller is out for the tournament, Bruckner’s men are going to miss their human lighthouse. The coach’s other concern will be the yellow cards collected by key players.
The US, for whom defeat, with Italy and Ghana to come, makes qualification nigh on impossible, showed much more urgency in the second half, with sub Eddie Johnson dangerous.
Not as dangerous as Czech kingpin Rosicky, though. He first crashed another drive against Kasey Keller’s bar, then finished expertly in the 76th minute when Nedved, released him. Robert Pires, who he? It is hardly his style, but Arsène Wenger, Rosicky’s new club manager at Arsenal, must be slavering in anticipation.
At least the US can be proud of their fans. Almost the first thing I saw at Gelsenkirchen railway station was a local youth wearing a T-shirt praising Ché and Cuba to the skies. Folks have been strung up for less in Redneck country. But the provocation was water off an eagle’s back to the noisy, good-natured US hordes.
There was an Uncle Sam, a man in a yellow rattlesnake cape bearing the legend “Don’t tread on me”, and a phalanx of six Elvises. “Bruce’s Army” is preppy, liberal, college-educated America. They do not now have much time, but they could teach some of their fellow Americans a thing or two about turning the other cheek. And they may do wonders for their country’s shop-soiled image while they are “over here”.