Wednesday, June 16, 2010
What are some of the San Diego connections to the 2010 World Cup? We speak to San Diego Union-Tribune Sports Reporter Mark Zeigler about the two local players on the U.S. National team, the popularity of the Mexican National team in our region, and to find out if those vuvuzelas are as irritating in person as they seem on TV.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): It may not be as obvious or as widespread as Super Bowl fever, but interest in World Cup soccer has a real presence in San Diego. You may hear it in cheers at strange hours from your neighbor's house, or a local bar may sponsor a big soccer night, or you might be keeping up with Cup play at home, on ESPN or even on the internet. While interest in the U.S. World Cup team is big, the team that dominates in popular interest here in San Diego is El Tri, the Mexican World Cup team. In fact, Mark Zeigler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, speculates that El Tri may be the second or third most popular sports team in San Diego. Mark Zeigler is in Johannesburg, South Africa covering the 2010 World Cup, and he joins us now live. Hello, Mark.
MARK ZEIGLER (Sports Reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune): How are you?
CAVANAUGH: I’m fine. What’s going on in South Africa right now?
ZEIGLER: Well, you probably hear vuvuzelas in the background, the airhorns. South Africa’s getting ready to play here in about an hour and a half. They have a game tonight against Uruguay and so people are getting pretty fired up for it. And the vuvuzela is pretty much the soundtrack of this country right now. You cannot go anywhere without hearing these things, and I’m talking about six in the morning until two in the morning. I mean, it goes on all day, all night. I’m staying in a lodge, a fairly remote area in the countryside outside of Johannesburg and, you know, the first few days you could hear birds chirping and then after that all we heard was vuvuzelas.
CAVANAUGH: I have a feeling you’re going to be hearing them in your dreams when you come home to San Diego.
ZEIGLER: Yeah, exactly.
CAVANAUGH: Now there’s some news today in a game that just happened, Spain was upset by Switzerland. And tell us a little bit about that.
ZEIGLER: Well, you know, I’m not incredibly surprised because, for two reasons, number one, Switzerland is a very good team that a lot of people have sort of overlooked. They’re a small country but they might have the best coach in the world in Ottmar Hitzfeld. He’s a very, very good coach, good players. They played very conservatively and they don’t take too many risks. And the second half of the equation is that Spain, while they probably have the best players and best team in the World Cup on paper, historically are the biggest choke artists in the World Cup. They always find a way to screw it up and it’s been this thing that’s sort of confounded the experts for decades now and everyone thought they’d sort of got that behind them after they won the 2008 European championships but apparently they haven’t. So there’ll be a lot of pressure on those guys and we’ll have to see how they respond in their next two group games.
CAVANAUGH: Now everyone’s made a big deal that this is the first World Cup in Africa. So far, Mark, how does this World Cup compare to the previous World Cups you’ve attended?
ZEIGLER: Well, you know, it’s certainly not as organized. And I don’t know, you know, how critical people should be or can be about that. I mean, this is a country that’s still struggling to overcome its apartheid past. It’s Africa, it’s not as developed, well, South Africa, parts of it are very developed. It certainly, as a whole, isn’t as developed as, say, Germany was 4 years ago or Japan was in 2002, the United States in 1998, France – excuse me, the United States in 1994, France in 1998. So there is a lot of disorganization whether it’s the drivers going on strike and stranding tons of fans after the game, bus drivers going on strike, whether it’s – there’s been some media snafus, some huge traffic jams, some crime problems, so there’s been some issues. But, you know, overall, we’re, you know, almost through the first games of the first round here, the first week. You know, I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s gone fairly smoothly with just a couple of glitches.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Mark Zeigler, sports reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and he’s talking to us from the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa. Let’s talk about a couple of players who are a connection, who have connection to San Diego, two players on the U.S. soccer team. First is Mt. Carmel alum Steve Cherundolo, who I believe is the starting right back for the U.S. team. Can you tell us…
CAVANAUGH: …a little bit about his story?
ZEIGLER: Yeah, you know, he’s a – he’s kind of a guy who’s been on the U.S. team for a few years now. This is his third World Cup team that he’s made, the second one he’s played in, one he was hurt after making the team. But he’s really kind of an under-the-radar guy and he always has been that through his career at Mt. Carmel. He went to University of Portland. And after his sophomore year, his coach at Portland very unselfishly said, you know, you need to go to Europe if you really want to make it. Even though it’s going to hurt our team here at Portland, you need to go. And so he went to this team in Hanover, Germany, which is in the second division in Germany, small team, and he helped grow with the team and they – he helped get them promoted to the First Division in Germany. He’s been with them now for over a decade. So you don’t see a lot of him here in San Diego playing because he’s always in Germany. But he’s a real, you know, sort of nice, quiet, humble guy who’s made it big. I mean, he’s a bigtime player in Europe and he’s a huge part of the U.S. team. And I think in the one-one tie against England, he might have been the best U.S. player on the field or one of the best two or three.
CAVANAUGH: Now Steve Cherundolo’s name was mentioned a lot during the match against England. How did he play in the U.S. team’s opening match?
ZEIGLER: Well, he played – he plays on the right side of the fence and against England, they sort of had a very defensive strategy and the defenders were, you know, the game plan was to basically stay back and absorb pressure from the English and then maybe get a counterattack. But he was able to slip forward really pressure the English and, in fact, he was so good that the English coach, Italian Fabio Capello, who makes $9 million a year as coach, regarded as one of the best in the world, made a tactical substitution in the first half. Very rare. You don’t see that in soccer. Usually, the substitutes come in the 60, 70th minute of the game, in the middle of the second half. But 30 minutes into the game, he took out his left-sided midfielder because Steve was just beating him up too much. And it’s sort of a compliment to Steve that he had to put in somebody who’s faster that could handle him. So, you know, that speaks volumes about how he played.
CAVANAUGH: Another local connection is Hercules Gomez. You call him the fairy tale addition to the U.S. Cup team. Why is that?
ZEIGLER: Well, he’s really an amazing story. This is a guy who grew up in Oxnard, moved with his family to Las Vegas. Very humble beginnings. His mother actually now works in Vegas as an usher at the Barry Manilow show.
ZEIGLER: His father’s a used car salesman. You know, a lot of U.S. players come from fairly wealthy backgrounds and sort of upper middle class or very middle class suburbia in the United States. But he really had to scratch and claw for everything he got. So he was living in Las Vegas, he graduated from high school, very good player, decided to go to Mexico to try to play, it didn’t work out, and was going to quit soccer. A friend of his saw, on the internet, a advertisement for an open tryout for a third division team in San Diego and said, you know what, Hercules, I’m not going to let you end your career this soon, you’re too talented, loaded him in the car, drove down to the tryout. They liked him and sort of the rest is history. He got noticed by bigger clubs while he was here with the San Diego Gauchos and he also played for the indoor San Diego Soccers. And it really rejuvenated his career. If he hadn’t come to San Diego, there’s no way he’d be on this World Cup team. But he didn’t – As recently as six months ago, he’d completely fallen out of the picture with the U.S. and he just sort of – he went back to Mexico, got on with a team there and rejuvenated his career yet again, and here he is on the team and, you know, of all the players on the team, he’s the one who really appreciates what’s going on more than anybody else because of where he’s been and how far he’s come.
CAVANAUGH: That really is a fairy tale story. I wonder, Mark, what do you think about the U.S. team? What do you think about their match against England, which ended in a 1-1 tie?
ZEIGLER: You know, I think they played okay. You know, the result was certainly wonderful. The result was great. I’m not sure they played as well as they can. I expect them to play better against Slovenia in their next match and Algeria in the one after that. But there’s a really interesting statistic about the U.S. in World Cup play. They always play well against the good teams, the favored teams. And if you go back, since 1994 against teams, the favored team in their group, the first round group, they have two wins, one tie – uh, two ties, and one loss. And against everybody else in the group, they have no wins, six losses and two ties. So they’re very – they’ve really struggled against the teams that aren’t sort of as fancy as an England or an Italy or Columbia or a Para – or a Portugal have been. And so it’ll be interesting to see how they play in their next game. And this game against Slovenia is really kind of a can’t lose game. If they lose to Slovenia, they’re probably going to be out, and that would be a huge disappointment. But they’re good enough to beat them but history says they’ve struggled, so we’ll have to see when it comes around on Friday.
CAVANAUGH: You’re competing with a vuvuzela. Oh, dear.
ZEIGLER: Welcome to South Africa.
CAVANAUGH: Now, while many people here are, of course, rooting for the U.S. team, the Mexican national team, as you said, is even more popular in San Diego. How did the Mexican team look in their opening match against South Africa?
ZEIGLER: Well, at times they looked absolutely dominant. They looked like one of the best teams in the World Cup in the first half against South Africa but they couldn’t score. And that’s kind of been their problem. They play beautiful, beautiful soccer and they knock the ball around. They’re one of the most offensive teams in what has been a fairly defensive World Cup. They’re one of the teams that really goes forward and throws caution to the wind, and they’re great to see but they can’t score. And they couldn’t score in the first half, and they had three, four, five very good chances against South Africa, couldn’t put them away, ended up settling for a 1-1 tie. And I really think they’re in a danger zone right now. They play France tomorrow night. France is a team in turmoil but also probably man for man one of the two or three most talented teams in the World Cup and they could put it together at any moment. And if they do and Mexico loses, they’re probably out. So, you know, they’re playing fine but they’re really, really in a little bit of trouble, much more so than the United States even though they had identical results in the first round.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. You seem to think that both the U.S. and Mexican teams have a kind of dicey chance into making it in the second round.
ZEIGLER: Well, I think the U.S., on paper, has a better chance but, you know, again, you look at their history and you don’t know. I mean, they – we’ll have to see. You know, a couple players know about this history and the players, the more veteran players, talked about it. I was with the team, the U.S. team, yesterday and they kind of said, you know, this is part of the growth of U.S. soccer. We have to be consistent. We have to beat the teams we’re supposed to beat. You know, it’s great to beat teams every now and then or have a tie against a favorite opponent. That’s fine, but it’s a lot easier to compete as an underdog than as a favorite. Now they’re a favorite and historically in World Cups, they haven’t done well. The other half of it is, Slovenia is, you know, a former eastern bloc team and the style of play where they sort of sit back and very organized defensively, big, strong, tough, and then spring a very quick counter attack is something the U.S. has struggled against. Slovenia won its first game. They don’t have to go forward. The U.S. has to go forward and take the game to them. And the U.S. hasn’t always been good in that. But I think this team has grown and matured a little bit and maybe can turn the corner. But both teams stand a decent chance to make it in the second round but both, you know, if they lose Thursday and Friday, probably will be out.
CAVANAUGH: Could the U.S. match up against Mexico at any point in this tournament?
ZEIGLER: They could. It won’t be as early as the famous 2002 World Cup when they played in the second round and it was on at like three in the morning and had a gigantic rating in San Diego…
ZEIGLER: …as you can imagine, television rating. But I think the earliest they can – they could match up with each other is the quarter finals, depending on how they fall. If you finish first or second in your group, you advance. But if you finish first, you go on one side of the bracket, you finish second, you go on the other side of the bracket. So quarter finals would be the earliest or they could meet up in the final, which would be a little bit of a dream but, you know, anything’s possible.
CAVANAUGH: Who do you think is going to meet up in the final of the 2010 World Cup?
ZEIGLER: My pick is the Netherlands. I still think – They didn’t play great in the first game. I still think they’re a team that’s got so much offensive fire power and they’re very organized, they’ve been together a long time. And I’m sticking with them. I think the other team in the final is going to be a total outsider. I think somebody – a Switzerland or a Paraguay or a Chile or a Ghana is just going to rise up, or a Mexico or a United States, and get hot at the right time and really take off. I think some of the big teams here, they’re just sort of out of their comfort zone. This is a World Cup not in Europe, not in South America, where almost all the other ones have been held. And so I just think that there’s, without the comfort zone, I think some of these bigger teams are going to falter. And you saw one today in Spain.
CAVANAUGH: How is the cold playing into this, Mark? Is that why some teams are not in their comfort zone?
ZEIGLER: Well, I think so. I mean, certainly Brazil was freezing last night. If you watched the game against North Korea, it’s the wind chill. It’s the coldest I’ve ever been—and I cover a lot of international and winter events—the coldest since the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer at the opening ceremonies…
ZEIGLER: …when it was about fifteen below Fahrenheit and I was absolutely frozen solid. But last night it was a wind chill of 24 degrees and, you know, you saw the Brazilian players, they had gloves on, they had long sleeve shirts on. And I just don’t think they got loosened up, and I think there are some teams here that are struggling with it. And last night was a real – the first really cold, cold night we’ve had. But the rest of this week is supposed to be cold. Tonight is probably – I’m outside right now, it’s probably about 40 degrees, 45 degrees, so I think it’s going to affect some teams. They’re used to playing in June in humidity and heat and – and this is a real change for them but a team like the Netherlands, that’s why I picked them, eh, this is normal, this is, you know, this is a December afternoon in Amsterdam.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Well, thank you so much, Mark, and stay warm.
ZEIGLER: I will. I will. I brought a – I didn’t – I don’t think I brought warm enough clothing. I knew it was going to be cold but, put it this way, last night I had everything that I brought in my suitcase on and I was still cold.
CAVANAUGH: Mark Zeigler, thank you so much. Mark Zeigler is a sports reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He was talking to us from the World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa. I want to let everyone know Mexico’s next match is against France. It’s Thursday at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time. And the U.S. team’s next match will take place this Friday at 7:00 a.m. against Slovenia. And if you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a live performance by the Romero duo and Amigos en Concierto. That’s ahead as These Days continues here on KPBS.