Friday, September 26, 2003

There’s so much soccer going on this weekend, where do we begin?

Today there’s a Women’s World Cup doubleheader at RFK Stadium featuring the scintillating Brazilians against France, followed by Argentina against the dominating Germans. Brazil and Germany look like potential finalists, while France is fighting for survival and South Korea already has booked its flight home.

Tomorrow the World Cup moves out of town, making room for D.C. United — remember that team? United faces the MetroStars at 4 p.m. in a crucial game to secure a playoff spot in Major League Soccer’s tight Eastern Division. United downed the MetroStars 2-0 on the road Thursday on Ben Olsen’s game-winner. (It’s a tradition: When Olsen scores, United wins.) Sadly, goalie Nick Rimando tore the ACL in his left knee and will miss the rest of the season.

But back to the World Cup, which keeps producing delightful games. Those soccer purists who turn up their noses at this event are missing all the fun.

Germany and Brazil have averaged 3.5 goals each in their last two games and no doubt will pile it on their opponents at RFK. Barring major upsets, both appear to have won their groups on goal difference.

If the U.S. team and Brazil keep up the pace, they could meet in the final.

“[Brazil] can beat the U.S. team because it’s difficult to find out how they play because they run all over the field,” warns Norwegian midfielder Solveig Gulbrandsen, who saw her team crushed this week by Brazil 4-1. “They are very technical and run everywhere.”

One player to keep an eye on today is Brazil’s talented 17-year-old striker, Marta, who has scored 17 goals in seven games for her country, including a decisive goal in the victory against Norway. Marta is one of the gems on this young Brazilian team, which has an average age of 22 compared to 27.5 on the American team.

Marta wants to be Brazil’s female Pele. She even has a smile like Pele — and the talent.

“It’s a knack the Lord gave me,” she said in a husky voice. “Where I grew in Brazil, I only played with boys, so I got to play rough and mean and learn their moves.”

The big and tough Norwegians couldn’t stop her, but they tried.

“Thank God I’m not hurt,” said Marta. “I got banged around a lot.”

She’s not thinking ahead just yet about a possible meeting with the Americans, who ended Brazil’s chances at the last World Cup in 1999.

“It’s important we play the Brazilian style,” she says. “We don’t have secrets — we just have lots of skill.”

For the time being, Marta is on top of the world, except for the food. She misses her beans and rice.

After a 4-1 win over Canada and a 3-0 win over the Japanese, Germany, led by the sensational Birgit Prinz (three goals), should have no problem against Argentina. The Germans, appear on course to meet the Americans in a classic semifinal showdown if all goes according to plan.

In key games today, Canada and Japan will battle to advance in GroupC at Foxboro, Mass. Canada must win, but a tie will be enough for Japan.

In GroupB, Norway has the easier game against South Korea at Foxboro, while France, playing in its first World Cup, needs to win points from the in-form Brazilians.

In tomorrow’s games, China will need at least a tie against Russia in GroupD in Portland, Ore., to survive. If Russia wins and Australia beats Ghana by two goals, the fourth-ranked Chinese will be going home.

Meanwhile, North Korea needs a positive result against the U.S. team in Columbus, Ohio, tomorrow and must hope that Sweden slips up against Nigeria. As of now, Sweden looks the favorite to advance from GroupA with the Americans.

World Cup notes — After scoring the lone goal in China’s win over Ghana, forward Sun Wen is one goal behind U.S. legend Michelle Akers in total World Cup scoring with 10. … More than 100 journalists are traveling with the Chinese team. … A quarterfinal game against Norway could be looming for the U.S. team. Norway is the only team with a winning record against the Americans.

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