Soccer Coaches:

Soccer is an almost-entirely improvised affair -- another one of the things that makes it the greatest of sports. Anyone who thinks that basketball is the great improvised sport -- "like jazz," as the cliche has it -- has never watched a soccer game. [And I mean that not as some kind of moral judgment, but as a simple empirical claim]. Soccer coaches can't really do very much at all during the game; their job is more-or-less complete when the whistle sounds, their team is either ready or not. And they only get three subs the whole game. At the professional level, coaches (or 'managers,' as they're usually called) sometimes even sit up in the stands during the game -- the better to see what's happening, since there's not a whole lot they can do down on the field anyway.

But Argentina's manager, Jose Pekerman, managed to lose the match for them yesterday, pretty much single-handedly, I'd say. It was quite unbelievable. Remember Grady Little, and the Pedro Martinez affair, when everybody in America knew that Pedro had to come out of the game except his manager? Multiply by 100 or so (because this is the World Cup, and so much more is at stake for so many more people). Argentina is up 1-0 and, to my eyes, in complete control of the game. Their 'keeper has been injured and subbed out. With 20 minutes to go, Pekerman takes out Riquelme and Crespo -- Argentina's two best offensive players. Strange . . . but he does have wonderful substitutes on the bench: Pablo Aimar (one of the great creative midfielders in the world, a perfect sub for Riquelme), and Lionel Messi, who has had a sensational tournament and who will soon be, by common consensus, the best player in the world.

The problem is, he doesn't put either of them in the game -- he puts in Cambiasso, a defensive midfielder, and Julio Cruz, a 2d rate striker. AND NOW HE'S OUT OF SUBS. Neither Aimar nor Messi can see any action at all in Argentina's most important game of the last 20 years. So when Germany, predictably, scores and they go into extra time, he's got the wrong damned team out there. The rest was completely predictable.

I cannot even imagine how angry I'd be if I were Argentine. If you have Argentine friends and want to display your deep sympathy for them, just walk up to them and say "Julio Cruz? Julio Cruz??" Tears should be welling up in your eyes as you do this.

This Argentine team deserved better -- they had the talent, and showed in snatches the ability, to play at truly heavenly heights. Though at least the Germans, this time around, are playing some beautiful attacking soccer. If the Germans had won the last time it would have been a travesty -- even die-hard German fans admit that the team's presence in the Final was more the result of having an easy draw (getting the USA and S. Korea in the quarterfinals and semifinals ain't exactly tough going -- and the US outplayed them, to boot) than great soccer playing. But this year's team is, I have to admit, fun to watch.