MLS veteran Lopez reflects on World Cups, past and present

Former Argentina star played in two tourneys, scored in quarters

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Everybody likes a good prediction for
the World Cup, and there has been no shortage of those in the run-up to the
2010 version currently underway.

Ultimately, though, predictions are largely useless. What
players who have actually been involved in the tournament will tell you is that
there are so many intangibles that can happen in the course of the few weeks
that cannot be predicted.

A poor call there, a run of luck elsewhere. A more illustrious
opponent not at peak form on the day it matters. Injuries, confidence—or lack
of it—and momentum.

Claudio Lopez, lately of the Colorado Rapids but also a
former Wizards, Lazio, Valencia and Club America player, knows what it is like
to play at the highest level and how the little unpredictable things can either
make or break a team on the biggest soccer stage of all. The midfielder first
played in France in the 1998 World Cup for his native Argentina and in Japan
and South Korea four years later.

The 1998 version is his fondest memory.

“It was my first World Cup, so everything was good,” he told
MLSsoccer.com.

Everything was good, that is, until Argentina were knocked
out at the quarterfinal stage by a Dutch team inspired by Dennis Bergkamp. Bergkamp
scored one of the greatest ever World Cup goals right at the death, controlling
a long pass with one touch and rifling it in on the volley to allow Holland to
get to the semifinals, where they eventually lost to Brazil on penalty kicks.
The game needed such a spark of magic to decide it, Lopez said.

“It was the only way for them,” he said. “The game was so
close, it was so tight.”

But, disappointments aside at getting knocked out, the 1998
tournament lingers more pleasantly in his memory as his first World Cup
experience, not to mention the fact that he also scored his only World Cup goal
in the Dutch game, planting the ball though Edwin Van der Sar’s legs for an
equalizer.

Teammate Gabriel Batistuta was wide open to his right but
Lopez went the more direct route. “I didn’t see anybody,” he said. “It was the
only way I could score.”

The 2002 version was not so rich an experience. There was
widespread shock as Argentina failed even to make it out of their group, stung
by a 1-0 defeat by England on a David Beckham penalty in the second game. Talk
about the importance of momentum, or the lack of it. Lopez said the team had
trained so hard for the England game in the week leading up to the game. To
then suffer such a defeat took all the wind out of them and they couldn’t get
any mojo back for their final must-win game against Sweden. A draw ensued
against the Scandinavians and Argentina were going home.

“After the England game, we lost something there—we never
recovered,” Lopez said. “We played so much in that game and we lost something.
Something changed after that.”

The team that had so famously beaten England in the 1998
round of 16 when Beckham was sent off and his effigy burned all over England,
teenager Michael Owen scored a wonder goal and Sol Campbell’s bullet header was
disallowed at the death, lost to the same opponents on a penalty kick four
years later and their tournament was done, at least mentally.

Maybe that’s a fault of the coaching staff at the time not
to rally their troops sufficiently for the final game but it does show how fine
the line is between triumph and success. A line that many pundits openly ignore
when confidently coming up with predictions on the beautiful game that can
never hold any water.

For the record, Lopez predicts Argentina will get it done
this time. All that suffering in World Cup qualifying will strengthen the
team’s resolve and help them lift the treasured cup.