Sunday, 11 July 2010

World Cup Lowlights

Thank God That's All Over For Another Four Years

I feel sorry for the South Africans. From my remote vantage they seem to have mounted a well-run tournament and none of the scare stories abounding before the tournament seem to have come about. Yet they have ending up playing host to a turgid 'festival' of football with not one game that will linger in the memory. Few memorable goals that won't be called into question because of the ridiculous behaviour of the balls virtually taking goalkeeping out of the equation. I did forecast the tournament was likely to be just so in a pre-tournament post on "Touching From A Distance" where if anything I erred on the side of hyperbole by predicting there would be six watchable games.

Here are my reasons for why this tournament cannot be viewed as anything but a failure.

Again, I don't think the South Africans can be offered anything but sympathy. Their own team was always likely to be too weak to qualify from their group, the first time ever that has happened to a host nation. Then the locals nailed their colours to England's desultory mast and were again instantly rebuffed by footballing ineptitude. Finally they demonstrated admirable continental fraternity by backing Ghana, only for them to fall at their next hurdle. The host fans just could not pick a winner. Nonetheless it didn't dampen their obvious enthusiasm and passion for the sport. I couldn't believe the vuvuzela naysayers, for me they lent this tournament the scant pleasure that could be derived from it. If you want to spread football's manifest doctrine, then you take it to exotic places with vibrantly different local cultures. You don't then try and pull its teeth by reglobalising it again. We knew a long time in advance that this is how South African supporters watch and enjoy their live football. It shouldn't have been a shock to any body let alone provoke an outrage of sensibilities.

Nor can the South Africans be blamed for the ball that wrecked any chance of quality play. Unfortunately, the one culpability I would ascribe the hosts was on their pitches, which more resembled a dry hard track that Alan Donald would have loved steaming in to bowl on at near 100mph. How many times did we see the ball sail from one goalkeeper to the other, untouched by any outfield player? How many times did the ball bounce high off the ground and over an unsuspecting player? And how much pace did the ball pick up off the grass so that no player could ever catch up to a ball played into space for him to run on to? This wretched combination of ball and pitch did stymie teams, but surely it wasn't beyond the wit of managers to determine that their game needed to be adapted to passing to feet, not hitting it long?

There are always complaints about the new world cup ball, but the Jabulani did take it on to new heights, or rather lows. As I say, goalkeepers who have honed their skills over their careers had to throw out all their hard earned technique to cope with a spherical frisbee being launched at them. Dutch keeper Stecklenburg stated he just resolved to punch anything that came at him, rather than try and catch it. As fine as say Diego Forlan's strikes against Holland and Ghana were, they are undermined by the flailings of both goalkeepers. There were few really stupendous goals that usually litter our world cup memories. Only the Japanese really exploited the free kick weapon. And what is the logic of changing the construction of the ball every four years? Purely commercial ones, the greed of UEFA of which more anon. I understand you may want to embody a distinctive character of each world cup's match ball, but what I don't follow is why simply it's not a case of printed a unique design every four years on the panels, but leaving the actual construction unchanged? If the ball is perennially changed with the aim being to encourage more goals, in this tournament it's actually conspired to have the opposite result, the paucity of free kick goals being one contributory factor.

My final sympathy for the hosts comes from the cash cow that is world football. Clearly they will benefit from the tourism, the boost to infrastructure of stadia and transport, of some world attention which may forge some worthwhile initiatives in coaching and equipment. But the real winner is of course UEFA who coin it in. The empty seats at stadia were down to the ticket prices, over which UEFA rule with a grasping iron hand. Heaven forfend you let in some young locals for free when you know there are unsold seats. You want an indication of the level of UEFA's power? That curious story of the Dutch product promotional girls being arrested as the beer in question was not an UEFA licensed sponsor, well the wheels of justice that cranked into gear were not those of the local jurisprudence, but some sort of UEFA Star Chamber. UEFA colonised South Africa for the duration of this tournament in the most patronising way imaginable.

Tournament football, don't you just love it? No, it makes for ultra-cautious, a point is a decent result mentality. In the Group stages, the first round games were dominated by a mustn't lose mentality, 6 draws, (2 of them 0-0), 4 1-0 wins and only 4 games in which a team scored 2 or more goals. In the third round of games, you had travesties of Portugal and Brazil playing out a shotless 0-0 draw, when pre-tournament it looked one of the tastiest fixtures on paper. Chile versus Spain was actually a game I did enjoy, until with 15 minutes to go both teams knew they were through and then refused to cross the half-way line as they played out the game. Three 0-0 draws in a round that should have been decisive for so many teams. Italy versus Slovakia provided the only game of note, although America's last minute goal against Algeria provided a twist of tension in an otherwise fairly dire game despite both teams potentially being able to qualify

Europe dominates world football. Our continent provided 13 of the 32 finalists and 3 of the 4 semi-finalists. But apart from a reward for some of the smaller European nations and maybe a boost to their future football development, I ask myself what exactly Serbia, Switzerland, Slovenia, Greece, and so called giants England, France, Italy and Portugal brought to the party, of which only the latter even looked like they wanted to be there. But to return to the minnows, all of those other than Greece could still have qualified with the third game in the group stages. Switzerland couldn't score against Honduras, a team who failed to score at all in the competition; Slovenia didn't take their chance against a poor England; Serbia who had beaten Germany but displayed a conservatism when against 10 men in that match they protected a slim 1-0 lead rather than put the game against the Germans, well they too were undone by their mentality. Add Honduras and New Zealand into the mix, even thought the latter were actually unbeaten through their 3 games, plus the failings of most of the African sides and you have too many uncompetitive teams at the tournament. Yes you want to help develop their football, but at the cost of a decent spectacle? Only Slovakia provided a breath of fresh air from the continent of Europe. I did however enjoy both Chile and Japan's contributions of joyously attacking intent.

Just to cap that, of the 16 teams who qualified from the Groups, 7 of the 8 Group winners went on to win their round 2 knockout game against a group runner up (only the USA and England from the same group were both knocked out in Round 2). This suggests to me a further lack of competitiveness. I wonder if there is not cause for a 'Division' 2 tournament for the second tier of teams as a warm up prior to the main tournament for the top 16 teams from across the world. At present, the tournament just seems too unwieldy to provide a constant diet of entertaining, attacking football. Teams are cautious in order to keep in with a chance of qualifying, yet come the third, decisive game they are then unable to take the shackles off themselves.

And finally to the players themselves. Below I reproduce the top ten players in the prestigious Ballon D'Or award for 2009.

1. Lionel Messi (Argentina, Barcelona)
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Man United & Real Madrid)
3. Xavi (Spain, Barcelona)
4. Andres Iniesta (Spain, Barcelona)
5. Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon, Barcelona & Inter Milan)
6. Kaka (Brazil, AC Milan & Real Madrid)
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden, Inter Milan & Barcelona)
8. Wayne Rooney (England, Manchester United)
9. Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast, Chelsea)
10. Steven Gerrard (England, Liverpool)

Take out Iniesta and Xavi who have had good tournaments and Ibrahimovic whose Sweden weren't there, the other seven players all had miserable tournaments. Messi, Ronaldo, Kaka, Drogba, Eto'o and Rooney, all attacking players, scored a grand total of 3 goals between them. Brett Holman of Australia outscored any of them. To my mind, all of them have been flogged to death by the demands on the modern high level footballer. I do not ask anyone to feel sorry for them, they are highly rewarded financially after all. But simply to ask them to play high level, high pressure football all year round ensures the World Cup at the end of a season will see jaded minds and knackered bodies. All play for European club sides and all naturally being at the top of the talent tree play in the Champions League. To have a midweek world cup qualifier, followed by a domestic league game after possibly flying half way round the world (in the case of Messi and Kaka for example), followed by a Champions League game the following midweek. It simply isn't feasible. Drogba, Rooney & Torres all entered the tournament labouring with injuries.

Stars of the tournament? A reinvigorated Forlan of Uruguay, a genuine world class star in the making in Ozil of Germany, Schneider of Holland who bucked the trend because he also won the Champions League with Inter and Iniesta at Spain who was the player of the tournament from the Euro Championships. So no real new emerging talents , Ozil had been a star at last year's Euro Under 21s tournament. In fact, the biggest personality of this year's tournament turned out to be a score-predicting octopus. And like Cup Final referee Howard Webb, we here in England claim him as one of our own since he was born in a Weymouth aquarium.

Like I say, this tournament has been highly forgettable. Roll on Brazil in four years time...

1 comment:

Diz said...


Thanks for summing up all of my thoughts into a coherent and linkable blog post.

I was disappointed by my Team USA's lack of urgency not only at the start of games but in the meta aspect - we were only ahead of a team once and only for about three minutes (Algeria). I had picked Netherlands vs Argentina as a final but like you said, a lot of the glamour players (and thus sides) turned out to be flawed and phony as the tournament wore on.

The lack of scoring is extremely disturbing. As am American I am 100% certain that the general population was excited about the prospect of witnessing and engaging in something both exotic and prestigious to our culture... however, we were also very turned off by the lack of scoring. Even baseball, the "dramatic" equivalent of soccer over here, has more action and scoring than this tournament had. It's a big turn off with all the flopping, acting, and time wasting without enough action, scoring, and chance-taking.

You're right, the UEFA Champions League and big Euro leagues play a game that is just flat-out more exciting to watch and follow. While it cannot attempt to reach the level of inherent drama of the World Cup, it does provide a more consistent platform for the best players to shine and show their potential.

Here's to hoping for a more exciting 2014 in Brazil!