Some Thoughts on the 2010 World Cup
1. Viva Espana
"Spain are boring". People I know, friends, actually said that to me with a straight face during the World Cup. It was briefly a big Twitter talking point, too. The argument runs something like "Oh yes, their passing is very pretty, but they don't create enough chances, there are too many sideways passes, nobody taking a chance or trying a moment of individual magic, not enough goals, not enough incident." To me, this is simply idiotic. If you're bored by Spain, then your conception of what football can and should be is fundamentally different from mine.
It should be entertainment. We probably agree on that much. And I find the beauty and perfect technique, the bravery and precision of the Spanish passing game inexhaustably entertaining. Exhilarating, even. Give me a 0-0 with Spain playing a decent counter-attacking side over a 4-3 between two limited teams who cannot defend and cannot keep the ball anyday.
Is this where this "boring" tag comes from? The generation who has grown up with Sky Sports and has been conditioned to expect drama from every game, who expects red cards and controversy and lots and lots of goals? This is part of football, of course, this manufactured spectacle, this natural drama. But it does not define it.
For me, Sport is about that search for perfection, and Spain are close to that at times. They play their game so well, nobody can really touch them, which is why their games may seem "boring" to some. Because everybody knows they will be outplayed if they try to play a possession game against the Spanish, and so nobody does. Everybody plays with bodies behind the ball and tries to counter quickly. But they seldom see much of the ball, and so they retreat and Spain painstakingly try to pick holes in tightly drilled defences. Usually, it works. Usually they wear down the opposition with the consistency of their possession and ball movement. But nobody really opens up and goes at them, Chile aside. Germany - outclassed and overwhelmed. Holland - reduced to the role of bully-boy. Portugal - playing a long-ball game. Spain make decent teams look bad.
This Spanish team against the Pekarman/Basile Argentina of 2005-2007, with Riquelme orchestrating a possession-based short passing Argentine game, that would be a match I would like to see, that would be "one for the Purist". Something which I have been very much surprised to find out I am.
An interview with the magnificent Xavi, from El Pais, summed up some of the difficulties inherent in the Spanish "tiki taka" style: "What did people think? That we were going to win every game 3-0? I can't believe what I am hearing sometimes. Do you not realize how hard it is? Teams aren't stupid; we're European champions. They all pressure us like wolves. There isn't a single meter, not a second on the pitch. We are passing faster and faster and faster. We're playing bloody brilliantly. Then there's the pitch and the ball -- I have spent the World Cup thinking, 'That's a good pass,' only to see the ball disappear off in a different direction."
So, who do people posit as an "exciting" team, if Spain are not one? Germany. More on that later.
As for Spain, they stand as the best National team in the World, and one of the best ever. The best team rarely wins the World Cup. This time they have.
2. On the Counter
This was the first World Cup since Italia 90 which saw negative tactics clearly hold sway. So many teams played not to lose, packing midfield and maintaining eight to ten men behind the ball at all times, only attacking on long, pacy counters. It worked on occasion - Switzerland memorably defeated Spain, albeit with a great deal of luck, and the likes of New Zealand and North Korea performed better than many had expected merely by holding off superior teams. Of the four Semi-finalists, all bar Spain played counter-attacking football.
That the prevalent formation of this tournament was 4-2-3-1 speaks volumes for the tactical approach of many of the coaches, favoring this set-up mainly for the defensive security it affords with two holding players in midfield. But then not every 4-2-3-1 is the same. Spain's "double-pivot" in defensive midfield was made up of the gifted, creative Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, whereas Holland made do with the purely destructive, disruptive duo of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Not every team employing the formation had fullbacks as dynamic as the Brazilian Maicon or Spain's Sergio Ramos. And not every striker can play at the tip of such a spear.
Germany played this system as well as anyone throughout the World Cup. But all of the plaudits they have received have baffled me. They played a reactive game of counter-attacking and they got lucky in that the two giants of the International game they ran into both entered the ties with shambolic defenses. They undoubtedly have some gifted young players - Ozil and Muller, Schweinsteiger finally performing to his potential - and they stuck to their coaches game plan with skill and dedication, but I rarely saw any great football from them. Both England and Argentina dominated long spells of their respective games and had more efforts on goal. When the Germans broke forward, they were deadly. But they had been exposed earlier in the tournament by the energy and pressing of an equally young, hungry Ghana side who were unlucky to lose. They never had to carry the game to the opposition, which suited them. It will be interesting to see how they fare when teams enter games prepared for their style. Only Ozil and Kroos look capable of opening a tight defence, and I am sure that now their talent is out in the open, the Germans will find themselves facing many of those.
Meanwhile, Spain made them look pedestrian in their semi-final, denying them time, space and most crucially of all, possession. The 1-0 should have been 3-0 and Germany showed that when they cannot break, they cannot really attack, a problem common to many sides at this tournament.
3. Marcelo Bielsa is a Genius
Chile, on the other hand, always attack. Argentine Coach Marcelo Bielsa is obsessed with attacking football, and his side set out with a radical formation: 4-3-3, meaning that when they were in possession they attacked with at least 6 players. Their youth, energy, intricate one touch passing and willingness to take on a man made them the most entertaining, exciting team at the tournament and always a joy to watch, just as they had been in South American qualifying. This commitment to attack also benefited them in defence, since they tackled and hustled high up the pitch, always keen to win the ball back early, and only suffered when they played Spain (who they troubled more than any other team in the tournament managed to) and Brazil. Ironically, for such a ceaselessly attacking team, they scored too few goals in the group stage, meaning that they lost top spot to the Spanish and as a result played Brazil in the Second Round. The reason for this goal shortage mainly came down to the pre-Tournament injury to striker David Suazo, top scorer in that (incredibly competitive) South American Qualifying Group and the fulcrum around whom much of the team's attacking play usually revolves.
In his absence, Bielsa played both of his playmakers, Matias Fernandez (as the trequarista) and Jorge Valdivia (as the centre forward), which worked, but never with the fluidity of the first choice line-up.
What may have cost Chile against Brazil and Spain was their individual quality. For all that Fernandez, Valdivia, the often dazzling Alexis Sanchez, Gary Medel and Carlos Carmona appear World Class, one or two of the back up squad are not of the same calibre, and once suspensions (an unfortunate and common consequence of Chile's high-energy pressing game) and injuries took their toll, their performance level dropped. But Bielsa remained true to his philosophy throughout. When he had a man sent off against Spain, he made attacking substitution, and his team terrified the European Champions all game. When 3-0 down against Brazil, Chile kept right on attacking. There is something so admirable in his kamikaze commitment to offence.
Bielsa's last World Cup was as Coach of Argentina for their disastrous 2002 campaign, where he was undone by an aging Squad and some woeful luck. Its hard not to imagine that with the current pool of ridiculously talented Argentine Players and Bielsa as Coach, Argentina would have walked this World Cup.
Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka, Torres, Gourcuff, Cannavaro, Drogba, etc etc etc.
Of the World's elite players, only Lionel Messi, Wesley Sneidjer, Arjen Robben and Messi's Spanish Barcelona colleagues really enjoyed good World Cups. But even Messi was finally overwhelmed by the demands placed upon him by Diego Maradona's tactics, after his early performances had clearly demonstrated why he is the best in the World. The reasons for the failures of the others are many and varied, and tired. Rooney, Drogba, Torres and Kaka all looked unfit. Ronaldo and Gourcuff were undermined by tactics and squad politics respectively. Cannavaro, like a few too many of his Italian teammates, looked as if this was one Tournament too far for him.
For me, Xavi was the player of the tournament, even as he fell slightly below the standards he regularly sets with Barcelona. Close behind him was Diego Forlan, confirming his quality and class on the biggest stage.
A World Cup needs its stars, and this one had many. But for the most part, the World's Greatest Players were not amongst them, which contributed to the undeniable sense of disappointment left by the tournament in general.
In a 4-2-3-1, of course:
A top three:
1. Quagliarella vs Slovakia
2. Suarez vs South Korea
3. Maicon vs North Korea
7. "Expert Analysis"
If you live in the UK, then you probably watched the games on the BBC or ITV. In which case you were treated to some shockingly bad punditry. ITV is always bad. Its main pundit is Andy Townsend, who talks a lot at a fair old clip without ever saying anything that is not a cliche and not blindingly obvious. He has mastered a sort of rueful delivery, as if he hates to be cruel to the players, but somebody has to be, and it might as well be him. For this World Cup, ITV put him alongside Adrian Chiles as the presenter. His matey jokiness, so natural and suited to his old job on the BBC's "Match of the Day 2" proved insufficient on the grander stage. Instead of the gravitas that the big occasion deserves, Chiles proved himself capable of only gags. Mostly unfunny ones, at that. His cheerleading for Ghana once England had been eliminated was frankly embarrassing, reducing the coverage of the Ghana-Uruguay tie to a strangely old-fashioned example of anti-South American bias, The rest of the ITV team was at a similar level: Gareth Southgate did best, speaking the odd bit of charisma-free common sense. But Edgar Davids, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Lucas Radebe all offered little insight. In the commentary box, Clive Tyldsley was as awful as ever, while Jim Beglin, who can read a game well, seems inhibited in his analysis, as if he has been told to tone down the "high-brow" tactical stuff.
It is the lack of any analysis - or seemingly even awareness - of tactics which really disturbs me when I watch this coverage. Formations are often called wrongly, players roles misunderstood, and movements in play not read. But then some of these men - all ex-Pros, of course - seem proud of their ignorance. On the BBC, the contempt and condescension shown to the "little" Nations was appalling. Colin Murray - whose smug smarminess is a poor replacement for Chiles as the comic relief on the BBC Sports Team - giggled his way through a preview of New Zealand versus Slovakia, the entire conceit being "who would want to watch that"? Alan Hansen mocked Lee Dixon (the best of the BBC's lot, for me) and Gary Lineker for having the temerity to mention Marek Hamsik by name, as if preparation for a game that didn't involve England was a silly or unlikely thing to do. Which just shows how unprepared he was, cruising through games on autopilot, as if being run by a random generator. These days, Hansen generally just spews adjectives: "Pace, power, precision" "Technique, skill, awareness." He doesn't bother with a conceptual or even linguistic framework. Why should he? Hes Alan Hansen.
He did roll back the years with a few nice deconstructions of error-strewn defences. Which is more than could be said for Alan Shearer, even more partial to a blindingly obvious cliche than Andy Townsend. Backing them up were Roy Hodgson (not bad), Harry Redknapp (ignorant & jingoistic), Clarence Seedorf (cheerful & relaxed), Jurgen Klinsmann (fantastic, but on too rarely) and Emmanuel Adebayor (his mobile phone rang mid-broadcast and he was famously unintelligable). When Danny Baker was brought on for the last five minutes of one show, his wit and energy put the entire panel to shame. And his love for the game and the tournament shone through, whereas the others often seemed bored by it all.
The BBC's commentary team is better than ITVs, at least, even if it is often marred by the presence of Mark Lawrenson, whose jokes get more tired by the year. Mick McCarthy's comedy Yorkshireman isn't much better, to be fair.
As it was, the best World Cup coverage I found was on Twitter, a rolling collection of observations, breaking news and jokes which massively enhanced my experience of what was otherwise a rather disappointing World Cup.
Maradona was the great character of the early weeks of the Tournament, but his team was an accident waiting to happen throughout, and it saddens me that he will stay on as Coach despite his seeming total disregard for coherent selection and tactical decisions. It saddens me a little too that he's become such a comedic figure, always good for a hilarious quote or an amusing training routine. The greatest player I have ever seen deserves better. I can't see him remaining Coach as long as the next World Cup, despite the seemingly inevitable new contract, but I can't feel unhappy about that, because the incredible generation of Argentine players who will be at their peak at that tournament - I mean Messi, Aguero, Tevez, Banega, Higuain, Pastore etc - themselves deserve the best possible chance to win it. And that means no Diego.
9. The new Hand of God
And so to the treatment of Luis Suarez after he handled the ball and denied Ghana a "certain" goal in the quarter final, which would have put them through and made them the first African side in the last four at a World Cup. Seemingly everybody wanted Ghana to win that game. They were the neutrals choice, and "An African World Cup needs and African team to do well" and they played such bright, positive football and....
I was supporting Uruguay. Because I love South American football. And Diego Forlan and Edison Cavani and Nicolas Lodiero and a dozen other players who have worn the Uruguayan shirt over the years.
Uruguay had the better of the match, for me, and were denied a certain penalty, while Ghana dominated extra time. But the tone of the coverage was entirely pro-Ghana. Uruguay still enjoy some of their old reputation for violent play, though it was little in evidence in this tournament, and it is easy for British commentators to trot out old cliches about South American football when they feel they need to justify some xenophobia.
Such as - "typical South American cheating" to sum up Suarez handling the ball on the line. It was undeniably cheating and too much has already been written about the morality and lawfulness of the act and its consequences. But yes, most other players would have done the same. No, that doesn't make it right. No, the rules should not be changed to allow for a "penalty goal".
One thing that went almost entirely without remark in the press coverage of the game was the fact that the goalmouth incident in which Suarez thwarted Ghana came from a freekick which should never have been given. And that from that freekick, a Ghana player headed the ball towards goal and two Ghana players were offside.
All of the ensuing scramble, shots and blocks should never have happened. It should have been a Uruguayan freekick, and the controversial incident would never have happened.
But the media - unsurprisingly starting with the host South African broadcasters - were far more interested in Suarez's celebrations at Gyan's missed penalty, and the story became the story of a single piece of cheating.
Far more interesting to me was the nerveless panenka-penalty taken by Sebastian Abreau to win the shootout which settled the tie, but you know, Ghana were busy crying all over the pitch after that, so again the media weren't really interested.
But in this game, a country with a Population of 3.3 Million had beaten a country with a Population of 23.3 Million to reach the last four. And I, for one, saw that as something worth celebrating.
10."Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
The best single piece of journalism I read on the World Cup was by Tom Humphries, a great Irish Times Sports Writer. It is absolutely worth your time to read it. Please do so here.