Monday, July 12, 2010

Was It Any Good Then?

Spain carry off the World Cup, deservedly so, and even if they did not manage to impose their dominance on the tournament as firmly as they and many neutrals would have liked, they were certainly the best team in South Africa. There has been a lot said about the standard of the World Cup just passed, with many being rather hasty to dismiss it in comparison to past tournaments. A lot of the dissenters are drawing ill-thought-out conclusions, generated in part by short memories. Even though diving and play-acting are a scourge on the sport, they are nothing new either and were already a feature of professional football in the 1980s, and some would say, before that. There were some appalling refereeing errors - which, to be fair to the officials, might have been avoided if FIFA's obscurantism on employing technological evidence at the highest level of football were dispensed with. But major refereeing errors have always been with us, and are the stuff of World Cup legend, you could say, from Clive Thomas' blowing for full-time just before Zico scored against Sweden in 1978 to the leniency shown Harald Schumacher's vicious assault on Patrick Battiston in Seville in 1982, not to mention the Hand of God itself.

South Africa 2010 was a decent enough tournament that managed to maintain a good level of quality football and excitement after a sluggish first week. Of course there were downsides. The tournament lacked a truly fantastic stand-out side. Spain, Brazil and Germany all showed glimmers of sustained brilliance but they were in turn compromised by obligations of difficult opponents. Spain tailored their patient possession football to defence-minded adversaries such as Portugal, Paraguay and the Netherlands. It was frustrating that they were unable to score more (with eight goals they are the lowest-scoring champions in history) but you also got the impression they weren't too worried by that either. They knew the breakthrough would come and their composure throughout was testimony to their status as a great side.

Brazil played some great football in the first half against the Netherlands before imploding inexplicably in the second period. Their overly-physical approach also possibly backfired, with the Dutch being far less intimidated than most teams would have been. That match was also symptomatic of many in the tournament, tactically astute sides cancelling one another out. There was a broad homogeneity to the tournament tactically, with 4-2-3-1 prevailing and making it very difficult for full-backs to attack. Which is not to say that this defensive-tinged football was necessary bad - there is nothing wrong, after all, with good defending - but many games looked similar to one another. And there were also long periods in games where teams surrendered dominance. That may be attributed to fatigue, altitude or poor organisation. But it's telling that there were only a handful of teams that were immune to this trend.

Germany, churlish as it might seem to say, were a bit overrated. There were certainly one of the more exciting teams in the tournament on the counter-attack but there was a lingering sense that they were not going to be so formidable when the avenues through the centre of the field they enjoyed against Australia, England and Argentina would be cut off by cannier opponents. Serbia and Ghana had already made the Mannschaft look ordinary enough and it was no surprise that Spain overran them in the semi-final. This German team has a great future ahead of it, especially with young talent as irresistible as Meslut Özil, Thomas Müller and Samir Khedira available to them. I still believe they are ultimately as one-dimensional as Jürgen Klinsmann's side of four years ago, for all the counter-attacking pyrotechnics, but with greater tactical application they could become a more complete team.

The final was pretty much in the image of the tournament itself. It wasn't as dreadful a match as people are saying - though the first half was dire. The Dutch's spoiling tactics and Howard Webb's cravenly incompetent refereeing allowed the game to be fatally fractured from early on. Spain finally imposed a sense of shape in the second half and, if the football was hardly top quality, there were plenty of chances and it turned into an enthralling war of attrition.

So it may not have been the most satisfying of tournaments but it was certainly far better than Italia 90, more consistent than USA 94, which lost its spark after the quarter-finals. And it was overall better than the last two tournaments too. In all I think only France 98 out of the last five tournaments was a conclusively better one.

It was also good to see Diego Forlán win the Player of the Tournament award. I thought Xavi possibly edged him, but the Catalan's integration into the wider woof of the Spanish tapestry may have counted against him. He resembled one of those anonymous medieval artisans so lauded by Roland Barthes in his essay on the Citroën DS. Forlán's performances were more grand-standing - and I mean that in an entirely positive way. As he has done so often with Atlético Madrid in recent years, he lifted Uruguay almost single-handedly. That is a little unfair, granted, as the celeste also counted on fine performances from Diego Lugano, Diego Pérez, Maxi Perreira and Luis Suárez, but Forlán's efforts were herculean and possessed of a level of character rarely seen in a player in the service of a team effort. He and Uruguay were among my stars of the tournament. A small country with a famous footballing history that acquitted themselves honorably, and who clearly enjoyed every minute of their stay in South Africa. There will be those that grouch about Suárez's handball against Ghana but Uruguay knew that they were paying a price for that. Their manager Oscar Tabárez could also have complained about Wesley Sneijder's offside goal in the semi-final but he chose not to, knowing that these things even out in the end. Uruguay fought to the very last in the 3rd place play-off against Germany and provided a fantastic finale with Forlán hitting the bar in the last minute when a goal might have given him the Golden Boot and his team 30 minutes of respite. And their wonderful national anthem also won new admirers across the world. It's one I could listen to again and again. I hope to see them in Brazil and, roll on next year's Copa America.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Netherlands and Spain: Unknown Quantities

The Netherlands and Spain have something in common in this World Cup in that they have reached the semi-finals without playing terribly well but also because they have both conquered a bogeyman that they would always have to slay in order to win the tournament for the first time. For the Dutch it was Brazil, whom they couldn't overcome in 1994 and 1998; for Spain, it was getting to the semi-final for the first time in their history (we'll disregard their appearance in the final-four group stage in 1950). Spain felled a similar foe in the European Championships two years ago when they beat Italy - albeit on penalties - for the first time since the Spanish Civil War, and that gave them the a marked rise in confidence for the rest of the tournament, which was obvious when they swept the Germans aside in the final.

Both sides face tough challenges in the semi-final though the Netherlands will be glad that Luis Suárez, who scored freely in the Eriedivisie last season for Ajax will be missing because of his dastardly deed against Ghana, and the fact that captain Diego Lugano will line out not fully fit suggests that Uruguay are being stretched a bit thin. Spain are, surprisingly, being given few chances against Germany, not least because of the Germans' impressive performances against England and Argentina. Joachim Löw's boys are irrepressible when they have the initiative, which they grasped early on in those games but if they are held scoreless for long enough they soon begin to look very ordinary, as they did against Serbia and Ghana. Spain's ball retention will make it difficult for Germany to find the spaces to exploit as they did in their previous games. Even though they haven't been too impressive so far, Spain have also shown they are difficult to score against too. It should be a fascinating match, which I think Spain will edge 1-0 or 2-1, provided they manage to strike first.

A Spain-Netherlands final would give us a fixture that is rarely played in international football. The two teams have never met in a European Championships or World Cup and friendlies between them are few and far between. This is unusual given the profile of the two sides. They did however play against each other in the qualifying round for the 1984 European Championships and the group ended in one of the more controversial qualifying results in modern times. In a high-scoring group (even third-placed Ireland knocked in 20 in their eight games), the Dutch and the Spanish both finished their qualifying with games against Malta in December 1983. A 5-0 win for the Netherlands in Rotterdam left the Spaniards needing to win by eleven goals five days later in Seville to progress. Despite being only 3-1 up at half-time, they managed to reach the magic target, with Santillana scoring four goals and Poli Rincón three. The Dutch cried blue murder at a fix and the result was as responsible as the Anschluss match between West Germany and Austria in Gijón at the previous year's World Cup for FIFA and UEFA mandating final group games be played at the same time.

Spain went on to shock reigning champions West Germany (at the time under Jupp Derwall's management a team as loathsome as the current Germans are admirable) in France and reach the final where Luís Arconoda's unfortunate blunder allowed Michel Platini's free kick to squeeze under his body. But I wonder what would have happened if the Dutch, with much the same players that would win the European Championships four years later, had got to France? Gullit, Rijkaard, Koeman and Van Basten were already in place, together with a few of the older generation from 1978 as well as Arnold Muhren and Johnny Metgod. They then failed to reach Mexico 86, being edged out by Belgium. Who knows, if Spain had not scored that twelfth goal against the Maltese, the Dutch team of the 1980s would be remembered even more fondly than that of Cruyff, Rep, Rensenbrink and Neeskens.

Here are the goals from Spain 12 Malta 1. See if you can spot anything fishy:

The Pantomime Villain

A friend spent the first few days of the World Cup in Uruguay and Argentina, and was in Montevideo for the celeste's first match against France. As the friend was coming from Paris, his hosts assumed he would be supporting les bleus. He explained he wasn't because of the Thierry Henry handball, which struck the Uruguayans as unusually moralistic, as they would figure a win is a win no matter how you get it. And they should know, as their passage to South Africa was secured thanks to a goal against Costa Rica in San José that was offside.

So one shouldn't be too suprised that the Uruguayans are shrugging off the brouhaha over Luis Suárez's last-minute goal-line handball that kept his team in the tournament. The truth is any team would shrug their shoulders in the same way, though few would probably celebrate Suárez's ethically dubious action as he himself and teammate Diego Forlán have. That fits in with the Uruguayan footballing ethos of garra (guts) that combines toughness, guile and spirit. It has given the world the wonderfully redoutable teams that won two Olympic Games and two World Cups, but also, more unfortunately the disgraceful shower of cheats and cloggers that marred Mexico 86.

I'm not going to condemn Suárez too strongly. What he did was cruel and, in the spirit of the game, wrong but few fans or footballers would expect anything else of a player in that situation. It was a last-ditch effort to keep his team in the World Cup and he probably expected it to fail. Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty and Ghana missed the opportunity to become Africa's first ever semi-finalist. There has been talk about introducing a penalty goal to punish such infractions. There's something in the idea but Suárez's transgression was so egregious (committed in the very last minute) and so clear cut that it hardly serves as the best test case. How would one deal with Harry Kewell's goal-line handball in Australia's match against Ghana, which though seemingly less intentional still prevented a goal being scored? One can imagine, in the event of a rule change, goalmouth mêlées might give rise to any number of unjustly awarded goals because they ricocheted off people's arms two or three yards from the goal-line. It might seem perverse to say this but cheating to prevent a goal is a little more acceptable to me than cheating to score one, probably out of an innate defensive-mindedness. Therefore I am less inclined to condemn Suárez as I was to condemn Henry (or Maradona before him).

In any case Ghana have little to complain about. They benefited from two poor officiating decisions in the build-up to the goal (a free-kick resulting from a dive and two players were offside when the ball was flicked into the box) and the penalty was given and Suárez sent off. It's true that a chance to score does not necessarily equate with a clear goal but such are the rules for the moment. I feel sorry for Gyan, who was one of the players of the tournament and who showed immense character to return to the penalty spot two minutes later and put away his shoot-out spot-kick. But if he had scored, Suárez's handball would be a footnote in World Cup history. And Ghana should be thankful they got the penalty which is more than can be said for Arsenal when Stéphane Henchoz's handball went unpunished in the 2001 FA Cup final or the United States when Torsten Frings got away with a similar foul in the World Cup quarter-final a year later. I think that most of the outrage directed at Suárez comes from the fact he dashed an African teams' hopes. That's understandable but Ghana, fine team that they are, are well capable of craftiness when it suits them too.

Suárez is the villain of the piece now but few in Uruguay will care. He has fallen on his sword for the semi-final against the Netherlands and that will probably cost his team. But his last-ditch gamble paid off.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The One I Missed (and the One, Alas, I Didn't)

The first World Cup I fully had an interest in was 1986. I had been strangely indifferent to football until two years earlier, when the high drama of an end of season suddenly got me hooked, at the age of 8. There was Manchester United's run to the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final, where they fell to Juventus; Watford and Elton John and their fairytale march to the FA Cup final; Liverpool and Spurs' penalty shoot-out wins in the Champions Cup and UEFA Cup finals respectively; and, most importantly there was Euro 84: Platini, Arconada, Elkjaer, Laudrup.

So it all teed things up nicely for Mexico 86. It didn't even matter that Ireland languished second from bottom in a qualifying group that featured both Denmark and the USSR; I assumed that that was the way things were (I was a bit too young to realise how close they'd come to qualifying for Spain 82). Both those teams got off to a flying start in Mexico before being cut down to size by the more constant Spain and Belgium in the last 16. Though my memory of the tournament is clearly tinged by nostalgia, I can confidently say it was one of the best, if not the best ever. It had loads of great games (and a few dire ones, of course), bucketfuls of fantastic goals, sizzling team performances from the afore-mentioned Danes and Soviets, and the Spanish, the French, the Brazilians. And there was also, of course, the man who, more than anyone else, put his imprint on a tournament: Diego Maradona. It also had one of the best finals ever, if not the best: Argentina powering to a 3-2 win over West Germany in a thriller that produced three goals in the last seventeen minutes.

But I didn't see it. Having watched as many of the games as a ten-year-old could expect to up until then (many of them kicked off at 11pm and 1am Irish time) the elements conspired to stymie me on final day. The night before a storm hit our village and the makeshift illegal deflector system that we all relied on in those pre-cable days broke down, presumably because the mast was blown down on a neighbouring hill. I was condemned to follow the match on the radio, obviously no substitute but something I was well used to in those days when there was rarely more than one live football match per week.

So I prepared to listen to it with a friend of mine. With five minutes to kick off, my Dad came into the house saying that he was going to watch it at the home of an acquaintance, who, for some reason had managed to circumvent the TV black-out. He said I could come, but for reasons that remain obscure to me, I didn't go. Maybe it was because my Dad was reluctant to bring both of the kids over to the house of somebody he wasn't really that friendly with; maybe the friend might have been persona non grata in the house (it might seem ridiculous that a ten-year-old would be treated this way, but the kid's father had plenty of enemies); or maybe I myself felt awkward about gate-crashing and wasn't terribly sure if we could both go along. I can't remember which one it was. In any case I dallied. I'm not even sure if the friend found out about the offer to watch the match but we continued listening to the medium-wave crackle of the ever-excitable Gabriel Egan relating the drama from the Azteca.

And I missed a cracker. It was only later that I saw this, in its entirety, of course:

Four years later I was in the Gaeltacht at Coláiste Lurgan in Inverin during the final of the dreadful Italia 90. A much less attractive Argentine side slouched and kicked their way to the final, shocking the Italians in Maradona's adopted home city of Naples. Germany, the only truly great side in the tournament were up against them again. I was worried that the directors of the school might have been soccer-phobes (almost any Irish person over the age of thirty can relate an anecdote of the petty attempts of GAA folk to thwart people's enjoyment of the 'foreign game'). But I needn't have. A TV was mounted in the assembly hall and we all strained our eyes to be able to follow the action (the screen was little more than 18 inches and the reception was poor). But the match was appalling. A dull spectacle marred by Argentine cynicism and a lack of German edge. Pedro Monzón was given the first red card in a World Cup final, later joined by Gustavo Menzotti when Argentina disputed the non-existent foul on Rudi Völler that gifted the winning penalty to Germany. Wretched matches have an annoying tendency to stick in your memory every bit as tenaciously as the great ones and they sear themselves on your conscience. There were many of those at Italia 90 (Ireland v Egypt was possibly the nadir) but for a final to take place in such an acrimonious atmosphere with little or no football being played was too much. Most the World Cup finals up until then had been exciting games (or so I learned from the testimonies of older people and from World Cup histories). I wanted to forget this match but I never can.

There's no way I'll be missing this afternoon's clash between the two giants.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Brilliant Orange Cracks the Brazil Nuts

They came, they saw, they kicked. And then they were caught out at setpieces, as in 1998 and 2008. Brazil are out and few real football fans will mourn. True, the Netherlands' win was not terribly pretty and their first-half performance was febrile at the very best. But they took the game to the Brazilians with admirable ambition in the second period and once they made the breakthrough they grasped the initiative. Wesley Sneijder once again underlined his credentials as a serious Ballon d'Or candidat with his wicked inswinging cross for Felipe Melo's own-goal (a misfortune you couldn't wish on a more deserving character) and his glancing header for the winner.

It wasn't a vintage Dutch performance but they played like a team that had more interest than merely cancelling out the opposition. I didn't expect the Netherlands to win but I had also said that if they got around the significant mental block of beating Brazil they could win the World Cup. There's a long way to go but they are surely as confident as they've been for three decades now. Given that the Dutch won all eight of their qualifying games and all five of their matches in South Africa so far, could this be the first time ever a team will win a World Cup with a complete grand-slam of qualifying and tournament games?

Quarter-final playlist


I've put them up before but here's Los Iracundos, one of the better beat combos from the banks of the River Plate in the 1960s. Still going strong:


There were many greats from Ghana's Highlife scene but none are bigger than E.T. Mensah:

The Netherlands

I could have gone for Nits, Shocking Blue or even, shudder, Acker Bilk but I'm going to pick a staple of my indie-youth existence, Bettie Serveert, named after the great Bettie Stove:


Where do you start with Brazil? Elza Soares on account of her being married to none other than Garrincha? Tom Jobim? Gilberto Gil? Chico Buarque? Bondê do Role? Tetin? CSS? Sepultura? Gal Costa? Marcos Valle? Quarteto em cy? João Gilberto? I'll settle with the godfather of samba himself, Cartola, and his magnificent cover of Candeia's 'Preciso me encontrar'


I suppose I should go for some tango but with a nod to Carlos Tevez, who likes this sort of thing, here's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs:


It can only be Can:


Los Planetas: presumably the Castillian for Hüsker Dü


OK, I'll admit, I had to dig out some Paraguayan rock. The ska group Ripe Banana Skins were the pick of the crop.


I'll admit I had to look hard to dig out some Paraguayan rock. Ska group Ripe Banana Skins were among the pick of the crop.

At Close Quarters

And so we get down to the business end of things: the quarter-finals are upon us. By rights, the tournament's most important action should be crammed into one-eighth of its matches though that's not always the case, as the drab petering-out of the 1994 and 2002 World Cups at this stage proved. Three of this weekend's four ties look enthralling, even if the Netherlands v Brazil could possibly be smothered out by two highly-organised sides with two holding midfielders each. That would be a shame, as the two countries, in their three World Cup finals matches to date have each time served up one of the matches of the tournament. Their first meeting in 1974 in Dortmund signalled the Dutch's definitive arrival as a force in world football. They prized apart the World champions, who resorted to an unusually physical game. I was reminded of this listening to a Dutch journalist speaking on the Guardian podcast earlier was pessimistic about the Dutch chances, particularly regarding Arjen Robben, whom he said would be double-gamed and 'kicked wherever he can be kicked' by Felipe Melo.

Other great matches took place in Dallas in 1994, where a squabbling Dutch side, mediocre until then and fortunate to beat Ireland 2-0 in the last 16, finally found their feet and pushed Brazil all the way, succumbing in the end 3-2 to the combined genius of Romario and Bebeto. Four years later in Marseille, Guus Hiddink's fantastic team looked like they would put an end to their twenty years of hurt, but although they outplayed Brazil for much of the match, they needed a Patrick Kluivert goal two minutes from time to save the game and when the match went to penalties, everybody knew one team was going to win.

The Dutch have been largely uninspiring so far without ever really being threatened in any of the four matches they have played. Their defensive approach hasn't pleased fans but they have done the minimum, which was surely always going to be to survive till this inevitable match. Bert van Marwijk has praised his defence, noting that the only two goals they have conceded yet were from the penalty spot. But there were a few hairy moments in the second half against Slovakia and they relied on a pair of fine saves by Maarten Stecklenburg to maintain their lead. Had the Slovaks expressed a greater deal of urgency, they could well have been in trouble. The prospect of Maicon bearing down on Giovanni van Bronckhorst is also an alarming one. While I hope the Dutch sneak this one, and save the whole world from another Brazil win, I think it will be beyond them.

Uruguay and Ghana looks a far more open game. The South Americans look by far the better team on paper but they way they surrendered control of the game in the second half against South Korea should provide some cause for concern. Ghana did fantastically well against the United States (and probably should have pushed Germany more than they did) but they still have the scoring problem. At least against the US they got off the mark from open play though their two goalscorers Kevin-Prince Boateng and the brilliant Asamoah Gyan are uncertain to start today due to injury. I would expect Uruguay to take it narrowly but if Ghana get that lift of playing for a whole continent that clearly gave them the edge against the US, they could become the first ever African team to make the semi-finals. Whoever wins, I will be happy.

Argentina and Germany is another chapter in a Titanic saga of World Cup football. Though the Argentines scarcely harbour the same enmity for the Germans as they do for England, this is a definite grudge match. The two countries faced off successively in one of the best World Cup finals ever (1986) and one of the worst (1990). Argentina had two players sent off in the latter and went down to a non-existent penalty converted by Andreas Brehme. Four years ago in Berlin, the majestic gallop of José Pekerman's side was curbed by the hosts, in what was a bit of a shock at the time. To be fair, the Argentines were much the better side in that game but a puzzling attempt to defend a lead, against the Germans of all people, backfired and a Miroslav Klose goal pulled the match into extra time. Then there's the famous story of Jens Lehmann's secret list of Argentine penalty kickers and the mass brawl that broke out after his winning save.

So far both sides have been among the best in the tournament, though it is difficult to gauge exactly good either are. Argentina benefited from a pitifully weak first round group and an offside goal by Carlos Tevez broke the spirit of Mexico in the last 16. That said, they have won all matches handsomely and Lionel Messi is having a stellar tournament, and surely it's only a matter of time before he finds the net. Germany have been hugely impressive in hammering hapless Australia and England, and less convincing against Serbia or Ghana. It's interesting that the Germans, previously the villains of the piece at almost every World Cup are now a side almost universally popular. It certainly helps that the rather one-dimensional football deployed by Jurgen Klinsmann four years ago and by Joachim Löw at Euro 2008 has been discarded in favour of a more dynamic counter-attacking game. The Germans are fearsome going forward and with three dodgy Argentine defenders in Samuel, Gutierrez and Dimechelis, the albiceleste could be in big trouble before they even get on the target. That said, the Germans are far from perfect at the back either. I think this one could be a 2-2 draw and then go to penalties. And we know who always wins on penalties...

The we have Spain, who have been winning relatively ugly too. Like the Dutch, they should be happy enough to get to the quarter-finals and open up the way for their first semi-final (if you discount the final 4-group stage they contested in 1950). After a rickety start they have grown in composure, even if Fernando Torres' continual inclusion remains questionable; Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente looked the part against Portugal and should prove a sharper tool in unpicking the Paraguayan defence. Paraguay are a team notoriously difficult team to beat (and a 0-0 draw against them in Saint-Étienne in 1998 effectively put Spain out of that tournament) but also a wretched team to watch. With the exception of Tunisia, Paraguay have been involved in the greatest number of dire World Cup matches I have had the misfortune to see. I haven't been convinced of their worth in this tournament either; they were incapable of stringing three passes together against Italy and scoreless draws against New Zealand and Japan are hardly the stuff of champions, even if they did deserve to go through against the Japanese. Paraguay have conceded only one goal so far and one will probably be all the Spanish get tonight. As we have seen against the United States in last year's Confederations Cup and against Switzerland in their opening match, Spain have difficulty with defensive opponents. A little extra width in the game with the introduction of the homesick Sevillano Jésus Navas should do the job. It will be a frustrating evening and it's unlikely to be pretty, but I thin Spain will carry the day.

My pre-tournament prediction for the semi-finals was Uruguay v Brazil and Argentina v Spain. There's still a fair chance of that being right.