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.


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