By Tom Sheldrick
Everyone’s been trying their best not to mention that the first week of the 2010 World Cup featured a succession of dour, uninteresting, unimaginative, best-missed games. That’s fair enough, it takes a brave reporter to being his match write-up with: “The game was, again, rubbish. But please keep reading…”
Now that the action has finally started to liven up, it’s about time we asked why the tournament started so slowly.
Am I just moaning?
A little. We have been waiting four years, and our hopes were well and truly up. Germany spanked Australia in a devastating display of counter-attacking soccer, Argentina and Chile were superb in their opening games and should have come away with a lot more than 1-0 wins. South Africa’s opening game was captivating; Ghana registering Africa’s first win was nothing short of euphoric. New Zealand provided a great underdog story, and everyone likes one of those. And the favorites Spain lost, which is always a good thing. There were bags of goals in the first round of the 2006 World Cup, and then it all dried up. Maybe they are just biding their time.
But no, Uruguay – France, Algeria – Slovenia and Japan – Cameroon were games I wish I’d never taken the time to watch. The team I was most looking forward to seeing, the Netherlands, were no more than average.
The stats speak for themselves – in the opening round of fixtures, only two games registered three goals. Six finished 1-0. 16 games, 25 goals = not enough entertainment.
Are the teams just getting closer?
Maybe. Most of the players playing at the World Cup now play their club football for top Western European teams. The English Premier League alone had 118 players in the 32 squads. Gone are the days when a European or South American team would literally teach an unprofessional African or Asian side a lesson.
But, no, the teams that have put on the best unexpected shows have been those with very few players playing in the top professional leagues. North Korea has one player based in Japan, one in Russia, yet they tested Brazil. South Korea has a team which predominantly plays its club football in East Asia, yet it put Greece to the sword. New Zealand’s line-up was made up mostly of American and Australian-based players who very few had heard of.
Anyway, better contests would be a good thing. But it’s not a set of 5-0 thrashings that I’m looking for, rather end-to-end football, just a bit of invention, a bit of life.
Is it the conditions then?
The World Cup is being played in the South African winter, so no, it’s not a case of the Europeans (and others) puffing around at 100 degrees struggling to pick up the pace. It’s been close to freezing during several games, but that’s ideal for soccer.
Altitude could be playing a bigger role. 6 out of 10 stadiums at are over 1000 meters above sea level. But these were the same stadiums used for last summer’s Confederations Cup, and that was entertaining –as entertaining as a World Cup dress-rehearsal tournament can be. Most of the teams have been training at altitude, only Cameroon looked positively lackadaisical, and the games at sea level on the coast haven’t been any better. No, that can’t be it.
Is the ball to blame?
Tennis players look at their racket when they’re looking to blame something after a bad shot, golfers look at their clubs. Football players can’t do that as much, they have to wait for press conferences after the game. Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas said the new adidas World Cup ball was “like a beachball”, and England coach Fabio Capello called it the “worst ball we have played with”.
The “Jabulani” as Adidas titled its new perfectly round (what were the previous ones then?) height-of-technology World Cup ball was initially criticized for its ability to make ‘keepers like Casillas look silly. But goalies have been doing that all on their own. Rob Green and Faouzi Chaouchi both made game-changing bloopers within 24 hours at the weekend, and neither time the ball had anything to do with it. Besides, goalkeepers making mistakes is funny (unless you’re English, or Algerian).
No, the outfield players have been the problem. One argument goes: “Lionel Messi didn’t exactly look to be struggling”, when he terrorized the Nigerian defence using that same football that others have struggled with. So maybe it separates the best from the mediocre, which can again only be a good thing. Fellow South Americans Chile and Brazil looked pretty good on it too. As did Germany – but that might be because the Jabulani was used intermittently in the Bundesliga from as early as February, giving the players time to get used to it. Ah ha!
Part of soccer’s endearing essence, why it can be the global game, shared by so many across the globe, is that it’s so stunning simple. One ball, jumpers for goalposts and all that. But we shouldn’t forget that the guys we’re watching use the Jabulani in South Africa are at the very top of their game, and are dealing in precisions on a soccer pitch as fine as the top professionals do in any other sport. Pass-masters Spain dominated Switzerland for the entirety of their Group H game, and didn’t look to have any problems manipulating the ball to their every wish. But while the basics were all there, the touch of magic which would have brought them the goal was missing – perhaps because of the ball they used. Perhaps.
Is it all in the mind?
Group A and Group F, after the first round of fixtures, had all teams level-pegging on one point, after both opening games were drawn. Ivory Coast and Portugal were both happy enough with a draw in Group G because they knew that, with Brazil still to play, a loss would be fatal to their chance of progressing.
The first round of the World Cup was dominated by teams who couldn’t bear to lose; who wouldn’t take a risk in case it backfired; who were all to happy to take a point and make sure they didn’t get eliminated before the third game. A negative mentality prevailed, and there was very little room for attacking flair.
Chile and Germany showed that fortune favors the brave; he who dares wins. Fortunately, the second round of fixtures is beginning to show that the other teams have followed their lead.
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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