World Cup 2010: My Impressions

General Thoughts

Overall, I found it to be one of the more exciting World Cups for a while, but the quality of football was poor. Teams were very cagey, too often resorting to a combination of nasty tackling and outright diving. My personal bugbear, the 4-5-1 (in some variant) formation, was deployed by so many teams, and while at times both Chile and Germany slipped into 4-3-3 and looked incredible, the generally inconsistent/accident-prone/poor quality of central defenders (even on top teams) meant that there wasn’t enough confidence to open up the field in most of the games. 4-4-2 seems to be dead, at international level, and even when Spain played Villa and Torres together, the former was often stationed on the wing.

The standard of refereeing was pretty terrible. Howard Webb was mediocre and yet he looked among the best, despite his flaps in the final. I never thought I’d miss Premier League refereeing but it wasn’t far into the tournament before I was wishing for the sight of a grumpy Northern headmaster sternly waving a diver to his feet. Each week in the PL there is maybe one egregious officiating howler among the ten games. At this World Cup there seemed to be at least one each game. Ironically, Webb failed to award a free-kick to Robben (one of the worst divers) on the one occasion when he stayed on his feet.

South Africa were never going to get anywhere, but that didn’t seem to matter. There were decent crowds at most of the games, and those who were there seemed to be having a great time. Who knows whether the money will ever trickle down, but does it ever? Should that even be a consideration, or just in when it’s a poor country? Who knows. FIFA will clean up, making more than a billion, I have read, and it’s all tax-free because they are a registered charity (which makes the whole grubby Bavaria revenue-protection incident even more peculiar).

The Final:

I thought the final was, predictably, a bit of a let-down. Sounds like a paradox, but every time it seems like it will be a classic, and every time there’s many reasons to be disappointed. The Netherlands came out with the intention of literally stamping their authority on the game, with the most agricultural back six you could possibly imagine, each a real bruiser. Spain were content to sit on the ball, pointlessly pinging it around in the middle third while trying to coax the Dutch into cheap fouls. On the whole this didn’t work – with the glaring exception of De Jong, who was probably lucky to stay on the field – and by the 70th minute, Spain had resorted to outright deception (in fairness, Capdevila had been flying around like Carlos Acosta from the start, and there are several cards in this tournament that were for nothing other than tricky Joan’s acting ability; and the Netherlands, had, prior to the final, been some of the worst diving offenders). There were a few chances, but not until Fabregas came on did Spain really come alive. While Iniesta and Xavi are both obvious first-choices, I am completely perplexed as to the reason why either Busquets or Pedro would be chosen ahead of Fabregas. Spain simply do not need Busquets, who is often to be seen standing still while Xavi zips up and down the centre of the field. The need for a link man is mitigated by having central defenders like Pique who can pass and midfielders who are prepared to drop deep, as do Iniesta and Xavi. I’ve never rated Pedro either – he seems like a spare part at Barcelona, and when there is a truly outstanding playmaker who is also a proven goalscorer like Fabregas on the bench…  if he goes to Barcelona, next season they have the potential to be the best side ever. Seriously. Anyhow, extra time was fairly uneventful save for Puyols clotheslining Robben (who may well have paid the price for being such an outrageous cheat on so many previous occasions) and then, in the dying minutes of the game, Iniesta’s goal which was a lovely finish even if in the build-up he appeared to be offside. With hindsight he is maybe level, but it’s not conclusive in my mind. Spain were marginally better over the course of the two hours but on the whole it was a poor final (and put to shame by the third-place playoff, which was a five-goal stonker). I’d be prepared to accept a low-scoring game as ‘good’ if there was any evidence of quality defending, but when the ball is just moved along a lateral line in midfield for much of the game it’s absolute bobbins.

Incidentally, someone brought up the idea of reserving one place at the World Cup for an invitational side comprising players whose nations had not qualified. While it would be an organizational (and probably legal) nightmare, I can really see the appeal of this. With no national pressure, such a team would be free to play some nice open football, and it would be a great way for players like Best, Giggs, Weah etc. to have appeared on the biggest stage in their primes. Pie-in-the-sky, of course, but fun to think about (as someone has done here, where a lot of the contenders are ex-United).

Based on lessons learned from this World Cup, if I ran FIFA for a day…

… I would introduce various changes to the rules to mitigate against two forms of cheating. First would be to allow the upgrading of fouls to yellow cards, or yellow cards to red cards, retrospectively (i.e. for suspension purposes). Forget undermining the authority of the referees, they have done that perfectly well themselves by proving that they can’t keep up with the game – there’s no point perpetuating injustices based on bad decisions. I would even consider the use of four linesmen in big games (i.e. international and regional tournaments, CL etc.). With regard to simulation and exaggeration, I would allow players to be retrospectively punished for outright simulation. I would also allow referees to give both a foul and to punish the fouled player for exaggeration if their reaction is over the top (e.g. every time Robben goes to ground). I wonder about some kind of down-and-out rule too – if you stay down for more than five seconds, perhaps you have to sit out three minutes – not a problem if it’s a real serious injury (substitutions would over-ride this). Just brainstorming, but I absolutely hate the playacting; for me, it’s a much more serious problem than fouling in the modern game. Also, another easy thing: anyone who asks for a card to be given to an opponent should immediately be given one themselves. No excuses for that at all.

My favourite games:

Cameroon-Denmark – in the end it counted for nothing but this was a rip-roaring, end-to-end game played in good spirits. Denmark looked great, but it was just for one game, and Eto’o got to show his class for possibly the last time on a big stage.

Mexico-France – not a classic, but the game which perhaps best signified the shifting centre of gravity of global football away from Europe. (Even though three European teams got to the semis, they were the only three in the quarters, and both Spain and the Netherlands were pretty lucky to get to the last four).

Germany-England – despite the ugly result, this was a cracking game. Wild first half (which was actually quite even) before Germany tore England apart and sent the creaky old Premier League stalwarts home to cry into their swimming pools (which in my mind are full of diamonds and naked Big Brother contestants).

Uruguay-Netherlands – belting semi-final, swinging one way and then the other, and the first two goals were wonderful. Probably the best performance by either team, and one of the very few games which was worthy of the occasion.

Germany-Uruguay – I think I enjoyed this game the most. Really atypical for a third-place playoff (which is usually a dull affair in which the disinterest of the teams is palpable), this fizzed and ebbed and flowed in a way the final never quite managed. I loved that it ended with Fórlan hitting the bar, and instead of grumbling (as it would cost him both the Golden Boot and extra time) he just got on with it, and was soon smiling and enjoying the post-match festivities.

I think these choices reflect my general opinion that Uruguay and Germany were my two teams of the tournament – both exciting, likeable and lacking the cynicism which really hacked me off whenever Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands – and even Argentina – were playing. Honourable mentions also to Chile, Ghana, Denmark, Paraguay and Japan.

My team of the tournament (4-4-2 – in your face, world!):

Goalkeeper: It was a tough month for the men between the sticks. Many blamed the Jabulani ball, but I’m not sure myself: Buffon’s tournament was cut short by a back injury; Casillas was poor until the final; Neuer and Stekelenburg were inconsistent; Muslera even had a bad flap at a crucial moment. The Guardian team made Handanovic of Slovenia their choice, and Tim Howard was decent aside from a few minutes, but I’m going for Eduardo of Portugal, who looked confident, commanded his area and his defenders well, and only conceded once.

Right-Back: I picked Maicon for my team of the group phase, but in the latter stages of the competition Sergio Ramos (Spain) emerged as the undisputed first-choice. He was worth two men on the field (which is lucky as Spain kept playing the ghost of Fernando Torres), effective and lightning-fast in defence, and tearing all in his path to shreds going forward. Gave Spain much-needed width on the right, and at times he was playing as the right-hand man of the front three, often as far up the field as David Villa.

Centre-Backs: It wasn’t a tremendous tournament for the defensive powerhouses either. I’m going to stick with my pairing from the group stages of Diego Lugano (Uruguay) and Gerard Pique (Spain). Lugano is beginning to look a bit slow, but his positional awareness and marking remain excellent. Pique is a complete footballer, much like Ramos, and passes the ball out of defence beautifully while being perfectly competent in the air.

Left-Back: I’m sticking with Philipp Lahm (Germany). He’s been playing right-back for the national side but he’s naturally a left-back and I think he’s better than any of the other options. Ashley Cole was the only England player who acquitted himself adequately, and Van Bronckhurst scored one of the best goals of the World Cup, but Lahm’s quiet effectiveness won me over – nothing fancy, but unflappable and never caught more than a couple of metres from where he should be.

Right Midfield: I’m going for Thomas Müller of Germany, who for me was the second-best player of the tournament behind Fórlan. Incredible poise for a twenty-year old, with pace and a deadly eye for goal. Won the Golden Boot (on ‘assist difference’) and didn’t stop running for a month. Wonderful prospect and should only improve. The next European Championship could be pretty exciting with a blossoming Germany and an ageing Spain – a rematch of the semi-final here, but with the balance of power slightly shifted, perhaps.

Central Midfield: For all his histrionics and attempts to intimidate the referee, I’m going to have to go with Xavi Hernandez (Spain), who has just been out of this world for the last three years. He was good in the group stages, went a bit quiet in the middle of the tournament, but then bossed the middle of the park in both the semi-final and the final. Tremendous player, and a little way ahead of his teammate Xavi Alonso, who also had a good World Cup. Alongside him, I’ve gone for Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany) just ahead of Mascherano, Torrado or Riveros. The latter two are both better at passing the ball out of midfield, and Mascherano is a great stopper, but Schweinsteiger was just a good all-rounder. (Incidentally, I find Mascherano to be utterly dependent on playing alongside a quality passer, and part of Argentina’s problem was the lack of such a player – this is why they needed Cambiasso in there alongside him, in my view).

Left Midfield: I’m loath to go with Iniesta, who had a very quiet tournament before the final, and then cancelled out much of his inventive genius with some appalling diving. I really like him as a player but that seriously damaged his standing for me. He’ll be fine though – in compensation for not making it into my blog XI, he can think about his world-cup-winning goal and fondle his medal. Instead, I’m going for Wesley Sneijder (the Netherlands), who was very – very – lucky to ‘score’ five goals, but who nonetheless was incredibly influential throughout the tournament and was only really let down by a quiet final. If he, Robben and Van Persie could have settled their differences off the pitch, there might have been a few more routs on the way to the final.

Strikers: First choice has to be Diego Fórlan (Uruguay), runaway player of the tournament and a joy to behold. Amazing close control, great dead-ball skills, accurate from distance and clinical when around the area. I didn’t see him dive once, and his attitude was excellent throughout. Alongside the rangy number ten, I’d like to see David Villa (Spain) in more of a central role than Spain tend to use him. Although he is fine as (essentially) an inside-left, large parts of the game can pass him by there, and as a better version of Luis Suárez, the idea of him playing alongside Fórlan is rather enticing.

[That’s four from Spain, three from Germany, two from Uruguay, one from the Netherlands, and one from Portugal]

On the bench: Muslera (Uruguay), A. Cole (England), Maicon (Brazil), da Silva (Paraguay), Mascherano (Argentina), Robben (Netherlands), Iniesta (Spain), A. Sanchez (Chile), Honda (Japan), Vittek (Slovakia), Klose (Germany)

Manager: Marcelo “Loco” Bielsa (Chile) – the only manager who was (usually) brave enough to play a genuine 4-3-3, he lost his nerve against Brazil and dropped his playmakers. A crucial error, as that weak Brazil side were there for the taking – their ill-disciplined defence was shown up in the next round. So I’d pick Bielsa, but tell him to go with his convictions. I bet Argentina wish this native son of Rosario had been managing his home country. He’d tell me where to stick my 4-4-2 and push Müller up the pitch, but that’s fine by me.

My top five goals, in no particular order:

Diego Fórlan (SF, Uruguay vs. Netherlands) – hard to pick a favourite from the five he scored, but the long-range effort to tie up the game was just wonderful. The sheer confidence and instinct for goal even from that distance brought (literally) a tear to my eye – the exuberance just choked me up (I had a Tardelli-esque moment, but fortunately I was on my own). This was the point that Fórlan sealed his place as player of the tournament for me.

Giovanni van Bronckhurst (SF, Netherlands vs. Uruguay) – this goal convinced me there is nothing wrong with the Jabulani if you hit it straight and true. Van Bronckhurst let fly from a huge distance, and the ball took off toward precisely the point he was looking at – and the only place Muslera couldn’t reach it.

Thomas Müller (2R, Germany vs. England) – wonderful team effort which encapsulated all that Germany brought to this World Cup: youthful exuberance, lungbusting energy, crisp passing and an absolute fearlessness when attacking. The sheer pace at which the attack leading up the goal took place seemed to knock the stuffing out of England, and he scored again only moments later.

Fabio Quagliarella (1R, Italy vs. Slovakia) – Italy’s single moment to remember. A classy, creative moment in an otherwise dreadful World Cup for the Azzurri. A good game actually, more like a knock-out contest, which in a way, it was.

Carlos Tevez (2R, Argentina vs. Mexico) – despite the bad taste left in the mouth by the initial offside goal, both this long-range screamer and Chicharito’s reply lit up the second half.

Honorable mentions to Asamoah Gyan and Javier Hernandez.

and finally…

Blackmailers XI: (that is, suspiciously poor footballers in ‘good’ teams)

Green; Johnson; Gutiérrez; Terry; Abidal; Kuyt;

Pepe; Veron; Camoranesi; Podolski; Heskey

‘By Any Means Necessary’ XI: (feigning, brutality and plain bad sportsmanship)

Kingson (timewaster); Capdevila (diver); Felipe Melo (psychopath); Puyol (fouler); Cáceres (constant card-demander); Iniesta (diver); De Jong (fouler); Van Bommel (fouler); Robben (diver); Luis Fabiano (handballer); Suárez (constant card-demander)

Damp Squib XI: (not the worst by any means – just relative to expectations)

Casillas; Sagna; Cannavaro; Chiellini; Burdisso; Ronaldo; Kaka;

Gerrard; Torres; Anelka; Rooney

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 4:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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