I’m just going to warn everyone now, this is going to be one of my least-coherent rants to date.
It is sometimes said that I have a “soft spot” for sport, and this is largely true. Why is this the case? I’m certainly not the typical “jock” and I’m not the sort of person who will go out of his way to watch every minute of every stage of the Tour de France, like some of my more enthusiastic friends might. I will, however, go out of my way to watch events from the Olympic games, and other important once-every-four-years sporting competitions like the World Cup. I think the real reason for my soft spot, is that I like seeing people who are very, very good at what they do, do it. It is certainly a welcome break from everyday happenings in the news, which are mostly the result of very wicked people who are very bad at what they do, making the worst of a terrible situation.
But that is for another post. The FIFA World Cup is an interesting beast and one that I have watched fairly closely since 1998. Some call it the most important sporting competition in the world and I am reluctantly inclined to agree. This might seem a strange thing to say, especially from a person who once tried to qualify for the Olympic Games, another competition which may, with good cause, lay claim to the title of “world’s most important sporting competition”. It’s certainly something to think about, and I’m sure many people would disagree, but if alien being were observing us from above and they wanted to get a good idea of what humanity was about, I wouldn’t tell them to watch the UN in session, or a music festival, or the Olympics, because none of those things will really give them a very broad sweep of the human condition, though the Olympics come close. The world cup, on the other hand, probably will. The next closest thing perhaps is total war, but that is a (thankfully) rare occurrence.
But what of the competition itself?
For this year’s world cup, I’ve managed to watch a little bit of almost every match. I’ve watched at least half of the matches in their entirety. This is no small feat in Hong Kong (that’s where I am at the moment). By some quirk of corrupt decision making, free-to-air television has managed to have the rights to only 3 matches of the entire competition while cable TV has the rights to all of the matches. I have thus been forced to watch most of the matches on (quite possibly illegal) streaming sites on the internet. The obvious downer to this is that the resolution isn’t so good, and there is a bit of a delay of 10-20 seconds, which is really annoying when you’re chatting to someone on the internet who is getting live without a significant delay and they say “oohhh!” before anything really happens on your screen. One of the pluses though, is that a popular telecast to stream is Australia’s SBS coverage, which I find to generally be very good as well as being in a comforting and familiar accent. I have a feeling that when I watch the upcoming semifinals on local TV, I will probably turn the sound off and, instead, listen to the sound from the stream because local commentators are generally clueless, talk a lot of smack1, and have grating voices.
For me, the world cup REALLY started when Australia played Germany. Whenever the socceroos play, one of the greatest flaws in the game is revealed – the “art” of diving. Diving is against the rules, although you’ll hear a lot of people, including FIFA president Sep Blatter, tell you that it is part of the game. It shouldn’t be part of the game. This is similar to idiots who say that having a lot of long-term unemployed people in society is ok because that’s just the way it is. The trouble with diving is that, if successful, it can be hugely beneficial for your team. The trouble with the socceroos, is that they don’t dive much; not compared with other major teams in the competition. This makes them a better team in terms of their ability to follow the rules, however they are punished for their troubles by having lots of free kicks and the occasional penalty given against them. These can have a huge impact on the outcome of the game, for example in the last world cup they were tied at 0-0 when a questionable penalty was awarded to Italy which gave them a lead in the 94th minute. Italy then went on to lift the world cup. Of course, the Germans aren’t exactly the worst culprits in the diving stakes either. When the scoreline read 4-0 at full time, most people wrote it off as a lopsided pairing. Of course, anyone knows anything about how good Australia really are, and anyone who actually watched the game knows that the real reason for the scoreline was, firstly, because Tim Cahill was sent off, and secondly because Germany actually played very well. The scoreline would eventually come back to haunt us because we drew even on points with Ghana at the end of the group stage, but lost out on goal difference, and so missed out on advancing to the round of 16.
On the subject of questionable refereeing, this world cup has once again brought to light just how bad it can really be. Obviously, as a supporter of Australia, I disagree with the harshness of the penalties (red cards) handed out to Cahill and Kewell in the first two games of the group stage. Red cards are especially damaging because, not only does the team have to play a man down for the rest of the game, but the player to whom the card was given must also sit out the next game. Those are two of our most significant players and I have little doubt in my mind that the result of the matches would have been quite different had different coloured cards been handed out. Nowhere was refereeing error more apparent than in the round of 16 game between Germany and England. The score was 2-1 to Germany, and England had scored just minutes before when Frank Lampard struck the crossbar with such force that the ball bounced inside the line. That was a goal. Not only would 2-2 have changed the tone and momentum of the match, having a very obvious goal denied would have significantly impacted on team morale of the English. The scoreline eventually read 4-1.2 All manner of unusual arguments have been forwarded against introducing technology to assist the refs, but it’s mostly rubbish. It may be human to make mistakes, but it is also well within the human condition to want to correct them.
The makeup of the final four is not what anyone would have predicted. The first “surprise” although it shouldn’t have been if anyone watched them play, was the neither France nor Italy made it into the final 16. Perhaps France is like the Star Trek movies, only doing well on every alternate incarnation. Recall that in 2002, France also failed to make it out of the group stage after winning in style over Brazil in 1998. New to the stage is Uruguay. Uruguay isn’t really “new” as it has won two world cups including the first ever one in Uruguay in 1930, and then again in 1950 against Brazil in the Rio’s Maracaña stadium (I’m surprised they made it out alive). The new Uruguayan side is a talented one, to be sure, but the manner in which they reached the final four has made them unpopular. While playing Ghana in a close and exciting game, their star striker Suarez used his hands to keep a goal out. He was given a red card and Ghana were awarded a penalty, but they failed to convert and it went into a penalty shootout, which Ghana lost quite badly. Without Suarez in the side for the semifinal match with the Netherlands, I suspect that this is the end of the Uruguayan’s world cup campaign.
That the Netherlands is in the final four is also a bit surprising. On paper, it perhaps shouldn’t be – they’ve won all of their last 13 consecutive games. However, their play has been uninspiring to say the least. Arjen Robben is the only player on their team with any real creative capacity, and he’s been scoring most of their goals. The team overall however has shown to be a sound unit, and a disciplined one. They certainly earned their place in the final having had to come through Brazil to get here. On that note… when they went 1-0 in the first half of their game against Brazil, they stayed calm and kept plugging away, but when Brazil went down 2-1 later in the same game, it fell apart at the seams. The Brazil-Netherlands game highlighted the fact that, as important as individual skill is, this is still a team sport. Every single one of the players on the Brazilian team have exceptional ball skills, but they’re just not so great at working as a team. Former captain-turned-coach, Dunga, had his work cut out for him, and is, in the author’s opinion, copping an unfair amount of the blame for the loss.
On the subject of coaching… coaching a national team in the era of modern football would be among one of the most difficult coaching challenges in all of sport. It would be extremely frustrating because you get a bunch of players with proven talent and ability, but who aren’t used to playing with each other, and you’ve somehow got to manufacture a good team out of them. Take England for example, who in 2002, and 2006 had the best midfield in the world… correction – they have a group of midfield players the sum of whose talents is greater than the sum of any other national side’s midfield. Yet, England have consistently sucked at recent world cups. Brazil is the classic example. If you simply measured the raw footballing talent of the individuals of a team, then Brazil should win every world cup, but that clearly doesn’t happen. An interesting debate that has arisen is one surrounding various different styles of coaching.
Diego Maradona, pictured above, has become coach of Argentina, which has been doing quite well until they were crushed by Germany 4-0 recently. He has endured sharp criticism because his coaching involves a lot less “technical” coaching, and a lot of the “psychological”… and it shows. He is often seen hugging players, and it is said that he gives stirring pep-talks before matches, and during half-time breaks. I don’t think this criticism is fair. In a world cup, when you’ve got talented players who are very experienced, but not necessarily with each other, it is important to “let them play” and not to try and force a particular style on them that they may be unfamiliar with. Brazil’s Dunga tried this, and got away with it briefly. It is also very underappreciated by members of the general public how significant the psychological aspect of the game really is. Especially in football, where team cohesion and momentum can make or break a game.
A few days ago, I said that whoever wins the game between Germany and Argentina would go on to win the tournament. I still believe this, and not just because Germany beat a pretty decent side 4-0. Argentina’s defense wasn’t great, but they’re not a bad side either. They did beat a pretty decent Mexican side 3-1, and the difference could have easily been much greater. Germany will face Spain in their semifinal. Span were the side that I tipped to win the tournament before it began. However, Spain have struggled, first losing out to Switzerland and really only making by the skin of their teeth for the rest of their matches. For such an incredibly talented team, they sure don’t score a lot of goals, which is why I think that Germany will make minced meat out of them in their semifinal match tomorrow. Close as the game might be, when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities to score, the Germans have a definite edge. I was quite worried that a German side without Michael Ballack might struggle, especially at a time when many young players are just moving into the ranks of the senior side, but as it happens, those youngsters can play just fine without Ballack. And with a prolific scorer in Miroslav Klose (now there’s a German name if ever I knew one) who has just surpassed Pele and is one short of the all-time record for goals in a world cup, the Germans are as dangerous as they’ve ever been.
Addendum: It has taken me so long to write this, that the Netherlands-Uruguay game has not only started, but is almost over. As of the 84th minute, the score is 3-1 in favour of the Netherlands (who are playing the best that they’ve played all tournament). A Dutch-German final should be interesting.