Copa Mundial III: Copa Mundialist

That’s it, for another four years. Football fans feverishly channel surf, wondering why there are no longer three televised games a day. Casual fans awake from a reverie and wonder what came over them, and who bought that replica shirt? Others will audibly groan with relief and declare ‘I survived’. But for this football fan, it’s time to look back at the previous month and discover what the beautiful game has taught me this World Cup.

Okay, so many of the games weren’t actually that great in terms of spectacle, but there was a hell of a lot of technical ability on display, despite the World game’s Galácticos almost singularly failing to perform. This World Cup was about team-work, hard work and tactics, as evidenced by the four sides that reached the final, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Uruguay. It was also the tournament where the 4-2-3-1 formation, with two holding midfielders, came to popular attention.

Watching the games at home in the UK, I have to say the BBC and ITV’s coverage of this World Cup has been nothing short of shameful. Both channels picked their pundits from a pool of former professionals and failed managers, none of whom appear to have any interest in, or knowledge of football. The BBC’s Hansen, Shearer and Lineker were breezily cheerful about the fact they didn’t care about games not featuring the ‘big guns’, and when asked for their analysis declared they knew ‘not much about this team’, as if Algeria or Slovenia usually played their football in a parallel dimension. I initially attempted to watch every match, even those I missed due to work, by viewing recordings or delayed transmissions, but I was forced to stop watching Cameroon versus Japan due to Alan Lawrenson’s overwhelming negativity. "This is boring", he whined, like a petulant child.

Meanwhile, over on ITV, the ever reliable Clive Tyldelsey was displaying his complete lack of knowledge and understanding, not just of football, but the world in general. He sagely noted the Spanish players weren’t singing their instrumental national anthem before the quarter-final, and attributed it to nerves. The rise in popularity of Twitter has changed the world, perhaps in a small way, but it’s given the man in the street a way to express himself he’s never had before. Indeed, in many ways it has given the every person a modicum of power they’ve never had before. The Daily Mail in Britain has already experienced this first hand; after the ‘Twitterverse’ reacted unfavourably to an opinion piece they’d run on Stephen Gateley, several companies withdrew lucrative advertising with the newspaper. At the World Cup, it was comforting to look at the trending topics and see that others were as frustrated with the coverage they were watching as I was; I can only hope the BBC and ITV have monitored the social networking sites during the tournament, and taken our collective opinions on board. Heaven knows they don’t pay much heed to letters of complaint.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t understand why the two television networks insisted on sending people than don’t seem to be that interested to cover the games. And the ignorance is inexcusable; saying you know nothing about an international football team in this day and age of digital communication is laughable. Why these guys are paid handsome sums of money to watch games they clearly don’t care about is bizarre when you consider the number of erudite, perceptive journalists and bloggers there are stuck in the U.K. watching the games via the half-hearted television coverage. Presumably, the motley crew are retained because they are deemed entertaining, if not informative. The mind boggles.

Where to go now? I suspect I may still write a letter of exasperation to both the BBC and ITV expressing where I think they let themselves down, but during my trawl of the negative comments directed at the television coverage, I found an interesting theme emerging; several people had wondered if the paucity of analysis on British television is linked to the stunted development of so many UK players.

It’s an interesting theory; many hundreds of thousands of children in Britain get their prime exposure to football via the BBC and ITV’s coverage. If any of them pay attention to the post-match analysis, it’s no surprise they grow up to be witless footballers, with no appreciation of positioning or tactics. There’s got to be a reason why Steven Gerrard continually drifted out of position during each England game, leaving Ashley Cole exposed, when every other team at the tournament was seemingly comfortable with staying in the position they were playing, or where necessary, swapping positions to cover movement. To that end, I plan to improve my currently little more than vague German to a competent standard, and take a two week break to Berlin or Munich to watch the next World Cup in 2014.

One of the other themes of the World Cup was repetition, as thousands of people with multimedia devices and nothing to write about began to pick over any morsel of controversy. Anything untoward that happened during the tournament was dissected and discussed until the heavens themselves started to lose all relevance. And it happened everywhere; studio panels, Twitter, park benches, the comments sections of Guardian online articles…people saying the same things over and over again, seemingly not reading what everyone else had already said, offering nothing new to the debate. I’m not going to mention the key incidents and add my own patina of bullshit to the dungheap, but we all know what they are. BECAUSE NO-ONE STOPS TALKING ABOUT THEM.

Of course, as with Germany in 2006, we got to see a little more of a nation that has to bear stereotypes born of a previous era. Any England fan I’ve heard recount their time in Germany four years ago has been nothing less than glowing about the country and its people, a huge step forward from the Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo type cliche comedy of the seventies and eighties. Before the tournament South Africa had something of a reputation for violent crime, especially directed towards tourists, and there was (there might always be) the lingering spectre of Apartheid. But the country and their national team, Bafana Bafana, have come out of this summer with nothing but credit and plaudits. Any criticism of the tournament has been directed at FIFA rather than the hosts themselves, and from what I could tell, some six thousand miles away, they did a fantastic job.

So, the rest of Europe, most of Africa, all of South America, and most of the rest of the World is better at football than the British. But we already knew that. ITV really shouldn’t be allowed to cover live sport, and the BBC really need to buck up their act, but we knew that as well. South Africa is still finding its feet as a democratic nation, and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but things are going well.

So, it would appear the world and I have learned nothing new from a summer of international association football. But I have learned a little. Not too much, a soupçon of World History here, a smidgeon of understanding of football at the highest level there. If nothing else, watching six games featuring Bastian Schweinsteiger has modified my own game of football, perhaps permanently and certainly for the better. But most importantly, I enjoyed watching the football and writing about it.

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World Cup 2010: Day Thirty One – The Final

It’s almost inevitable, that regardless of the perceived quality of the football throughout the tournament, the World Cup Final is something of a disappointment. I have now watched seven finals, and to be frank, none of them have been particularly memorable. Maybe France versus Brazil in 1998, because of the circumstances surrounding the game and the mild surprise of the result, where France scored three goals without reply.

The omens for this game weren’t great; the Netherlands, an international side with a reputation for attacking verve, had reached the final cultivating a more pragmatic footballing style. In Mark van Bommel, they have perhaps the tournament’s most celebrated pantomime villain, a midfielder that isn’t subtle about his physical aggression. He fouls a lot. Spain on the other hand have a more aesthetically pleasing style, but they thus far hadn’t managed to marry it to any flair of their own.

Of course, that isn’t the point. The problem with the World Cup, as with any once-in-a-while, massive sporting event, is that it attracts casual viewers, who perhaps have a superficial understanding of the game and don’t quite understand the undercurrents and tactics and machinations of what is happening in front of them. That’s possibly patronising, but I also think it happens to be true. On the surface, this match was 120 minutes of the team in orange trying to kick the team in blue. Of course, that’s pretty much what transpired, but why?

Anyone watching the semi-final between Spain and Germany would have seen how the Spaniards subdued the effervescent, counter-attacking Germans; they simply didn’t allow them the ball, and they kept a fairly rigid shape, with three defenders and two midfielders behind the ball at all times. Germany were unable to find any space, even when they did manage to get hold of the ball. This did mean however that Spain weren’t creating many chances of their own; they had won all three previous knockout games 1-0. The Netherlands had on the other hand scored more goals en route (7 to Spain’s 3), and had played arguably more ‘expansive’ (2010’s buzzword) football. The Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk had obviously decided however that the Netherlands couldn’t cope with Spain’s incessant, machine like passing and retention of possession by outplaying them, so he had instructed his team to try and disrupt their opponents’ rhythm, by fair means or foul.

Of course, they mostly fouled. A lot has been made of how the Dutch had brought the game into disrepute, or had ‘demeaned the spirit of the World Cup’ and other such nonsense. There was a lot of manipulating of the rules in this game, but both sides were at it; Spanish players were diving, making the most of fouls, and plaintively demanding the referee take sanctions against their aggressors. The Dutch were by and large trying to figuratively knock Spain’s players out of their stride by literally knocking them out of their stride. But aside from trying to hoodwink the referee, both teams attempted to play a bit of football. Spain passed the ball around expertly, confidently and slikcly, but had no real cutting age. The Netherlands were content to let them have the ball, and occasionally launch a counter attack.

It was the Dutch that arguably had the best chance to win the game in normal time, when Wesley Sneijder found Arjen Robben with a precise pass, and the winger burst through on goal, one-on-one with Iker Casillas, Joan Capdevila unable to catch him up…and he missed. Or Casillas made a great save. Either way, the ball didn’t go into the net for a Dutch goal, and some fifty minutes later, deep into injury time, Cesc Fabregas slipped a ball through to Andres Iniesta, who took a touch and fired the ball past Stekelenburg. He tore away in delirium, pursued by his team-mates, and peeled his shirt off to reveal a t-shirt bearing a tribute to Dani Jarque, an Espanyol player who had died of a heart attack last summer, aged just 26.

Spain had won the World Cup; thoroughly deserved in many people’s eyes. And while I agree they deserved to win the title, being the best team over the course of the tournament, I can’t help feeling a little disappointed by this Spain team. Their passing was tremendous throughout, but all the pretty patterns in the world couldn’t make up for the fact they were a little toothless in the final third. Spain will go into the record books as the lowest scoring World football champions ever (though it’s worth noting that goals aren’t very fashionable in the early part of the 21st Century). Posterity forgives all sins, and won’t record that they were extremely fortunate to avoid having a player sent-off on four separate games during their run, including the final itself. Nor will memory serve that while the supposedly filthy Netherlands players received nine yellow cards, Spain had five players booked.

Iker Casillas held aloft the trophy, and Johannesburg and Spain revelled in their joy. The Netherlands faced recrimination and reproach for their brutality. Football packed and up and left South Africa, for the better or worse, it remains to be seen, and will touch down in Brazil in four years time. Spain will have to qualify, and hope they avoid the curse of failure that now appears to haunt the defending champion.

Final score: Netherlands 0, Spain 1 (Iniesta 116), after extra time.

World Cup 2010: Day Thirty

Match 63: Uruguay versus Germany, third place play-off

if most people seemingly had their way, there would be no such thing as the third place play off match. It’s regarded as being unnecessary, pointless, cruel and unusual punishment to the two teams that lost in the semi-final. As I get more contrary the older I get, I find this game becoming more appealing than the final itself; maybe that’s because the latter is played out by two teams in an almost unbearable state of tension and anxiety, and the football suffers as a result.

Meanwhile, in this game, the pressure is off. Teams play with élan and an unrestricted joy that we perhaps haven’t seen since the group stages. It was certainly the case in this game, Uruguay and Germany playing out an open and attractive game of end-to-end football with no small measure of technical excellence. Thomas Müller was back in the German team, and he scored the opening goal, tucking the ball into the net when Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long range shot had been parried into his path by Fernando Muslera. However, Uruguay have proved in this tournament that they’re nothing if not skilful and resilient, and after Edinson Cavani had equalised in the 28th minute,  Diego Forlán continued his pursuit of Müller and Golden Shoe glory by volleying in his fifth goal of the tournament to give the South Americans the league.

However, Germany have proved in the history of their national team they’re nothing if not…blah blah blah. Jerome Boateng’s deep cross from the right was flapped at by Muslera, and the ball popped off Marcell Jansen’s head and into the Uruguay net. Germany eventually went on to sneak another goal when Mesut Özil’s corner eventually landed kindly for Sami Khedira to head in his first international goal.

Germany’s young squad didn’t promise much at the outset of the tournament, but they delivered plenty. Cannily, manager Joachim Löw sent on some of the younger players that hadn’t had a run out so far towards the end of the match, with the result that this current German team have the potential to play together at  tournaments for the next decade. It’s unclear whether Uruguay, a country with a population of only 3.5 million people, can emulate this remarkable run to the last four of the World Cup again any time soon. They certainly have some terrific players; after the final, Forlán was awarded the Golden Ball award for Player of the Tournament. Incidentally, Germany’s Müller deservedly picked up the Young Player of the Tournament.

World Cup 2010: Day Twenty-seven

Match 61: Uruguay versus Netherlands

Not too many people would have predicted that these two sides would reach the semi-final before the tournament, although there is always at least one dark horse, and it would prove to be the South Americans this time around. The Netherlands were a surprise because despite being blessed with some talented individuals, they have a habit of dissolving into cliques of talented but grumpy individuals instead of a team. Indeed, despite reaching the semi-finals, it’s been rumoured that midfielder Wesley Sneijder and striker Robin van Persie refuse to pass to each other.

The Netherlands, or Holland as the Guardian, ITV and Sky insist on calling them, took the lead in the 18th minute. Giovanni van Bronckhorst is retiring from football altogether after the final, and so whatever the result was, this was likely to be his penultimate game of professional football. He makred it, in the 18th minute, with a terrific goal, an audacious 35 yard shot from out on the left that sailed into the top corner of the goal. Uruguay equalised shortly before half-time, Forlan scoring another long-range shot that Maarten Stekelenburg probably should have done better with.

The Netherlands took control in the second half, Sneijder and Arjen Robbing scoring within three minutes of each other with 20 minutes remaining, not enough time for Uruguay to find another three goals, although they did manage one, Maxi Pereira cutting in onto his left foot and curling a shot beyond Stekelenburg.

Final score: Uruguay 2 (Forlan, Pereira), Netherlands 3 (van Bronkhorst, Sneijder, Robben)

Match 62: Germany versus Spain

Germany were another team that hadn’t been expected to do well before the tournament. It seems habitual that the British blithely like to write off the Germans before each tournament, but perhaps they had good reason to this time, with Germany having the third youngest squad at the entire tournament. Young forward Thomas Müller had only 2 caps before the World Cup started, but he had exploded onto the international scene with four goals in five games. He was however, suspended for this game, and perhaps if he had been available, the end result would have been different.

These were two sides that utilise a similar formation, but had played very different styles of football thus far; Spain had favoured a more patient, measured approach, known as ‘death by a thousand passes’, by which they would keep the ball, keep the ball, pass it around, spread the play, draw their opponents out of position, preventing them from scoring by not allowing the ball, and eventually, at some point, they might score a goal. Germany had allowed their opponents the ball and all the time they needed to try and hurt them, then they would take it off them and exploit the gaps and spaces behind their midfield. The upshot of these two conflicting styles was that not much happened in this game. Some football matches are described as games of chess, and this game could be well feature in a future DVD of ‘Football as Chess’.

Inevitably, the game was decided by a single goa which came about as the result of a single mistake. Philipp Lahm missed a rare tackle and allowed Andres Iniesta to make for the German goal. Bastion Schweinsteiger, covering for his captain, conceded a corner, Xavi took the corner, found the head of Carles Puyol, and Spain were in the final.

Final score: Germany 0, Spain 1 (Puyol)

Bastian by Name, Bastion by Nature

As Germany (and I’m trying to avoid clichés here) simply smash their way into the semi-finals of the World Cup, their two young attacking midfield/forward players Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil have been showered with plaudits and praise, and rightfully so. 20 and 21 respectively, they’ve been instrumental in Germany turning on the flair as they swept aside Australia, England and Germany. However, this doesn’t mean we should overlook the contribution of Germany’s other midfielders, Lukas Podolski, Sami Khedira and especially Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger first came to international prominence at Euro 2004 in the Low Countries. Aged 19, he made two substitute appearances and a start as an attacking midfielder for an underwhelming German team that went out in the group stages. Two years later, in the World Cup held on his home patch, he was more prominent; the only game he didn’t start was the semi-final which Germany lost to Italy. In the third/fourth place play off, he was outstanding, smashing in two long range goals and forcing an own goal. And in 2008 he was again a vital part of Germany’s team which lost in the final to Spain, and scored two important goals along the way.

Perhaps though, there was an inkling that an attacking midfield position wasn’t right for him. In fact, in a recent interview, the man himself has suggested holding midfield was where he always wanted to play, there were just better players in front of him. In any case, due to German football being so habitually ignored by the British media, I’ve only seen Bayern Munich play a handful of times in the last couple of years, but it had become apparent that the former right winger was now a holding midfielder. And a bloody good one at that. Oddly, it would appear Schweinsteiger had a reputation for being something of a lad about town when he was younger, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him now. In fact, most young people interested in playing football, and to be honest, most British professional players, should watch this young man (still not 26 until next month) in action.

Wherever he plays, (and Mr. Gerrard, you’d do well to pay attention here), he doesn’t drift all over the pitch to where he’d like to be. He doesn’t neglect his duties. If a team-mate leaves their position for whatever reason, he’ll fill in until they get back. This is actually one of the most basic footballing techniques, but one that seems to be beyond most British players. His passing is generally simple and effective, but he’s not above teasing out a defence-splitter when required. And he’s still got all the tools that serve him so well whenever he plays in a more attacking role; quick feet, an thundering right foot shot and excellent dead ball skills. He can tackle, track runs and appears to have an innate understanding of what tempo his team should be playing at.

But that’s still not all; in mid twenties, he’s not only one of the older players in this young German team, but he’s one of the most mature and sensible. Watching the Germany games so far in the tournament, I’ve been struck by the team spirit throughout the squad, and no more so than in Schweinsteiger; he’s always there to offer a kind word of support when his team-mates make an error, or congratulation when they do well. He was there to commiserate Müller when he received the second booking that would rule him out of the semi-final; equally, when Özil misplaced a clearance and looked a little dismayed about it, his far more experienced team-mate slapped his hand and encouraged him it was no big deal, he was doing well. At one point he requested the fans to make more noise of support, shortly before he embarked on his slaloming solo run that ended with Arne Friedrich tucking home his first international goal.

For his performance, he was justly awarded FIFA’s official man of the match; for me he’s been the player of the tournament, playing in a position he might not have (Germany suffered injuries to a couple of other holding midfielders), and doing it with élan and authority. Hopefully this continues a recent trend of valuable, selfless and more humble midfielders being appreciated for doing their jobs for the team well (see also Xavi, Darren Fletcher), as opposed to one trick show ponies looking for personal glory.

World Cup 2010: Day Twenty-three

And so we enter end game. After a slow and somewhat maligned start, this tournament has really upped the ante in the knockout stages. Of course, this is true of almost every World Cup, but it’s especially appropriate here. The quarter-finals were explosive.

Match 57: Netherlands versus Brazil

This match kicked off at 3pm on Friday, and when we finished at four, several of us trooped over to the pub across the road from the office to watch the second half. By the time we got there, Brazil were 1-0 up, the ever mercurial Robinho having turned an astute Filipe Melo pass beyond Martin Stekelenburg. However, as larynxes were lubricated by me and my colleagues, the Dutch came back into things. Wesley Sneijder’s deep free-kick was flicked past his own goalkeeper by hero-to-villain Filipe Melo, who completed his own riches-to-rags story by being sent off for a ludicrous stamp on Arjen Robben. By that stage Brazil were toiling, having lost another goal to a Dutch set-piece. This time Sneijder was the beneficiary, heading in a flicked in corner, and the Brazilians were facing an uphill struggle. They had lost their shape, on a pitch that was cutting up, and were down to ten men, and there’s just something about Brazil playing in Blue that doesn’t look right. The Netherlands were just about able to keep Brazil at bay, and progressed to only their fourth World Cup semi-final, where they’d meet the winners of the evening game.

Final score: Netherlands 2 (Filipe Melo o.g., Sneijder), Brazil 1 (Robinho)

Match 58: Uruguay versus Ghana

After watching the Dutch beat Brazil, we watched Andy Murray slink out of Wimbledon with defeat to Rafa Nadal (whose uncle Miguel Ángel Nadal appeared in three World Cup finals for Spain; there you go, fact fans), and ingested more alcohol. And as a result, I’m ashamed to say, this match passed me by to an extent. Which is a shame, as it may go down as one of the more open and controversial games of this tournament. The Black Stars, Africa’s last remaining participant, took the lead on the stroke of half-time when Sulley Muntari’s shot from a full forty yards skipped into the bottom corner of Uruguay’s goal. Their lead lasted only ten minutes however, with Uruguay’s star man Diego Forlan producing an equaliser with a swerving free-kick.

And then we all went to a Thai restaurant (I know; when did Glaswegians start going to Thai restaurants during nights out?) that didn’t have a television, and we missed all the fireworks. In the latter stages, Uruguay could perhaps have had their own penalty, before the match’s true talking point; having conceded a free kick, some penalty area pinball ended with Uruguay striker Luis Suarez batting the ball off his own goal line with his hands. The referee had no recourse but to send him off and award a penalty to Ghana, in the last minute of extra-time…which Asamoah Gyan clipped over the crossbar. The game went to penalties, and Gyan showed tremendous fortitude to step up to the mark once again, and score this time. However, his colleagues John Mensah and Dominic Adiyiah weren’t as accurate, and Uruguay won through.

The talking point remained Suarez’s deliberate handball; some have decried it as the most heinous form of cheating in the game, while others have said it was an entirely acceptable calculated risk, or an instinctive reaction. Whatever your opinion, it seems clear that had Gyan converted his penalty kick, we might not be talking about the incident so animatedly.

Final score: Uruguay 1 (Forlan), Ghana 1 (Muntari); Uruguay win 4-2 on penalties.

Match 59: Argentina versus Germany

I’ve made no secret of the fact I’ve been supporting Germany at this World Cup, but even after the convincing performance against England, I wasn’t sure how they’d do against Argentina’s perhaps more potent strikeforce. We didn’t have to wait long to see what Germany’s response would be, with Thomas Müller heading in Bastian Schweinsteiger’s free-kick from the left flank. Schweinsteiger was magnificent, turning in a man-of-the-match performance in what has already been a highly impressive World Cup for him and his team. Along with holding midfield partner Sami Khedira, he controlled the tempo of the game and helped nullify Lionel Messi. Argentina were unable to fashion any clear cut chances, and Germany were happy to allow them the ball and hit on the counter.

Germany’s second goal came in the 67th minute when they took advantage of acres of space on Argentina’s right flank; Müller fed Podolski, whose cross was tapped home by Miroslav Klose for his 43,837th World Cup finals goal (13 in reality). Not content with sitting back and defending their advantage, the Germans pushed on, and scored another goal seven minutes later. Schweinsteiger danced through the dispirited Argentine defence and squared the ball for Arne Friedrich to poke home his first international goal. And before full-time, it was 4, the German counter-attacking at pace impossible to resist. With four passes, they ripped up the pitch, Mesut Özil clipped a pass onto the foot of Klose, and he volleyed home.

Argentina, and particularly Messi and Maradona, left dejected. It remains to be seen if the World Cup will see the latter again.

Argentina 0, Germany 4 (Müller, Klose 2, Friedrich)

Match 60: Paraguay versus Spain

In contrast to its three predecessors, this was a more subdued affair, only bursting into life for a five minute spell midway through the first half. Spain had persisted with Fernando Torres as lone striker, despite him appearing to be unfit and out of form, and as a result, the attacking players failed to gel. It was however Paraguay who had the chance to take the lead when Gerard Piqué conceded a penalty. Oscar Cardozo’s weak kick was saved by Iker Casillas. Spain then raced up the pitch and were awarded a penalty of their own, after David Villa was barged by Antolin Alcaraz. Xabi Alonso stepped up and put the ball high into the net; but no, the referee immediately signalled for the penalty to be retaken, due to players encroaching into the area. Alonso put his second kick low to the goalkeeper’s left, and this time Justo Villar saved it…and then looked to bring down Fabregas who was attempting to score the rebound.

The game then quietened down for another 15 minutes; Spain had replaced the ineffectual Torres with Fabregas, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the busy Pedro with 15 minutes to go that Spain broke the deadlock. A slick passing move ended with Iniesta bursting through the Paraguayan rearguard, before slipping the ball to Pedro. His shot rebounded off the post and landed right at the feet of Villa, whose own shot hit both uprights before crossing the line. Spain were into their first ever World Cup semi-final.

Final score: Paraguay 0, Spain 1 (Villa)