After the first round of matchplay of this year’s football world cup has been finished and the first few matches of the secound round of the group stage already have taken place I’d like to take the opportunity to write a little bit about what was interesting to me. Because it’s such a huge event there are always great expectations and because of that there might be deep disappointment. Some may be justified, some may be not.
My own expectations weren’t necessarily high, but I have to admit, that the first round of group matches were not what I had in mind when I prepeared for the world cup in South Africa. It’s true that the opening match is a rather boring affair most of the time (exclude the opening match of the 2006 world cup from that statistic), but the rest of the pack weren’t exactly what one would call a “thriller”. When most of the favourites don’t play like one and the rather clumsy and technically challenged teams live up their standards (which would be “place 10 men in front of your own goal and punt the ball into your opponents half all the time, you might get a draw if you are lucky”) it’s very likely you won’t get to see an exciting game.
One reason might be that most of the teams opted for only one central striker instead of two, playing a 4-2-3-1 setup. While I would prefer a classic 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1 can be a strong offense. If you opt for three all out attacking midfielders behind the lone striker. But it seems that most teams prefer to play it safe and rely on a strong defense. Of all the teams the German side seemed like the only team willing to go all out from the kickoff and try to crush an opponent who was ranked way below themselves. The way the team approached the match against Australia was very impressive, especially for the German supporters as they are used to a rather tactical and rational play. The Netherlands’ midfielder Marc van Bommel pointed out that the Germans played like the Dutch and the Dutch like the Germans, and I believe he was right. The young German side with their up and coming stars like Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Müller or Holger Badstuber looked very confident and strong. That they lost to Serbia in their second match was a letdown, especially after the hype their 4-0 victory created back home, nonetheless Germany‘s performance yesterday looked just as good as their first one. I’m still confident they will go to the knock out stages.
The biggest disappointments so far have been France and England. I don’t know why, but those two teams are always mentioned when it comes to big competitions and in the case of England they just choke when they set foot on the pitch. England was horrible, just aweful. There was no spirit whatsoever. I’m really running out of negative adjectives to describe their performance so far. And there has to be something wrong with Wayne Rooney. The way he performes on the pitch leads me to believe that the injury he sustained in the Champions League against Bayern Munich is still nagging him. Fabio Capello should try a different striker for the last group match against Slovenia. And, no, I won’t talk about England goalkeepers.
While we all got used to England failure at world cups over the past decades, France on the other hand is an even bigger disappointment. That’s not a team, it’s 11 individuals who look like they want to be back home as soon as possible. What they put up on the pitch against Uruguay and Mexico was even worse than the English performance. They lack a playmaker, although everybody would tell you that this position is not needed in today’s football. Franck Ribéry might have the technical skill, but he’s a winger by trade. When they leave Thierry Henry on the bench, they don’t have a valid striker up front. The defense might be labelled solid at best, but they looked quite shaky against Mexico, who by the way were a very pleasant surprise and might go farther than anyone might expect right now.
It seems that the “small” countries have settled in nicely in their “put all men back in your own half” approach and the big names like Brazil, Italy, Spain or Argentina. Of those four teams, only Italy didn’t look like they really have a clue how to solve that problem. They are an old and slow team and I don’t see them going very far, even if they make it to the knock out stages. Brazil and Argentina on the other hand almost played european in their wins against smaller teams and while one has to applaud the effort North Korea put into defending against Brazil, the south americans patiently waited for their chance and when it came they were cold-blooded enough to grab it. Argentina wasn’t challenged enough to really expose any flaws, but their offense finally came to life against South Korea after they missed quite a few chances in their opener against Nigeria. Spain might be labelled as chokers once again, but their performance against Switzerland was very good, at least in my eyes. 8 out of 10 games Spain goes away with three points and I don’t see them struggle that much in their remaining games.
So all in all the overall performance of all the teams was rather poor, but things seem to be picking up during the second round of group matches with USA and Slovenia leading the way with a very exciting and thrilling 2-2 draw which the Americans should have won, but were denied by the referee (Here’s a great piece by Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski about the match and its impact). Which brings me to the third team in all matches, the men in black. Overall I don’t see any reason to bash the refs, they did a good job. But it’s always the referees from the smaller countries who really struggle at such a big stage. This is in no way meant to be euro-ecentric, the spanish ref in the 2nd match for the Germans recieved a lot of critisism, and rightly so. But the referees from Africa and Asia are always very inconsistent in their performance. They are not to blame for the poor showings during the first matches, but when a ref is doing a good job, the game itself will eventually be better, I think. Just in case anyone missed it, here’s a link to a great documentary about the referees during the 2008 Euro tournament in Switzerland and Austria.
The surroundings of the world cup seem to have an influence on the games as well and that’s where it gets interesting, I think. Of course noone likes to play outside when it’s freezing and the south african winter sems to have been underestimated by FIFA and the participating teams. I have to admit that it’s a strange sight to see the people in the stands wear thick coats and jackets with gloves and scarfs during a world cup. But what’s also being talked about – at least here in Germany – is the deafening sound of those horrible “vuvuzelas“. Now, I don#t have any problems with supporters bringing in things to make noise during a match. it’s what football is all about. But when the whole stadium is creating one boring sound which drowns all other things it becomes a nuisance. Football is a game which rides on waves and those waves are created by the people in the seats and on the terraces. Even when you close your eyes you should be able to follow the game a little bit with the way the supporters cher, moan and scream. There’s nothing like that when the vuvuzela sound is on. It’s just boring. And maybe, only maybe, it also infuences the players on the pitch who might run a little faster and show a little bit more effort when they hear their own supporters scream at them. It’s sad to watch an England match – well, it is because they play so abominable – when you don’t hear any of the great chants they usually sport during a game. It’s sad to live without the great sogs of the argentinian fans. It’s sad not to hear the band which usually accompanies the nigerian team. It’s all gotten a little better during the past few days, but the vuvuzela will be the everlasting memory of this world cup for sure.
Lastly, the ball. Yes, it seems to be responsible for every mistake, doesn’t it? What I don’t understand is that teams didn’t practice with it when it was given to them. Especially England seem to blame everything on poor “Jabulani“. And while it may be true that the trajectry might be very hard to predict, it’s no excuse for the rather poor goaltending during the world cup so far. There have been so many miscues it seems that training goalkeepers was abandoned before the world cup. I don’t have any explanation what they trained instead though. It might be responsible for the poor shots from outside the box though, as we have seen way to many bad set pieces, corner kicks and passes from the wingers. The ball seems to carry a lot when you lift it into the thin air, but also on sea level it seems to float longer than previous balls made for big tournaments. One would expect world class players to make adjustments after only a few practice sessions, but then again us mortals will never know what it feels like to play in a world cup.
All in all I’m still looking forward to every match and I have hope that there will be better performances along the way to the final.