Sunday, July 25, 2010

Football in Sun & Shadow - a look back at the 2010 World Cup

South Africa.
South Africa 2010 was being billed as a disaster ever since the Rainbow Nation romped home unopposed in the bidding war.

The country's high crime rate, political turmoil and level of HIV infection had given journalists a rich seam to of scare stories to mine, reviving a primal Western fear of darkest Africa as the World Cup boldy trod where no one had gone before.

As it transpired, Sepp Blatter's baby was delivered peacefully, with nothing more heinous than the high-decibel blast of plastic horns to assault the eardrums of fans across the world. Crime was an issue for the locals with their electric fences, multiple doors and roaming security staff, but it was soon obvious there was little risk of any visiting fans becoming another statistic.

The FIFA President was as disgusted by the ugly card-fest of a final as anyone, but will have slept soundly in the knowledge nothing seriously went wrong during his tournament.
Those of us who travelled to South Africa came away disappointed in the transport situation, which left us stuck for hours in traffic jams on inadequate roads, but fans could not complain about the cost of living in the Rainbow Nation, having shelled out an arm and a leg for the initial flight of course.

Frank Lampard's wrongly annulled strike against Germany followed by an offside Argentina goal on 'Technology Sunday' ensures that the TV replays debate is back on the agenda, and will never go away until something more advanced than the human eye is allowed to participate in decision making.

Talking of England, a milestone has surely been reached with no fans being arrested during the course of a World Cup for public order offences, apart from the dolt who briefly entered the dressing room in Cape Town. The team might have backfired once more, but the home of football happily failed to hit the headlines for hooliganism.

The Three Lions looked a more spent force than ever on the field, utterly eclipsed by a rampant young German team whose simple counter-attacking strategy wiped out Argentina as well before the Spanish passmasters reminded them who is still top dog.

The winners rarely wowed the crowds like they had at Euro 2008, showed a depressing tendency to surround the referee in order to get opponents booked and were not averse to the odd dive or two on their way to the trophy. And in bagging their first World Cup, Spain also took the prize as the lowest-scoring winners in the competition's history.

Yet la furia roja's final win was a huge relief to neutrals worldwide after the Netherlands, yes the Netherlands, had tried to foul their way to the Cup with the most unpleasant display seen in a final since Argentina in 1990. They gave the world an x-rated moment courtesy of Nigel De Jong's karate kick and to further blot their copybook, some Dutch players berated the referee when he had actually done them favours in not expelling De Jong and Mark Van Bommel, who after verbally abusing Howard Webb at the end, sealed his display of bad losing by not shaking hands with the Spaniards.

With Holland no longer the home of cultured football, Spain carry the torch, ironically a seed which may have been sown by Johann Cruyff at Barcelona in the 1970s.
Ghana apart, there were no heroic campaigns to get excited about. The Black Stars won the sympathy vote as the final African competitor and their heartbreakingly self-inflicted exit was the stuff of Greek tragedy, but it seemed too little too late for the underdogs, who had mostly been wiped out in the first round. Japan & South Korea both showed Eastern promise before succumbing to South American power, which briefly looked like overwhelming the competition, and Uruguay can be proud of going furthest from that continent.

The football was not as negative and defensive as some recent tournaments have been, but rarely caught fire with no unforgettable contests. There were some fine goals however, and a number of long-range peaches, perhaps a result of the controversial Jabulani, the latest official World Cup ball to annoy those who have to play with it.

While Uruguay's advance to the semi-finals may mean the death of 4-4-2 has been prematurely announced, 2010 will go down as the year in tactics of 4-2-3-1 and twin defensive midfielders. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira for the Germans exemplified this, while De Jong and Van Bommel guarded Holland's approaches like two of the three heads of Cerberus.

While formations mutate, it seems nothing revolutionary can happen again in World Cup tactics and it was telling that the inheritors of Total Football finally opted to play a disruptive game instead of taking attacking ideas to the opposition. Even that most isolated of nations, North Korea, showed discipline and organisation in their narrow 2-1 loss to Brazil, a world away from their all-out attacking style in 1966, although it all fell apart for them again against Portugal.

No single theme hung over the tournament as heavily as penalty shoot-outs did in 1990 or player fatigue did in 2002, but only because the refereeing injustices did not affect the outcome of big games. Had Andres Iniesta strayed offside before receiving Cesc Fabregas' assist before scoring, or the Dutch seen a goal like Lampard's wrongly disallowed, the video issue would be burning like wildfire. As it transpires, some concession to technology, perhaps via the fourth official on goal-line decisions, seems likely sooner rather than later, certainly before the next World Cup.

FIFA are beginning to accept they are too remote in the eyes of the world, which perhaps prompted them to splash their logo over substitutes' bibs and TV replays in South Africa. They must be seen to be sensitive to public grievances over refereeing and technology, ticketing and other matters, so their tentative u-turn on video replays is cautiously propitious.

A global organisation of such magnitude demands more accountability and transparency.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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