Friday 23 July 2010

World Cup - Final Reflections

Congratulations to Spain for winning their first ever World Cup.  They were the selection I most wanted to win and they did so with some style.  Theirs was the selection with the most number of technically gifted players.  Not just the supremely gifted Xavi and Iniesta, but the whole supporting cast are very, very good players, all comfortable with the ball at their feet.  In addition they played with passion, discipline and great determination.  They also played as a team- one for all and all for one.  
The final itself alas was not a great spectacle.  This was primarily down to the Dutch, who played in a most disgraceful way.  It is one thing to try and frustrate the opposition and it is perfectly legitimate to use physical strength.  But on this occasion the Dutch, or at least many of their players went way over the top - in some cases literally over the top.  How they managed to end up with 11 players on the pitch at half time, God only knows.  Both Van Bommel for persistent violent aggression and De Jong for a karate style lunge at Xabi Alonso should have been sent off.  I felt sorry for the referee as he clearly did not want to ruin the game by sending players off.  But it was a very poor show by the Dutch.  Much as Spain deserved to win, the Dutch most certainly deserved to lose.
Congratulations also to South Africa for hosting such a well run tournament.  Perhaps more world events will go to African countries in the future.  It is only a pity that no African team managed to reach the semi-finals, though Ghana were a revelation and should have beaten Uruguay.

From a purely football perspective this was a very conservative World Cup.  Just about every selection put caution and defensive stability above every thing else.  This even held true for Spain.  With his insistence on playing with a double pivot in midfield - two holding/defensive players - Del Bosque severely limited Spain’s attacking and creative options.  The problem is not with the players themselves.  Busquets for example sometimes plays as an attacking midfielder for Barcelona and even as a holding player he still manages to get forward with his club.  No, the problem lies in the tactical approach.  For Spain neither Xabi Alonso nor Busquets ever got into the opposition’s penalty box.  They always stayed behind, ready to stop any counter attacks.  The irony of this is that despite playing two defensive midfielders, Spain could easily have lost the final as Robben twice ran through the Spanish defence.  
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the 4-2-3-1 formation which seems to have become the flavour of the month all of a sudden.  It is all about how the players move about the pitch or rather don’t.  Most selections, like Spain, adopted a fairly static approach with only four attacking players and the odd run upfield by one of the full backs.  Spain got away with it simply because they have such a talented and gifted squad.
However the two selections that stood out for me were Germany and Ghana.  Germany in particular always tried to play in a very fluid and attacking way.  Though they too nominally had two holding midfielders - Khedira and Schweinsteiger - both joined in the attack on a regular basis.  And it was Khedira who scored the winning goal against Uruguay in the third place play-off.  That Germany did so well shows how much better Spain could have been had they adopted the German approach.  Still well done to both Germany and Ghana.
As usual in a major tournament the refereeing came in for a fair amount of scrutiny.  On the whole I think the officials did a fine job.  Sure they made mistakes, but that is inevitable in any fast moving game that allows physical contact.  The problem is with the rules of the game and FIFA’s refusal to allow technology to help the officials.  The most obvious mistake was the England ‘goal’ which the referee failed to spot had crossed the line.  TV replays showed conclusively that a goal should have been awarded to England.  There were other mistakes.  Carlos Tevez’s goal against Mexico should have disallowed as he was clearly in an off-side position.  Both these incidents could have been cleared up within minutes if the referee had access to video replays.  This happens in rugby and in cricket.  It just beggars belief that football alone of the major sports still turns its face against technology.  The use of technology- video replays of actions - would only be required for major competitions - the World Cup finals obviously, but also other major international tournaments.  The basic rule would be if the prime audience for a match is the TV audience then technology should be used.  The TV income would pay for the additional costs.
The World Cup also showed up a couple of incidents which should throw into question the current Laws of the game themselves.  I refer first of all to the last minute hand ball in the Ghana Uruguay quarter final.  Here a shot from a Ghana player was about to cross the line when an Uruguayan player stopped the ball from crossing the line with his hands.  I do not blame the Uruguayan, this was an instinctive action which almost every player would do.  The player was red carded and sent off.  Ghana were awarded a penalty which they unfortunately missed.  This seems to me to be contrary to natural justice.  A penalty is normally awarded when a team is adjudged to have been denied a chance to score.  But in this case it was not the chance to score that was denied - it was the actual goal that was denied.  No hand ball and the ball would have crossed the line and Ghana would have won the game.  I feel in cases like this - which are exceedingly rare - the referee should be able to award a penalty goal.  This is what happens for example in rugby.  The basic premise is that the punishment should fit the crime.  If you deny the opposition a chance to score then they get a chance to score -  a penalty kick.  If you stop the ball entering the net and thus deny the opposition not just a chance, but a goal, then a goal should be given.
The other incident or rather series of incidents came in the final itself.  I refer to the persistent violence committed by some of the Dutch players.  In particular Van Bommel and De Jong.  Nearly all observers are pretty much unanimous that both players should have been sent off during the first half.  However it seems that the referee clearly decided that to send one, let alone two players off so early in the match would so destroy the game as a spectacle that he let consistent violent play by the Dutch go unpunished by a red card.  Now in one respect I am in agreement.  I do not think a team should have to play with one or two players short.  The game should always be 11 v 11.  But what to do about persistent fouling and/or serious violent play?  The answer I would suggest comes from basketball.  In that sport when a player has committed five fouls he can no longer play in the game.  However another player from the squad can come on in his place.  I would like to see football experiment with this approach.  In the World Cup final both Dutch players could then have been sent off as their conduct demanded, but they would have been replaced by other players - so the game would remain 11 v 11.  I do not have much expectation that these changes will happen.  Though the use of a limited amount of TV replays may be permitted.
All in all a good World Cup, but not a great one.  However an undoubted triumph for both Spain and South Africa.

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