Friday 2 July 2010

World Cup - First Reflections

The World Cup has now reached the quarter finals stage, and this is a good point on which to reflect a little on what has happened so far.  The great and tremendously important plus point is that the tournament has so far been a resounding success.  The organization seems to have been spot on and the matches have provided a wonderful, if somewhat noisy, spectacle, at least for the TV viewers.  Alas the football has not always been up to the same standard.
As regards the football, the first thing to emerge from this edition of the World Cup is that it is probably the first truly World Cup, with countries from all five major federations represented in the last 16.  The first time ever, I believe.  A quick look at the details.  The following table shows how many countries from each federation progressed to the last 16 and shows this as % of the total contingent from that federation.

No of countries
No in last 16
% of total entered
South America
North America

This shows very clearly the incredible success of the national teams from the Americas.  In particular South America which managed the phenomenal feat of getting all five selections into the last 16.  Something never before achieved.  A great tribute to South American football.  North America continues to do well at the World Cup with two selections - Mexico and the USA - reaching the last 16.   Asia has also done very well this time with two national teams - Japan and South Korea - progressing.  This is also a first, at least other than when the World Cup was held in Japan and Korea.
This brings us, alas, to the relative failures.  Oceania with only one entry, New Zealand, were not expected to provide a team in the last 16, so this can hardly be counted a failure.  It may call into question the wisdom of an Oceania federation, but that is a question for another day.  However you look at it, both Africa and Europe have failed to live up to expectations.  In the case of Africa there are at least some mitigating circumstances.   Both South Africa and the Ivory Coast were in very difficult groups.  Though France were ultimately disappointing, both Mexico and Uruguay are selections with a strong World Cup pedigree.  It was always going to be difficult for South Africa, even with home advantage.  As for the Ivory Coast, who are probably the strongest African selection at the World Cup, they were even more unlucky, as they were drawn in the same group as Brazil and Portugal.   Very few selections would have progressed from this group.
While there are some mitigations on behalf of Africa, there are none for the European contingent.  France, Italy and Serbia were all pretty much appalling, offering very little in the way of positive football.  In this respect they were joined by England and Portugal, who would go on to play both badly and uninspiringly in losing their last 16 matches.  That this should happen to four of the supposedly strongest and richest nations in the world is a cause for some concern in these countries.  Thankfully Spain, Germany and to a certain extent the Netherlands, have shown us all that Europe can still offer the world some excitement and class on the football field.
When it comes to the quality of the football on offer, the impression so far is that just about all selections have become more defensive and cautious.  The main exceptions seem to be Germany and Argentina.  Germany in particular has from the off tried to win each match by attacking the opposition.  Often with some flair allied to their traditional aggression.  From what I can make out they don’t seem to play with a traditional defensive or even holding midfielder.  Schweinsteiger is the one charged with controlling central midfield and he is more an attacking player than a defender.  In addition Germany have two exciting youngsters as genuine attacking and creative midfielders in Özil and Khedira.  Up front they usually play with three goal scoring strikers, Müller, Klose and Podolski.   Though Podolski is often to be found helping out the midfield.  Another fascinating aspect to the current German team is the extent that they represent a new Germany.  So many of their key players clearly come from a non teutonic background.  This integration of new Germans into their national football team is as worthy of note as the quality and attractiveness of their football.
Argentina is the other team which has adopted a marked attacking approach.  Though unlike Germany, Argentina has as yet not quite found a team blend.  Their coach the irrepressible maestro Maradona, has clearly decided to go for  a squad filled with the most attack minded players available.  They seem to have more out and out strikers than any other squad.  Their line up seems quite similar to that of Germany.  They have one player to patrol and try and control the midfield - the elegant Mascheranno.  Ahead of him they play three strikers - Higuaín, Tevez and Messi, though Messi is no ordinary strker.  Two other attackers complete the team - so far Di María on the left and either Veron in central midfield or Rodriguez on the right.  Though Argentina have attacked well at times and have so far won all their matches, they still do not look a balanced side.  Too many gaps for a quality opposition team and most significant of all, they have still to figure out how to get the best out of Messi.  So far he almost plays as a midfielder and is often seen way back in his own half seeking out the ball.  He has played very well so far in a very disciplined way.  If Maradona can work out how to fit Messi into a balanced team then Argentina will be very hard to beat.  We will soon find out as Argentina play Germany in the match of the quarter finals on Saturday.  Should be a cracker.
The remaining selections all play a more conservative way.  This includes Brazil and the Netherlands who are very strong defensively and hope to win through a bit of brilliance by their forwards.  So far so good, but it is disappointing to see such pedestrian football from these two nations.  At least they meet each other in the quarter finals, so only one can progress.  
A case apart is Spain who excited everyone so much in winning the European Championship two years ago in Austria.  While they have stuck broadly to the same approach there has been one very significant change.  Two years ago Spain played with one defensive/holding midfielder - Marcos Senna.  In front they had three very talented and creative attacking midfielders - the incomparable Xavi along with Iniesta and Silva.  Torres and Villa were the two strikers.  This served Spain well as the three tiny midfielders interchanged positions and could spray the ball about at will.  In South Africa by contrast, Spain now play with two defensive/holding midfielders - Busquets and Xabi Alonso.  As Torres and Villa remain the two first choice strikers, this leaves space for only two attacking midfielders - usually Xavi and Iniesta.  
The result is that there are now less options and movement up front.  Though they still have a lot of possession they find it more difficult to create really good scoring chances.  The shape and balance of the team is out of kilter too.  While Villa operates, very effectively, on the left, there is no equivalent on the right.  Here Spain relies on the ever willing forays of Ramos their right back.  Thus Spain are still good and pleasing to watch, but a notch less adventurous and lethal up front.  To make matters worse, Torres is clearly not fully fit, after missing most of the season through injury.  If they are to go all the way they probably need Torres to be at his fittest and sharpest.  They play Paraguay in the quarter finals and if they win will face either Argentina or Germany in the semi-final.
Predictions are a mug’s game and I am not about to test fate.  Before the tournament started I stated that the three teams I most wanted to win were, in order, Spain, Argentina and Brazil.  So I still have a fair chance of getting lucky.  The one prediction I will make is that either Brazil or the Netherlands should make the final as the winner of their quarter final faces the winner of the Uruguay v Ghana match.  Still, an unfancied Uruguay did beat Brazil in the final in 1950, in Brazil too.  So I’m just going to sit back and enjoy what I hope will be some great matches during the rest of the tournament.


  1. Hi good post but I thought Australia were in it at the beginning! I hope Spain win though!

  2. Australia were in the tournament and did surprisingly well. They are now part of the Asia Federation and qualified as one of the four Asian teams.