Monday, 12 July 2010

World Cup review

The World Cup final came perilously close to delivering the ultimate sucker punch in the face of entertainment. After a tournament dominated by player cynicism, the Dutch produced a display that was both so unpleasant and negative that they were the true representatives of how South Africa 2010 should be remembered.

It has been a disappointing tournament no matter what the television coverage, frequently bordering on patronising African supporters, may have told us. It will be remembered not for great moments of emotion or skill, but for misplaced passes, hopelessly over-hit shots and badly controlled balls.

The new football, the Jabulani, will have played its part in this, despite commentators veering from raging against it in week one, to arguing that it wasn't having any impact in week two. The reality was not so much that the ball swerved wildly in the air, but that it arrived on goal with far too much pace for goalkeepers to have the time to react. Reassess the goalkeeping blunders across the World Cup, of which there were many, and you will see time and again shot-stoppers being unable to react in time when caught out by the speed of the ball.

Some analysts have argued that 2010 has been a great tournament despite the lack of goals simply because of the parity of the teams. In reality though, all this has meant is that sides have been cancelling each other out with ease, sticking to rigid conservative game plans and displaying little attacking intent.

We thought this malaise to be restricted to the opening week of games, but the lethargy and apparent apathy towards actively attempting to win games was evident throughout. There has been perhaps only one great game-Slovakia against Italy, and for every one of those, there have been plenty of Japan-Paraguay clashes.

The positive to come from the tournament is that the most technically-gifted sides ultimately came out on top. England looked completely outclassed and frequently incompetent against sides that many here had arrogantly predicted they would brush aside. Instead the real moments of joy came from watching Germany's attacking pace and accuracy, and Spain's (less frequent than usual) pass-and-move football.

Despite this, there are an astonishing number of supposedly world-class footballers that are completely one-footed. As a direct result we have seen less goals where strikers, even including David Villa, have been unwilling to take a chance on using their weaker leg. Arjen Robben of Holland is so easy to defend against because defenders know he is always wanting to cut inside and use his left foot. Against Germany in the quarter-finals, the Argentinian Angel di Maria was hilariously reliant on his left boot, twisting in ever decreasing circles in a desperate attempt to get to use it.

The entertainment provided by the final largely resulted from guessing how long both Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong would stay on the field. Somehow both avoided red cards, de Jong after a horrific chest stamp on Xabi Alonso, and van Bommel after a series of deliberate trips, diving challenges and a constant barrage of chatter aimed at Howard Webb.

Webb was not nearly strong enough with players from both sides, and by failing to show more cards or dismiss players earlier in the game, allowed the cynicism to go on unchecked. Some pundits have credited the referee with keeping more players on the field for the length of the game, but this isn't the referee's responsibility, and not appropriate given the level of the Dutch kicking tactics.

The one certainty that should emerge from the competition is the need for video technology. This shouldn't be solely limited to judging when the ball has crossed the goal-line, but to dish out immediate punishment for reckless challenges that may otherwise go unseen. The referee can only follow the ball, the linesmen may be some distance from the action and when an increasing number of incidents are off the ball scuffles, kicks and elbows, there needs to be a system to eradicate such behaviour from the game.

The unwillingness of FIFA to progress the international game with the use of technology that other sports have readily embraced is increasingly frustrating.

Relief is the watch-word then, that Spain managed to signify to the world that they play the best brand of football. One could only have feared for the future of the international game had Holland triumphed.