Monday, July 12, 2010

Football World Cup 2010: A Month of the Beautiful Game

The Vuvuzelas have fallen silent, and their swarming buzz has stopped. The flags have been folded up and the colours have been washed away. The grass meadows at ten venues with gigantic structures covering stand lonely. The carnival and the fireworks are over. South Africa has been littered with memories and never disappearing images. The world has a new champion. Soccer City Stadium at the famous Soweto township, in Johannesburg provided the stage for the crowning of a new power-house, to be at the helm for four more years. The final once saw the dominance of Europe for the second consecutive edition in succession. Thus, the chain having Latin America and Europe attached in every alternate edition has been broken. A European team has succeeded, when the event was staged outside the continent for the first time. The 19th World Cup, first to be staged in Africa has finally come to end, as the ball that had started rolling on 11 June from the time Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov blew the whistle, at Soccer City between the hosts and Mexico, has now come to a stop; that, with the whistle of Englishman Howard Webb, in the summit clash between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City itself.

The Final itself was the culmination of a month long exercise, when 32 teams came onto the world stage to show-case their exploits, attacking fervor, gritty defence, clinical, deft moves, with panache and adeptness. As the battle became engrossing, as it progressed, several of them kept falling by the wayside and the best in all moved upwards. Powerhouses and strong contenders battled it out, but crumbled and fell at decisive stages. Upward movement became tough ask and pressure added up. Spain and Netherlands moved up in distinct ways; the La Roja after suffering an initial hiccup at Swiss hands, re-grouped and made fresh forays, that paid them rich dividends. The Dutch on the other hand, came into the World Cup finals with a clean sheet in the qualification and continued that streak in the league stages as well as later in knock-outs till the big final. The Oranje won all their matches, nearly emulating Brazil in 1970, who had carried out such a campaign. Spain after being the European champions in 2008, aimed at claiming the world throne too. This was emulating Germany, who had won this double-honour, winning the European championships in 1972 and won the World Cup two years later, in 1974. However, the grand final was not one that was mesmerizing or defining the terms of beautiful football. It was clearly not the best of the finals, with as many as 13 bookings enacted by referee Webb. While the Dutch were the main culprits with 9 cards, including defender John Heitinga earning a double yellow and being sent off in the Extra-Time., the Spanish also earned 4 yellow cards. For the second World Cup in running, the game went beyond the regulation time of 90 minutes. It took a great move from Cesc Fabregas, who passed it on to the diminutive attacking mid-fielder Andres Iniesta, to seal a solitary goal win in the second half of Extra-Time. Iniesta, through his brilliant runs and moves created enough chances for Villa upfront in the Dutch goal-mouth. Throughout the tournament, the current European champions conceded only two goals, including one in the loss to the Swiss in their opening game. The Spanish also rewrote a record that no team had gone to win the World Cup after losing the opening group encounter. Spain also became one of the lowest-scoring winners in World Cup history, with their winning score always not going beyond two, in this World Cup.

Throughout the tournament, Spain under Vicente Del Bosque played some smart and sleek football, carving out chances and making deft moves. Having a team brimming with awesome talent, with the best men in best positions, the La Roja was unstoppable. Leaving aside their early setback against Switzerland, Spain re-grouped in time to shed their ‘underachievers’ tag. Over the years, Spanish sides have always faltered after promising much at the global stage. The Dutch influence on Spanish football over the years has also paid rich dividends in this triumph. Johan Cruyff, Louis Van Gaal, Rinus Michels-the creator of Total Football-and Frank Rijkaard are some of the Dutch greats who plied their trade in the La Liga, as players and coaches. Barcelona has been the club that imbibed their philosophies the most. In fact, the starting Spanish eleven in this World Cup had 7 Barca players. The Spanish also had the best passing throughout the tournament and this was guided by the philosophy of “Tiqui Taka” or “Pass and Move”. The passing of the ball denotes the team-work involved in the game; magnificent goals are born only out of the hard work of the collective rather than the individual glory of the scorer. This philosophy has seeped into the Spanish game, and has put them a few miles, ahead of the rest. Also, the multi-skilled players, with the ability to control ball possession for longer hours and frustrate the opposition were also an asset for Spain. The Spanish put this strength to full use against the Germans in the semi-final; the speed, precision and agility of the young German side was no match for the experienced Spanish team, who suffocated their opponents for time and space, thereby beating them in their own game. The Spanish game was also with the least number of fouls and bookings, something that earned them the Fair Play award as well, to top up with the glittering trophy. David Villa finished as joint top-scorer of the tournament with 5 goals and locked in a four-way tie with Sneijder, Mueller and Forlan. Played upfront as the sole striker, Villa also used both his feet to good effect and scored at crucial times. Packed with stars like Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos, Capdevila, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Busquets, and Pique, with Navas, Pedro, Llorente and David Silva on the bench, Spain was in abundance. Finally, they dropped anchor firmly at the world stage. In contrast, the Dutch played an ugly game, often justifying the same for a win. Players like Von Bommel and Nigel De Jong playing the physical game enacting rough tackles. Even though Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben blossomed in the tournament helping the Netherlands keep a clean record of all wins throughout the qualification and tournament, they fell at the final hurdle. It was third time trauma for them, after losing in the final on two earlier occasions- 1974 to West Germany and 1978 to Argentina.               

While the description of the final above gives the pulse of the two European giants, the tournament itself needs a post-mortem. The aim is to undertake reality check on the month-long fiesta, picking up the pieces and trying to reset the jigsaw, in order to have a larger perspective

# Goals have rained rather less in this World Cup, at least in the group stages. Teams have been miserly in going for larger margins and were contended in winning by small margins, thereby deciding to safeguard even a small lead rather than aiming big. This goes to show that the teams strengthened their defences. The best example was North Korea’s show against Brazil, in their opening encounter in Group G, when they almost locked up the giants in the opening half. Many of the custodians have also protected their nets very well and have displayed their feats, in excellent fashion. Many of the big guns lost their touch, once inside the opposite D. However, this miserliness was turned over in the league stages by the Argentines, who scored 10 in all till their Round of 16 match against Mexico. Higuain, and Tevez, aided by Messi moved up. But then they were upstaged by the Germans, who not only routed them, but finished the tournament with 16 goals, pumping in 3 in the Bronze medal match against Uruguay. Klose, Mueller, Podolski, Ozil, supplied by Lahm and Schweinsteiger ran riot in rival defences and stocking up goals getting 16 in all.

# This World Cup saw the demise of certain big sharks, who only vouched by the spice of glamour and commercial interests through the hefty pay-checks and large, doughty leagues. The prime example is that of England as a team. With over-hyped personnel like Gerrard-Lampard-Terry-Rooney, England collapsed under its own weight. This was further enforced by the early exit of France and Italy. This also proved that performances in national colours are not necessarily dependent on the heights of your glamour professional leagues.

# The World Cup was one, wherein the dominance shifted from Europe to Latin America and then back to Europe. This movement of back and forth was a highlight of this World Cup. After the early exit of France and Italy, with England in the Pre-Quarters, Europe had only 3 teams that moved into the Quarter-Finals out of the total 13 that competed. In contrast, out of the 5 that qualified for finals, four moved into the finals. Thus, all the 4 Quarter-Finals had representation from all these four teams. But by the time, the quarters were finished, except for Uruguay, other three exited. But with Spain, Netherlands and Germany moving into the penultimate stages, the balance again shifted to favour Europe. With Germany grabbing the bronze, other two were assured of the top two spots.

# The exit of Brazil and Argentina in the quarter-final stage is the biggest sub-plot within the larger landscape of the World Cup. Two of the biggest nations in world football followed two altogether different trajectories in this World Cup; though they moved up, some thing was amiss and clearly, they fell at crucial hurdles. The elimination at quarter-finals this time around, was similar to their exit in the last World Cup in Germany, as then too, it was in the last eight. Argentina which had a disastrous qualification campaign, wherein they lost to even light-weights like Bolivia and Peru, got through in the last grasp. With the legend, Diego Maradona at the helm of affairs as the coach, almost 110 players were tried before the final 23 were selected. Attack was the keyword for Maradona, and he got six strikers to South Africa. Without playing the aggressive attacking game, Maradona felt that the spirit of the game could never be preserved. With the World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi moulding himself as a play maker, El Diego reinforced the dictum that attack was the best form of defence. His team surged through the group stages with greater goals. Even though Messi could not find the net, he amply supplied and created enough chances for Higuain and Tevez. Some of his runs and moves were deft as well as filled with panache. However, while they scored freely at the opposite end, chinks were clearly visible in the defence. This was beginning to show in matches where they conceded goals that could have been well prevented. The defence armour of Otamendi, Burdisso, Heinze and Demichelis were not match for a superior attack, as shown by the Germans. They were torn apart in the quarters at Cape Town, as Germany with their deadly counter-attacks, marched ahead with speed, aggression and clinical precision. Pulverized by 4 goals, the Argentines were also suffocated by their superior opponents. The sole dependence on Messi also proved to be a bane for them, as the staunch German defence crowed him out for time and space. Maradona’s decision to leave out experienced hands in the defence in team selection, like Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso cost La Albiceleste very hard. Also, denying a place for veteran playmaker, Riquelme in the squad meant that Argentina were exposed thoroughly against tough opponents like Germany, even while in possession of a supreme strike force. While Maradona the coach was more passionate shouting inspiration and encouragement from the touchline, he met his match in the tactician of Joachim Loew, the German manager. Maradona somewhere failed in this tactical brilliance.

Quite contrastingly, Brazil shut out its flair and attacking mode, or the Latin American style in this World Cup. Coach Dunga, the ’94 World Cup winning captain, employed the tactics of strengthening the defences and relying on counter-attacks. With just one striker, in Luis Fabiano in the upfront, the mid-field held through under Robinho and playmaker Kaka. With Lucio, Gilberto Silva and Maicon to shore up defence, Brazil locked away their traditional attacking, elegant style. This meant that footballing powerhouse, lost its sheen and style. An alien style of play occupied the team’s game plan and Dunga was at the centre of it. However, despite the murmurs of protests from many quarters, the Selecao, continued their spirited run. They finished the group stage with two wins and a goalless draw against Portugal. They prevailed upon Chile and even dominated the Dutch in the first-half of their quarter-final; however, their strategy misfired once they were trailing. Two headers by Sneijder negated the early Brazilian lead. The formation of 4-2-3-1 by Dunga couldn’t last the distance. With a rough tackle by Felipe Melo receiving a red card, Brazil collapsed under its weight and fell apart. The crashing out of the Latin American giants in opposite within the space of a day, finished the lion’s share of interest in the World Cup. The contrasts also do not end there. While Dunga and his coaching staff lost their job once they returned home with brickbats, the welcome for Maradona and his boys had no animosity. In fact, almost the entire country wants Diego to stay as coach and take Argentina to Copa America title, they are hosting next year.

# “This Time for Africa”-this was the official song of the World Cup by Shakira. But on the field, with 6 teams, the continent failed to impress. Except for Ghana, all other teams like Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Cote D’Ivoire did not see light beyond the group stages. South Africa also called Bafana Bafana became the first host nation in the history of World Cup to be eliminated within the group stages, despite a win over France. However, the continent as a whole got behind Ghana and cheered them all along till the quarters. Ghana, despite their captain Michael Essien missing the entire action due to injury, played with all passion and energy, scything through the opposition. Even in the last eight match against Uruguay, they had almost got through to the semis, where no African team had yet reached, if not for Luis Suarez’s Hand of God. Asamoah Gyan had led from the front in the whole tournament, aided by Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntary, Ayew and Kevin-Prince Boateng. But at the closing stages of the Extra-Time, Gyan’s penalty could only find the upright and Uruguay made the Black Stars pay the penalty in the shoot-out. The World Cup, thus once again proved that African teams had to still go a long way at the global stage.

Japan and South Korea were impressive and carried the Asian flag with high hopes. Even though they lost to the superiority of opposition in the knock-out, that too to Latin American teams, their progress to the next stage outside their own continent was something to savour.

#  The World Cup also send a strong message to those who were stubborn that there could not be even a slight tweaking or tinkering of the gameplan. Those who refused to budge, were shown the hard lessons too. The best case scenario was that of the English under their Italian manager, Fabio Cappello. He remained confined to his plans during the qualification campaign and refused to re-work that strategy, even when the gears changed coming into the actual competition. He simply refused to believe that the traditional formation had to be changed to match faster and agile opponents. Mid-Way through their campaign, former captain John Terry even murmured points of dissent against the coach. Thereby, England once again left the world stage, early, compounded with a goal drought in their entire entourage. However, despite the exit, the English FA has allowed Cappello to continue as the manager, to make the team qualify for Euro 2012. Changes from the old guard in the team are expected, as fresh blood is sought to be infused in the squad. But the unfortunate thing for Cappello is that the young talent pool in England through their premiership league, is not exactly brimming up.   

# Many of the big stars also failed to shine in this World Cup. Half of them were wrecked by injuries and could not make the trip to South Africa. Even those who made it, could not turn up in full potential, as they stunted by lingering niggles. While Michael Ballack, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Essien surrendered to the injuries, the likes of Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba left much to be desired in this gala tourney. The effects of long club seasons were clearly felt on the players. However, despite recovering late from injuries, Arjen Robben and Fernando Torres showed their supreme touch later in the tournament.

# This world carnival was also an exhibition of youth over the aged horses. Clearing away the old men, the youth flowered further and took wings, with full exuberance. The teams with such renewed energy and fresh talent saw the blossoming of greater performances. Team Germany led from the front in this area. Bastian Schweinsteiger is only 25 years-old, but he is already a veteran of three World Cups, carving out their attacks and shoring up their defences. Also, with a much more vibrant multi-cultural approach through the easing of immigrant laws, Germany showed their supremacy and aggression were miles ahead. They had players of various descent: Tunisian, Turkish, Ghanaian, Brazilian, Polish, and Spanish. In Ozil, Mueller, Khadeira, Jerome Boateng, Cacau, and Gomez, along with the senior pros like Lahm, Podolski and Klose, Germany became a team with the features with speed, agility and surgical precision along with their famous deadly counter-attacks. Aging war-horses were shoved out of the way, as happened in the case of defending champions, Italy. Marcello Lippi was back at the helm, but could not prevent the team from crashing out in the group stage itself.

# One of the defining results of this World Cup, is the strong need felt for using technology. Errors by Referees and Linesmen swarmed in this tourney that resulted in wrong judgements on goals, and fouls. Mali referee Koman Coulibaly disallowing a goal denied the USA a much needed win against Slovenia. Similarly, Stephane Lannoy’s role in sending off Kaka following clear simulation by Keita, in the match between Brazil and Cote D’Ivoire drew much criticism. However, the errors by Jorge Larrionda of Uruguay led to the disallowing of Lampard’s phantom goal against Germany when England was trailing by 1-2. That clearly upset the team’s rhythm and could never recover from it. Roberto Rossetti, the Italian referee allowed Tevez a goal, against Mexico that was clearly offside. Sepp Blatter could only offer his apologies for the teams at the receiving end and do nothing more. Perhaps, FIFA would be now forced to re-think on its age-old strategies and make the best use of technologies available. Football’s world governing body, cannot remain evasive on this issue any more.

# The organization of this World Cup has once again brought the best out of South Africa. A country, shut out of sporting ventures during the dark years of Apartheid, the World Cup is definitely an opening. After organizing the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and Cricket World Cup in 2003, Soccer too has found its place in South African sports management. The Rainbow nation was on target, both in terms of infrastructure and organization. 10 great venues like Soccer City and Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Green Point in Cape Town, Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, and Nelson Mandela Bay in Port Elizabeth displayed the best soccer for one month. Great seats, well-maintained playing pitch along with electrifying atmosphere made sure the matches were played without a hitch. The capabilities of South Africa in organizing this spectacle as one nation were also something to watch out. Infusing indigenous cultures into the mega tournament also proved wonders. Terms like Vuvuzela, Jabulani and Zakumi will always remain etched in memory. Even the mighty venue of Soccer City was built on the design of Calabash, or an African Pot. This was to also reflect the venue being a melting pot of various cultures. The nation turned out as one to make the entire month memorable and long-lasting for the entire days to come.

But FIFA also has to take note some glaring aspects too. Many seats could not be filled up in some matches and that too in slightly large numbers. Vacant seats were clearly, as a result of FIFA’s decision to sell tickets only through the internet. This was clearly neglected by them, when most of the African population cannot afford to such luxuries. For them, tickets over the counters are the most viable way of getting into the matches. Also, the raising of fares by airlines and hotel rates ensured that many within the continent could not take part in the tournament. The FIFA had sub-contracted the hospitality aspect to an agency called Match, and this concern in fact, worked to jerk up prices, hitting the fans below the belt. In future, such actions have to be clearly checked by FIFA to ensure greater comfort level for the countless fans, who criss-cross continents to come and join the carnival. Stricter measures have to be in place to ensure that such firms and agencies are always on the watch list. FIFA’s attempts to only concentrate on reaping profits should not leave out the millions of fans and leave them in despair. While World Cup is the major engine for FIFA to earn revenue that has to be channelled back for the development programmes across the world. South Africa’s tourism industry has also earned hugely in this month. But the future also has to be clearly looked into. The giant stadiums have to be put to best use and make them filled with games round the year. This also comes in the backdrop of several fears and apprehensions raised regarding many of these magnificent structures that many feel could turn up as White Elephants!! Some grounds like in Polokwane have no football clubs to play, and so it would depend on how the nation’s football federation comes up with plans to use them in optimum manner. Already, there have been proposals floated to get Rugby, a favourite sport for the people in the country, as an event in these grounds too.

In the past month on the whole, the world chased the Jabulani and life moved with it. The anticipation with which, billions waited with bated breath and anticipation for the carnival to begin. But the 4 weeks passed away swiftly; and wait has again started for the 20th World Cup. As Spain joined the club of World Cup winners, the game has once again turned to be winner. Football has once again proved to be the game with the largest following, where the world irrespective of language, cultures, creed, colour, nationalities and faiths, joined as one to celebrate the ‘Beautiful Game’. The Fireworks have been extinguished, the broadcasters have rolled back their long wires, and the players/officials have left the shores of South Africa with a promise to meet again in four years time in Brazil. But the reverberations and echoes are still alive of the past one month in its entirety. Life has returned to being normal; the World has turned from ‘Round’ to ‘Flat’. But somewhere, deep down in the heart, there is an emptiness and there is a lump in the throat. The wait has started for Brazil 2014. Thank You, South Africa for the Golden Memories!!

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