With two-thirds of the group phase complete, we are now exactly half-way – 32 of 64 games – through the 2010 World Cup. Yes, already. Here are my key talking points for the FIFA dressing room during my half-time team talk.
A celebration of Africa … with no African teams?
I still get a little thrill to think that I am finally watching a World Cup taking place on the continent of Africa. But the fact is that we appear to be as far away from having an African winner as we ever have been.
After two games each, the six nations representing the Confederation of African Football have a combined record of one win, four draws and seven defeats. Only Ghana - who need only a draw against Germany to ensure their passage to the last 16 – have a better than outside chance of surviving the group phase. Cameroon are already out with one game left, and Algeria, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and the hosts South Africa all need to win and hope the other game in their group pans out in their favour. In all probability, there will be at most one African side in the round of 16. And should Ghana lose to Germany, a win for Serbia over Australia could see us with an Africa-less knockout phase, which would be a terrible shame. (Barring a minor miracle, South Africa will this afternoon become the first host nation ever to fall at the first hurdle.)
Incidentally, the two continental federations with the best records thus far are – unsurprisingly - South America and – very surprisingly – Oceania. The latter’s sole representative, New Zealand, have drawn both their games so far, while none of the five South American teams have yet to taste defeat, having won eight of ten games between them.
The decline of punditry
I have pretty much stopped watching pre-match, half-time and post-match analysis on both BBC and ITV during this World Cup, largely because much of the punditry has been either abysmal or unintelligible, and frequently both. The decision by both broadcasters to recruit several current or recent former pros with little or no experience of engaging with a TV audience has backfired spectacularly in some instances. I am thinking in particular of Emmanuel “thousand-words-a-minute” Adebayor and Edgar “man-of-few-words” Davids. Did no one think of screen-testing them first, or at least giving them a bit of training?
To be fair, there are some fantastic ex-pros out there, whose analysis from the punditry sofas I will and do happily watch. The BBC is the big winner here, boasting the likes of former Arsenal defender Lee Dixon, who has the art of pithy one-line insights down to a ‘t’, and former Germany striker and head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, whose easygoing, urbane charm combines neatly with a keen understanding of the game. But, my God, it is a bit like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack sometimes. I regularly find more rigorous – and funny – match analysis on Twitter.
High officiating standards
Yes, there have been a few howlers from referees, as there always will be. But to my eye the standard of officiating has been gratifyingly high thus far. In particular, I have been impressed with the high success rate with onside/offside decisions, which has seemed to me to be much better than I am used to seeing week in, week out in the Premier League.
Having said that, what’s the betting that the winning goal in the final is scored by means of a handball from an offside position by a player who should have been sent off for an unseen punch earlier in the game? It will only take one such incident in the knockout stages for all the good work to be undone, and for FIFA to look very, very silly for rejecting all technological aids out of hand as recently as March.
So, Gelson Fernandes, now of Saint-Étienne, scored the winner for Switzerland against Spain. Elano, now of Galatasaray, has scored in both Brazil‘s victories. And Robinho, on loan at Santos and about as likely ever to return to Manchester as Cristiano Ronaldo is to admit to diving, has provided much of Brazil’s creative impetus. Each, in effect, failed at Manchester City; all are doing rather well at this World Cup.
Meanwhile, ‘actual’ City players are faring less well. Shay Given is absent from the tournament in no small part due to Thierry Henry‘s ‘Hand of Frog’. Fellow keeper Joe Hart is the only England stopper yet to see action for England. Emmanuel Adebayor is muttering something incomprehensible in a BBC studio; Patrick Vieira is doing much the same for ITV. Joleon Lescott, Wayne Bridge and Micah Richards were surplus to requirements for Fabio Capello; Shaun Wright-Phillips is a little-used sub. Kolo Toure‘s Ivory Coast look likely to fall at the group stage.
Okay, I admit I’m being a bit unfair here. Gareth Barry is a key component of England’s midfield, and Carlos Tevez, Nigel De Jong and Vladimir Weiss are all important startes for Argentina, Holland and Slovakia respectively. But the point is that City are perhaps the best example of a Premier League club whose discarded – or, in the case of Robinho, soon to be discarded – players are doing very nicely, thank you. Chile‘s Mark González (ex-Liverpool, now CSKA Moscow), Uruguay‘s Diego Forlán (formerly Man U, now Atlético Madrid), Ghana’s Quincy Owusu-Abeyie (ex-Arsenal and, briefly, Portsmouth, now playing for Al-Sadd in Qatar) – the list goes on and on. One of the great delights of any World Cup is rediscovering players who you had previously thought were rubbish and had simply disappeared into the footballing abyss. This tournament is no exception.
Yes, I know the discussion about them has been done to death. But let me just say that I actually like the fact they have brought a sense of African-ness to this World Cup.
I still hate the things, though, with an intensity completely out of proportion with the fact that they are just cheap plastic horns.
There are two main reasons I dislike them. Firstly, they have become a monotonous soundtrack which completely ruins the atmosphere at games. For me, one of the joys of football is that you can close your eyes and still get a sense of the ebb and flow of a match just by listening to the crowd. When they are being drowned out by the vuvuzelas, though, it is like trying to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth while a relentless cacophony of white noise is being blasted into both your ears.
Secondly, and more importantly for me, I fear that they will creep into British grounds in the early weeks of the new season. Sainsbury’s were saying last week they had sold over 50,000 vuvuzelas already. Hearing them in South Africa at the World Cup is one thing. But what happens when my team Arsenal go to Anfield on the opening weekend of the season, and a few dozen vuvuzelas drown out the Kop singing ‘You’ll never walk alone’? You just know it will happen. And then they will be banned from all grounds. And we will move on and forget the blasted things ever existed. Good riddance.
The Jabulani ball
Who’d be a goalie, eh? The unpredictable way in which the new Adidas ball flies through the air has already made several goalkeepers look like idiots, or at the very least forced them into hand-wringing hesitancy every time a ball is launched anywhere into their vicinity. How is this a good thing for a tournament which is supposed to showcase the very best of the most popular sport on the planet?
Similarly, by my count the first goal scored from outside the box which did not require the assistance of a goalkeeping blunder did not come until the 17th game – and even then Diego Forlán’s effort benefitted from a hefty deflection. In general, long-range shooting has been noticeably inaccurate during the tournament so far, and while altitude may be a contributing factor as well as the new ball, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the flight of the ball between the high-altitude venues and the sea-level ones.
I know there are valid commercial reasons for holding back the introduction of a new ball until the tournament begins. But there are a whole lot of footballing reasons why it is a hare-brained idea to do so. ‘Jabulani’ means ‘rejoice’ in Zulu. I suspect the only people rejoicing at this new ball are the money-men at Adidas and FIFA. And that can never be a good thing.
Is defence the best form of defence?
The gap in quality between the very best and the relative minnows is now smaller than it has ever been, with every team being strong, fit and well-drilled. And yet it has been noticeable how often even middle-ranking teams are setting their stall out to defend from the outset – North Korea being an obvious exception – with many playing just one up front in order to close down space in midfield. Switzerland, who yesterday set a new World Cup record for minutes played without conceding a goal, are a prime example of that defensive mindset, Serbia and Algeria too.
A meagre 25 goals in the first 16 games tells its own story, and even with the significantly increased goalscoring rate in the second round of games, we are still on track for this to be one of the lowest-scoring World Cups – if not the lowest – ever. While goalscoring should never be easy, it feels like we are heading in the wrong direction. And even I can’t blame the Jabulani ball completely for that.
There is no ‘I’ in team
Nicolas Anelka was sent home by France after a tirade against Raymond Domenech during the defeat by Mexico where he allegedly told the coach to “Go f*** yourself, you son of a whore.” The entire French squad refused to train the following day, leaving a bewildered Domenech to read out a statement to the press on the players’ behalf.
John Terry voiced concerns about team rules and selection in the England camp which should probably have been kept behind closed doors, and sounded very much like an incitement to mutiny against coach Fabio Capello. It was a move which fellow players who Terry claimed to have agreed with him rapidly backed away from, and which has subsequently resulted in a very firm and public slapping down from Capello. (A tip to Terry: if you’re going to launch a palace coup, it’s probably best not to announce it beforehand.)
And finally Ghana midfielder Sulley Muntari has also been sent home after a disagreement with head coach Milovan Rajevac.
It’s a team game, isn’t? Played by grown men, for whom the draw of the biggest stage in the sport should be enough to put petty differences behind them, right? Sure …