Monday, June 28, 2010

Assorted World Cup thoughts (Day 16)

* Many have derided this as one of the worst World Cups in recent memory, and if it were based on the early group games that would be a fair call. However, the final group games brought out the desperation in some of the teams that were earlier too cautious, and finally showed some desire and attacking inspiration. But one measure on which this tournament can be harshly judged is the standard of officiating. The disallowed goal by Frank Lampard against Germany was only the latest in a number of monumental cock-ups.

* One positive for this tournament though is the success of some of the "smaller" nations with little World Cup pedigree. As well as some of the traditional powers, the Round of 16 included Ghana, USA, Slovakia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, South Korea and Japan. At least one of those teams is guaranteed to make the semi-finals.

* England's ignominous exit to Germany brings to an end the so-called "Golden Generation" of players who looked great at their clubs but consistently underwhelmed at international level. The biggest question to be answered about their lame showing concerns the performance of Wayne Rooney. After a brilliant season with Manchester United, many were talking about him possibly being the greatest player in the world right now. After 4 games on the world's biggest stage, the conclusion must be drawn that he is not even close. He may have been burnt out after a long season, but contrast it to the peerless form of Lionel Messi and you will see how great the difference is.

* Perhaps the mantle of expectation is too great for Rooney's shoulders. By contrast, for some players, being given leadership roles only elevates them to greatness. Take Rooney's Man U teammate Park Ji-Sung; a middling role player for his club, the South Korean captain is at the heart of everything that makes his club tick, and has looked like a superstar.

* Likewise for the USA's Landon Donovan. Football is a game of decisive moments, and on that score the team captain has been one of the players of the tournament. He has scored 3 goals, but it is the timing of those goals that has been most crucial - sparking their comeback against Slovenia (and creating the goal that was wrongly disallowed), the last-minute goal against Algeria that put them into the second round, and the penalty that drew them level against Ghana in a game that they ultimately lost.

* South Africa are the first ever host nation to fail to progress to the second round, but they were a credit to the competition and went out on a high with a good victory. They benefited enormously against France from the referee's decision to send off Yoann Gourcuff early on; it was certainly a yellow card, but his elbow to MacBeth Sibaya's head was unintentional. But notwithstanding that decision, the French were again atrocious. Clearly the internal divisions had an effect. But as the senior French players revolt against their hated coach Raymond Domenech, it should be remembered that it was they who backed him after Euro 2008 when everyone else was rightfully calling for him to be sacked. Most of them seem to have forgotten that they are representing their nation, rather than a club they owe no real loyalty to.

* Slovakia's defeat of Italy was a fabulous game marred by ridiculous theatrics from players on both sides; I lost count of the number of times players were rolling around on the ground clutching their face. However, for me it added to the spectacle and elevated the game to the level of comedy. And there was a sort of divine justice to see the Italians being thwarted by a team acting even more theatrical than they.

* I've been a fan of the Ivorians' winger Kader Keita for a while, but his (successful) attempt to get Kaka sent off was not only a disgraceful advertisement for everything wrong with the game, but stupid for his career as a whole. Referees watch big games such as those, and are less likely to give Keita favourable calls in the future since his reputation will precede him. Indeed, combined with the well-known play-acting antics of Drogba, Emmanouel Eboue and Didier Zokora, the Ivorians are in danger of becoming the diving-est team in the world.

* A key reason Cote D'Ivoire underperformed was the questionable team selection of their coach Sven Goran Eriksson. Their two main attacking threats are creative winger Gervinho and scoring machine Drogba, who logically would complement each other on the pitch. Yet they were on the field together for only 15 minutes against Portugal and 35 minutes against Brazil, the two games that decided the team's fate. Drogba looked lost for much of the two games with no one to create for him; it was no surprise that his one goal against Brazil came after a driving run from Gervinho.

* Ghana have not exactly been the most exciting team in the tournament so far; before their ggreat strikes to beat the US, they had only scored 2 penalties. But their best-ever showing here comes despite the injury clouds that surround stars like Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari, and the absence of superstar Michael Essien. Ghana have achieved this success by being very hard to score against, and in a sense have abandoned the stereotypical traits of an "African team" (carefree attacking play combined with defensive naivete). The other teams have followed a similar path by employing European coaches, but the fact that  Ghana is the only African nation to win more than one game here perhaps indicates that it is not a direction that really suits teams from that continent.

* Cameroon has been perhaps the greatest disappointment of this World Cup. They were gifted a relatively easy group, and I picked them to be the African team that would advance the furthest; yet they lost all 3 games. In Samuel Eto'o they have one of the greatest strikers in the history of African football, yet they have consistently failed to successfully build a team around him. He is 29 now and there is a sense that they have wasted their chance to capitalise on their one standout talent.

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