In my earlier posting on the subject of the Football World Cup, presently taking place, I looked back at past World Cups and my own interest in them and I looked forward to this one. In a couple of week’s time, I will be able to reflect on what will have taken place. We have now reached a short breather period given that the 48 group games that have been scheduled have all now taken place and tomorrow the remaining 16 knock out games are due to start. Game wise, we are three quarters of the way through the competition yet, from past experience, we can expect to see a team’s focus changing from doing enough to qualify for the knock-out phase to having to win every game they play and thus needing to up their game. It could be said, this is where the competition really begins.
In terms of coverage, it has been possible to watch every minute of every game, together with pre- and post-match reflections led by the “experts” and, unless one was fanatical about the matter and had the time, this is unlikely to happen. I guess I have seen bits of half the games played and around a handful of games played in their entirety. I have read the reports and gained a flavor of what people have thought, and this forms the basis of my thoughts on what has taken place so far and what might take place now.
I should say I have been pleasantly surprised by the standard of play seen so far, and the openness of games played, few ending in draws and there generally being plenty of goals, and also, but for one notable exception, by the fairness of play. There have been surprises in terms of which teams qualified from their groups, but the bookies (and mine) favourites: Brazil, Argentina and Germany are still in the frame, to which I would add a further name, given the quality of their performances: Holland. Even so, all will need to play better if they are to progress and no doubt there will be surprises.
The stand out game for me of the competition was that between Holland and Spain. In my earlier post, I reflected on when the two teams played each other in the final of the last World Cup and the rightness of a classy Spanish side overcoming a cynical Dutch side. But how things can change in a relatively short time? This time the class came from Holland and one got the impression that the Spaniards were “over the hill” and it would be hard to argue that the overwhelming Dutch victory was not the right result.
Just as a team can be past its best, it can also be not yet at its best, as was the case with English team. Unlike in previous competitions, expectations of success were low. The team was inexperienced and it showed, although the team played quite well and should get better. Their early exit from the competitions was pretty decisive and few could complain. The discussion where we go from now has begun and the fear is that nothing significant will be done to improve matters and we might expect more of the same in the future.
I have already given my view that the national team should be given more priority, including taking players away from their clubs (like they do in cricket) to train as a unit and prepare for matches, and there should be a restriction on the number of overseas players allowed to play in top-flight club football. I would like to see more investment in the game at grass roots level in order to develop footballing excellence, especially among the young. This shouldn’t be by way of new money we don’t have but rather a cultural change led by the football loving public. We spend obscene amounts of money on marketing instant success by the top clubs yet we fail at international level. That resource should be diverted to the grass roots game. Although not expectant, I wait to see what happens.
Besides the elimination of the Spanish and English teams, the other early exits that were not expected were those of the Italians and of the Portuguese, but there can be few complaints. In analyzing past competitions, all but one of them that were held in Europe (10 in total) were won by a European team, and all but one competition held outside Europe (9 in total) were won by a South American team. Of the teams that this time have qualified for the knock out stages, 6 out of 13 are from Europe, 7 out of 9 are from South America and 3 out of 10 teams are from other countries (one from the USA and two from Africa).
The South American teams did particularly well and teams like Chile, Columbia and Costa Rica have exceeded expectations, with Mexico and Ecuador earning the right to further advance. Other than Holland, France, Germany and Belgium it could be said that the European teams have under-performed, although Greece and Switzerland have done well to further advance, albeit helped by favourable draws, but I can’t imagine them advancing much further. The African teams have as on previous occasions showed quality but it is difficult to see Nigeria or Algeria winning, and the USA have played creditably well but I don’t expect further progress. While “other” countries are getting better and competing with credit with the best, it is difficult to see the European / South American dominance of the competition changing for some time to come.
One is mindful that money still remains a factor, given two of the African teams have gone on strike feeling they did not get their fair dues, and as regrettable this might be that is how it is. In terms of fair play, while there have been yellow and red cards handed out, this was no worse than in previous competitions and while there was gamesmanship (e.g. players diving to get a foul) and niggles between individual players, play was as fair as one might hope (sadly, we are these days conditioned to expect and accept these less desirable aspects). The one stand out incident though was when the Uruguay player, Luis Suarez, bit his opponent. While this was not seen by the referee, it was spotted by the ubiquitous camera and he was banned from playing for four months. Many pundits in the UK felt the punishment was lenient, but I am open on the matter. What is regrettable is the player denying the incident and the lack of remorse by his team management and those close to him. Ironically, Saurez’s brilliance had earlier scuttled England’s chances.
I do look forward to the rest of the completion and while I expect the cream to rise to the top, I also expect more surprises. I would like to see more press coverage on this fascinating country, with all its amazing contrasts, that is hosting this tournament, and doing so with credit. I would be nice to learn more about what is taking place outside of the games, but I should think that is rather hopeful and football will remain the focus. Now that England are out of the competition, this will have little bearing as far as I am concerned. It is all about finding the best football team in the world, and I for one am hopeful and expectant that will happen. I will be following proceedings closely watching, live when I can, the remaining games.