A World Cup overflowing with surprises

Last Updated 05 July 2010, 16:44 IST
A World Cup overflowing with surprises

The World Cup turned on its axis over the weekend. Before Friday, virtually every soccer expert was certain that the power in this tournament belonged to teams from Latin America, that European soccer was stale.

And what happened? Predictions were shot through with holes and grown men were reduced to tears.

First, Brazil was outplayed in a 2-1 loss to the Netherlands in Port Elizabeth. Then Ghana lost in a shootout after a deliberate use of hands by a Uruguayan player at Soccer City in Johannesburg.

Next, Argentina was overwhelmed by Germany, 4-0, in Cape Town. Finally, David Villa, Spain’s saviour once again, scored with seven minutes left in regulation time to eliminate a spirited Paraguay team at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

Four fields featuring four contests that confounded the critics.

Who would have it any other way? Uncertainty is a good thing in sports. If the results were known beforehand, why bother to go to the stadium or to switch on the television at all hours of the day and night? The Dutch players probably did not think much of their chances at halftime Friday, when they trailed, 1-0. Wesley Sneijder, who scored the goals that turned the game around, and Arjen Robben said that the players in the locker room saw no way that they could advance to the next round. Not after being dominated in every way by Brazil for a half.

What changed that, Sneijder said, was the realisation that nothing would be gained by staying timid. Dutch courage, maybe Brazilian overconfidence and certainly a foul that resulted in a red card for Felipe Melo of Brazil turned things around.

But the key to Brazil’s elimination was that it was not true to its traditional flowing soccer style. Its coach, Dunga, tried to make Brazil more like Germany: bigger, stronger, more efficient, less flamboyant. Brazil fell between the two approaches, and on Sunday, Dunga was fired for that. Relying on its rhythm and creativity, Brazil plays the best game on earth; attempting to emulate the style of a European team, Brazil did not scare the Dutch.

Taking advantage
Argentina took the opposite approach. Knowing that its defence was poor, it pushed everything forward, giving this World Cup more thrills during the first three weeks than any other team. That strategy failed against Germany, which knew exactly how to beat such an unbalanced team: take advantage of its weakness, crowd out Lionel Messi, and never let Argentina’s attacking offence get any momentum.

“It was absolute class,” Germany Coach Joachim Löw said of Saturday’s victory. “We analysed their games and expected that Messi would drop into midfield. We managed to take him out of the game, keeping him under pressure without fouling him.”

He added: “I told my players, ‘You are younger, faster, more enduring.’ We were able to put Argentina’s defence under pressure and take it apart completely.”

Full marks for thoroughness. Yet Löw is still auditioning for his job at this World Cup. A month ago, the German soccer federation was not prepared to give him a contract beyond 2010.

How could they or Löw have known a few months ago that Thomas Müller, then just a young prospect with little experience at the international level, would burst into this World Cup like a star? How could Löw be sure that Sami Khedira, Jérôme Boateng and Mesut Özil would bring to Germany a youthful self-confidence that would make them not only powerful as a unit but pleasing to watch, too?

The joy of putting them in and finding out is part of this World Cup’s revelatory essence. The fall of presumed powers like England, France, Italy and Brazil is quite the opposite.
And it is not only teams that are going home without fulfiling their potential. The exit of England’s Wayne Rooney, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and now Messi was shocking. They came into the tournament hailed as the heirs to the legacies of players like Pelé, Diego Maradona and Zinédine Zidane. They are, by anyone’s estimation, the three current outstanding individual stars in soccer, both on the field and in its marketing.
Rooney and Ronaldo did nothing to enhance their reputations. Messi did, until he was neutralised by Germany.

Maradona, now Argentina’s coach, would seem to be a man with a singular insight about star players — and perhaps why they fail. When his own tears were spent Saturday, he said he felt as if he had been flattened by a punch from Muhammad Ali.

Verbal punches were thrown at him from all angles. Surely Maradona was responsible for Argentina’s collapse? Surely he accepted what Germany’s players had said beforehand, that Argentines were nothing but temperamental artistes? Maradona, now almost 50, said in effect that he was the father of this team, that he would go home defending them, that he was proud of them. He, and they, knew no other way to play. He may quit, but he says he will first consult his family and friends.

But it was when he was asked why the great players had not demonstrated greatness here, had not risen to World Cup glory as he had done in 1986, that he gave his most interesting response.

Team effort
“I think we were more selfish, and now players are more collective, more team players,” he said. “They want to do everything with their teammates.”
He added, “Before, perhaps it was a matter of being selfish players who had the rest of the team working for us.”

How interesting, and how perceptive that answer was. Maradona had succeeded as a player on this stage, but was perceived as little more than a cheerleader masquerading as a coach in this World Cup.

Messi was the only player on the Argentine roster whose talent approached that of Maradona’s, yet when Messi tried to run through Germany the way he had through previous opponents, he was rebuffed.

The inquests will be relentless, the taunts cruel, and they will start in South America. But the Latin Americans are not done with this tournament. There is still Uruguay against the Netherlands on Tuesday, and Spain, the European Latins, waiting for Germany on Wednesday.

Spain-Germany is almost a European final in its own right — a repeat of the Euro 2008 final, which Spain won, 1-0.

Germany has eliminated Argentina, and now it faces Spain, which has a flair with the ball that is bonded with patience and a team concept that fuses the European and South American styles.A prediction? No chance. Surprise is this tournament’s lesson.
International Herald Tribune

(Published 05 July 2010, 16:44 IST)

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