The Daily

World Cup 2010

Spain’s Moral Victory

July 13, 2010 | by

Photograph by Mitsurinho.

Sunday was a moral victory: Spain clearly deserved to win not only the World Cup but also the actual game at hand.

The great Johann Cruyff came out today and accused the Dutch of being anti-football and, among other crimes, “hermetic.” He’s right about the anti-football. The Dutch strategy was as predicted: Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong set out to kick the Spanish into submission so Robben and Sneidjer would have a chance to win the game for Holland. Spain refused to let this happen and, as with Germany, imposed their methodical game of possession, albeit with more bruises, and won, as they so often did, 1-0. It could be noted that it was Andrés Iniesta, who scored the game-winner, whose theatrics got John Heitnga sent off—a booking which freed up the space for him to score a few moments later—but since Nigel de Jong should have seen red in the first half for putting his studs in Xabi Alonso’s chest, it all evens out in the end.

This has been a tournament of teams rather than stars. Messi, Kaka, Rooney, Ronaldo and the rest came and went without leaving any lasting impression. This is why Diego Forlan, who was everywhere for Uruguay, is so deserving of the golden ball award, for player of the tournament. Mostly the games have been controlled by players like Xavi and Schweinsteiger, midfield generals orchestrating their teams to victory. This is obviously all to the good—you only had to witness the idiocy of LeBron James’ recent prime-time special to see what happens when players are put above the game, and to understand why the triumph of Spain—and the related successes of Paraguay and Chile and Slovenia—are all to the glory of the sport.

And yet, it’s all a little bit anti-climactic. There is something too-scripted in Spain’s victory: the good guys won, if not too easily then at least too coherently. Spain was a joint favorite from the beginning, and played far and away the most elegant football of the tournament—exactly the kind of football they said they would play. They had not only the courage of their convictions but their conventions too. Only in the first game against the Swiss were they ever threatened, and that took three freak deflections to happen. Other than that, they won the ball, they kept the ball, they knocked it around the middle, they got kicked, complained, won a free kick, passed the ball around the middle some more, and then David Villa would score. It is easy to admire Spain, but not love them.

Compare this with World Cups past; Diego Maradona in '86, Paolo Rossi in '82, and, most spectacularly of course, Zinedine Zidane winning it all in '98 and then, to really cement his legend, dragging France to the final and then throwing it all away in 2006. (Italy, the actual winners, ending up only bit-players in Zidane’s grand narrative.) There has been very little of that drama this time around. Instead, we’ve had 4-2-3-1, vuvuzelas, and the inconsistencies of both ball and ref to provide our talking points. I have had more conversations about goal-line technology in the last month than I ever thought I would have in my life. (For the record I am against it, unless it happens to my team, at which point I think it's completely necessary and an outrage that it hasn’t been already introduced.)

It’s still the World Cup, though, and as the poet Ian Hamilton once said, “you should see me watch football. I watch it really hard.” Asamoah Gyan holding his shirt over his head, unable to believe that he has just missed the penalty that would send Ghana to the semi-finals, the U.S. goal against Slovenia, Carlos Tévez against Mexico, and Frank Lampard against Germany—the most memorable moments of the tournament have been the injustices. Tolstoy's famous dictum about families, it turns out, is also true for football.

4 COMMENTS

Zero Hour in South Africa

July 9, 2010 | by

There are two games left. The third place playoff takes place on Saturday, Uruguay against Germany in a game often described as one nobody wants to play in. It can be well worth watching though—teams have been known to forget about tactics and play with something approximating wild abandon, which in this World Cup will come as some relief.

Then on Sunday, it’s Spain against Holland; one of two favorites going into the tournament against the perennially-highly-fancied World Cup bridesmaids. Neither team has won it before, so whichever way it goes, there will be a new name on the list. It will be the first time a European team has won in another continent, a particular triumph for Old Europe, after the continent as a whole was dismissed following the group round, the commentators agreeing that the new champion would inevitably come from Latin America.

Both teams play the same formation, the 4-2-3-1 that uses the holding midfielders to prevent the other team from attacking. But oh, they do it so differently. Holland plays with two thugs there, Mark Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong to break up the attack and to do so by any means necessary or at least invisible. Once they have won possession, their only job — one they do very well — is to give the ball to Wesley Sneidjer, the conductor of the Dutch attack.

The leader of the pair is Van Bommel, who has managed to somehow commit 14 fouls, some of them proper horrors, whilst only getting one yellow card for dissent. Over the course of the tournament, Van Bommel’s star has risen in exact relationship to the amount of opprobrium heaped on him by fans. He is nasty, sly, always the first to complain to the ref about some perceived injury done to him—quite often when he was the one dishing out the punishment rather than the other way around. There is something reptilian about him; nasty eyes and an absolutely massive jaw. Without him the Dutch would never have gotten this far; he is a beast. Read More »

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And Then We Came to the End

July 9, 2010 | by

In the World Cup, as in any tournament, half of the field is eliminated in the first round, and half again in each succeeding round—a method of crowning a champion devised by Zeno and guaranteed to bring the whole thrilling spectacle to a buyer’s-remorse anticlimax. (You can see the diminishing interest in the now-trickling coverage in outlets both mainstream and semi-pro.) Whichever second-rate European nation triumphs on Sunday—if they can control the midfield as smugly as they did against Germany in Wednesday’s semifinal it will surely be Spain—will look a lot less truly top-dog than simply last-man-standing.

In his Winner-Take-All Society, the academic Robert Frank famously described the American economy as such a tournament, devoted to the production of champions at the expense of the welfare of many many losers; in South Africa this summer we will have thirty-one of them to one likely-uninspiring winner, a fairly devastating ratio. But it’s not only the partisans of those thirty-one countries that’ll be left bewildered, wondering what might have been, all the rest of us will, too, indeed anyone who paid any attention to the opening of the tournament and its round-the-clock stream of giddy action and deluded, infinite-horizon expectation. The games played in those early days were often stilted by deliberative tactics, player caution, and coaching prudence, and their outcomes were rarely decisive. But they embodied what another academic, Barry Schwartz, might’ve called the paradox of chance—we want each game to contain all the possibilities and promise of the entire cup, to unfold as though the shape and character of the whole month-long tournament hangs completely on its outcome, but we don’t want any particular result to disclose the possibility of any other. On this score a tournament is designed to disappoint. But those early games offer, always, the best of both worlds, yielding perhaps less quality of play than the contests that follow but making up for it, many times over, in volume. Or, as I like to call it, abundance.

1 COMMENT

Deutschland Über Alles

July 6, 2010 | by

The semi-finals of this World Cup have led to an earth shattering cosmic twist: everybody now likes Germany.

Most of the credit for this goes down to the way they play. Germany was dazzling to watch, especially in the crushing of Argentina and England. They lost their captain, big star and only member of the team to play outside Germany, Michael Ballack1, a month before the finals began. The team they brought to South Africa is made up of young players who mostly came up through the German youth system (and many of whom helped the country win last year's European youth championship). They’re a marvelous spectacle—they keep their shape, looking to play on the counter attack. And when they do, the ball moves so swiftly and intelligently from one end to the other that no one can keep up with them. They also seem largely free of the diving, grandstanding, and waving of imaginary cards. Unlike so many other teams in the tournament, they get on with things.

Speaking of diving and imaginary card waving, Spain came into the tournament as the European favorites, with ball movement and a promised redemption for previous failures. But even if they win, they will leave with their haloes gleaming a little less brightly. We have been denied the glory of Xavi and Andres Iniesta running the midfield at a tempo and geometry they dictate. Instead we have been forced to watch the odious Sergio Busquets collapse in a heap every time someone looks at him funny, while Xavi and Xabi Alonso get in each other’s way. Up front, Spain has been entirely dependent on goals from David Villa. Fernando Torres, who came into the tournament as the Spanish golden boy, has had so bad a time of it that The Guardian—in a misguided attempt to salvage his reputation—called him a more talented Emile Heskey. Perhaps worse, it turns out he dyes his hair. Read More »

Annotations

  1. He was injured in a tackle (and I use that word in its loosest sense) put in by the Ghanaian midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng, whose half-brother Jerome is the German left back. The Boateng brothers apparently no longer speak.

3 COMMENTS

Don’t Doubt Diego

July 2, 2010 | by

Diego Maradona. Photograph by Juan Manuel Robledo.

Over the past year, Diego Maradona has had Argentinians scratching their heads. Why wouldn’t he pick a settled team for the qualification campaign? Instead he chopped and changed his lineup, running through seventy-five players. For a time, it looked like they wouldn’t qualify and when they did, Maradona faced the doubting press corps and told them “they could suck it and keep on sucking it.”

Even then there were doubts. Messi and Maradona were said not to get on, and Diego was thought to prefer his son-in-law, the pint-sized and prolific Sergio Aguero. His final squad did not include Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti, who had both just orchestrated Inter Milan’s Champions League victory. He had too many strikers, not enough midfielders—in short, the Albicelestes were in big trouble.

All of these concerns have turned out to be irrelevant. Argentina is one of the teams of the tournament. They have scored loads of goals, including this monster from Tevez. Messi has been utterly mesmeric, not scoring yet, but regularly drawing not just a double- or triple-team but what quite often looks like the massed ranks of the Napoleonic Guard to defend him, opening up acres of space for his teammates.

On the sidelines, looking like Tony Montana’s best friend, with his diamond earrings, shiny suit, and mullet, has been Diego. He is fantastic to watch, not as potent as when he sliced England apart single-handedly in 1986, but still so involved, kicking every ball alongside his players, and then when forced to substitute them, consoling them with a hug and a kiss. Read More »

3 COMMENTS

England’s Loss to Germany

June 29, 2010 | by

England's performance was in a different league of awfulness from the regular awfulness that had been seen in earlier games. Before, the problem had been one of not seeming to care; the players behaving as though they deserved to win by virtue of the size of their wages. This time they definitely cared, they were fired up, ready to go and then when they got there, they were just awful.

My brother, an avid Arsenal fan sent me a text during the game: “Hopefully Manchester United will trade their Wayne Rooney for this bloke with the same name.” And my friend Andy Martin sent me an e-mail that read: “When Capello brought that loser Heskey on as some kind of supersub, I took the dog for a walk—we might as well commit ritual hara-kiri right there.”

It’s an odd marriage, the one between the Italian coach and the English team. It doesn’t seem to be working out for anyone. On the bench, Fabio Capello seems genuinely pained by the complete lack of basic technique shown by the English players. During the Slovenia game he was reduced to yelling, “Barry, the fucking ball, Barry.” He is also a fan of the ristrito: shutting his players up in the hotel during the tournament and enforcing naptime between lunch and supper. When John Terry led his insurrection, one of his complaints was that the players were desperate for a beer.

The greater complaint made by the players is that Capello persisted in playing 4-4-2. It's a system he's fond of using, but also one that nullified the talents of his three best players—Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard—by forcing them to play out of their best positions. Almost everyone else at the tournament is playing a 4-2-3-1 and all the England players play that formation for their club teams.

The truth is that 4-2-3-1 requires a great deal of positional discipline from the players, a talent England clearly does not possess. They roamed the field, chasing after the ball, and not holding any kind of shape until the Germans simply picked them off—waiting for the English to organize themselves into utter chaos and then exploiting the spaces that opened up. Germany couldn’t help but win.

In England, much has been made of Frank Lampard’s not-allowed goal. The ball clearly did cross the line and the game would have been tied going into the second half. Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German player and manager, argued that far from getting their heads down, the injustice should have riled up the English players. They should, he felt, have come out for the second half seething with rage and ready to show that nothing was going to stop them from getting their just rewards. Instead it looked as though they had found their villain and could now settle down into feeling hard done by.

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