The stars of this World Cup have all been letdowns. Messi, despite some flashes outside the box, hasn’t scored, Rooney and Kaka look exhausted, Robben and Drogba are injured, and Cristiano Ronaldo is so vile that his very existence is a disappointment. Instead all the talk has been of coaches.
It seems as if every team with the exception of England are playing the same tactical formation—a 4-2-3-1. The crucial number here is the 2; it refers to the holding midfielders who operate as a double defensive shield in front of the actual defense. They sit deep, keep the play narrow, and stop the opposing attackers from finding any space in which to operate. When both teams play with it, it can lead to the rather dour defensive battles that we have witnessed so far. It has traditionally been the weapon of choice for weaker teams, a way to absorb pressure—to “park the bus,” as the English commentators put it, in front of the goal. Needless to say, it’s a system beloved by coaches, less popular with fans. Both Carlos Dunga of Brazil and Vincent del Bosque of Spain are being castigated for playing without the necessary flair.
The most obvious candidates for opprobrium have been Raymond Domenech, held to be responsible for the debacle that is the French tournament, which came to a sorry and entirely expected end today, and Fabio Capello, who had to crush a one man rebellion led by the former England captain, John Terry. Both of them were accused by their players of not playing to their strengths, of imposing systems that were not best suited to the team they had brought—both rebellions, it should also be said, seemed rather pathetic.
Then there are the troubles of the African teams. As I write this, it is very possible that none of them will make it through the group stages. Greatly experienced foreigners coach five of the six teams of the host continent, indeed South Africa are coached by the legendary Carlos Alberto Parreira who won the 1970 World Cup for Brazil, generally held up as the greatest national team ever assembled. Only Algeria has an African coach. In previous tournaments, African teams were known for a certain madness in their style; all sendings off and overwhelming attacks . In this World Cup, they have focused more on shape and tactics and the results have not been good.
In the excellent Soccernomics, Simon Kuper explains that the movement of a group of elite soccer coaches means that eventually all teams will play the same game and as the financial consequences of defeat become greater and greater, so more and more teams will play not to lose. This can be seen very clearly in this World Cup; South Korea are still playing the style, devised by Guus Hiddink, that took them to the semifinals in 2002, and Switzerland, who defeated Spain by scoring in one of their only two attacks, are coached by Ottmar Hitzfeld, a former Champions league winner with Bayern Munich. This is all entirely to be expected. But the coaches should be careful—with all this power comes responsibility. The desire to keep from losing, to impose such stringent systems on what is supposed to be a great entertainment can have serious consequences indeed.
Before the North Korea–Brazil match, there was much hilarity in the commentary box about how the North Korean coach, Kim Jong Hun, claimed to communicate by “invisible phone” with Kim Jong Il. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to point out that he probably had to say that—that if the Dear Leader wished that to be the case, then it was probably in the coach’s best interests to agree. Now after the 7-0 thrashing by Portugal (the first game to be broadcast live in North Korea), there is genuine concern about the safety of the coach when he returns to Pyongyang. The previous coach, who has since defected, talked darkly about punishment—“purges” and “coal mines” were both mentioned. Kim has dismissed these fears: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose; it doesn’t always turn out the way you want. But there are going to be no further consequences.”
Obviously no one else is in danger of going to any mines; Erikkson and the rest will just move onto another highly paid gig. But there is a still a problem: if the best efforts of the coaches come to fruition and the pleasures available to the watcher at home become scarcer and scarcer, more and more viewers will follow the lead of the North Korean government and simply switch the broadcast off.