By Paul Gardner
There are, I suppose, a whole bunch of different reasons for enjoying a soccer game -- but aside from the obvious one of seeing your own team win, they probably all boil down to one thing: exciting action.
I wish someone would tell Bora Milutinovic about this. He seems blithely unaware that playing attacking soccer is an option. That it is possible to play that way and actually win games. And to look good while doing it. But that is not the Bora way. His way -- and I've seen more than enough of his various teams over the years to know of what I talk -- is caution all the way.
I can see Bora's mind clicking quickly into action as soon as the Confederations Cup draw was made and Iraq's group was decided. Something like this would come out of the Bora calculator: A tie against the host team (accomplished), don't lose too heavily against Spain (accomplished), win by two or more goals against New Zealand (to be accomplished).
It makes lovely, logical, sense. It also makes for dreadful soccer. We saw that, didn't we ever, in Wednesday's game against Spain. Iraq did virtually nothing that was of any interest other than pass the ball around nicely among themselves in their own half of the field. As I said, nothing of great interest.
Bora, I imagine would insist that his formation was 4-5-1. Occasionally it was -- but mostly it was 5-4-1, even 5-5. For most of the game there was no getting away from the fact that Iraq's backline had five players strung across the field. Plus another line of four, not far in front of them. So, of course, Spain found it difficult to break through. They did, eventually -- though the eventual goalscorer David Villa probably should have scored at least twice before he finally did so -- and all of Bora's meticulously plotted defensive tactics came to nothing. Iraq lost the game. As it deserved to.
But wait. Bora's press conferences have always been considerably more entertaining than the soccer that he instructs his teams to play. Entertaining because Bora can be genuinely funny, or more likely entertaining because Bora waffles on in Serbian Stengelese and leaves you wondering what the hell he's talking about. I mean, did he reallysay that?
This time, it seems, the 1-0 defeat was perfect. "I am very, very happy with the defeat. I am not only happy, I am delighted ... I am very pleased that we did not lose by four goals." So you are forced to the realization that winning the game was not Bora's aim here -- merely not losing it, or at least not losing by a tennis score.
All according to plan, because Iraq -- also playing with pussyfooting caution -- tied its first game with South Africa, a 0-0 bore-draw. So it now has just one point with one first-round game to play. This suits the Bora's actuarial mind, and he pointed out "We're still in the tournament," and seemed to think at the time of his press conference that another tie, against New Zealand this time, could get Iraq into the semifinals -- "Maybe we can go through to the semifinals with only two points. It is possible."
Not any more it ain't. That ridiculous (though not ridiculous to Bora, that's how he thinks) idea lasted about five hours, until South Africa's 2-0 win over New Zealand. So, for all of Bora's cleverness, Iraq's fate now depends on Spain beating South Africa on Saturday. That ought to happen, but there is now no reason at all why Spain should feel the need to do that. It has 6 points, its +6 goal difference means that it will win the group. It will not want to lose the game, of course -- if only to keep its non-losing streak going. And if South Africa gets a point, then Iraq will go home, having played little real soccer, but having played intelligently enough to delight Bora.
If Spain beats South Africa -- well, then Iraq will need to beat New Zealand. But all those calculations are somewhat academic as both games are played at the same time on Saturday. Bora will no doubt be kept informed minute by minute of the score in the Spain game, and he will no doubt be constantly revising his goalscoring requirements as goals, should there be any, are scored by Spain or South Africa.
So there we have the breathless scenario for Saturday. Bora and Iraq knowing that the only safe -- but not certain -- way of advancing is to beat New Zealand and score two or three goals while doing it.
It's the goalscoring aspect that I find most irritating. Iraq has yet to score in this tournament. I'm not even sure it knows how to score goals -- we've seen no evidence so far. But let us suppose that Iraq pulls it off, and qualifies amid a sudden burst of scoring (not impossible -- New Zealand has shown itself to be a pretty clueless team) -- then do we congratulate Bora for being such a canny coach? Or do we curse him for not allowing his team to play in goalscoring mode right from the start? That's the problem for me -- that Bora has never believed that you can win by scoring goals.