By Paul Gardner
No doubt the advertisers have spent millions compiling the commercials that we are now seeing, aren’t we ever, during the World Cup games. Most of them, maybe all of them, are evidently conceived and written by morons. Certainly most of them seem to be narrated by gravel-voiced airheads.
Caught up in the lunacy are various players, trying to look as though they’re normal human beings, but traduced into behaving like standard advertising-idiots -- i.e. people who only know how to jump up and down and carry on conversations with inanimate objects.
Infantile as all that stuff has been, it cannot be said that the soccer has shone brightly through.
Let me get the most contentious issue out of the way. Something that I shall no doubt feel compelled to return to, but later. The hysteria surrounding the “goal” that was “taken away” from the USA in the Slovenia game. First point: if referee Koman Coulibaly blew his whistle before the ball went into the net, then it never was a goal. The reaction of the Slovenian players is significant -- they are not sinking to their knees or clutching their heads in despair. Evidently, they know that the “goal” will not count.
The frustration of the Americans is eminently understandable. To have the crowning moment of a memorable comeback snatched away is a bitter blow to take in the heat of the crucial moment. What I find much less understandable -- incredible in fact -- is that Bob Bradley should later, very definitely not in the heat of the moment, decide to have a say on the matter and proclaim, unequivocally, “it was a good goal.”
Which certainly amounts to a pretty severe criticism of the referee, something that usually brings a fine from FIFA. Whether Bradley gets fined or not, he should know better than to start blaming referees. Normally, he does know better -- he’s not one to shift blame for poor performances on to the officials.
Anyway, no irreparable damage has been done: the USA did not lose the game, and it is very much alive in its quest for second-round qualification.
Things don’t look quite so bright for the reigning champion Italy. A win in its final game against Slovakia will see Italy though, but it will have to be an Italy with a lot more determination and cleverness than the Italy we’ve seen so far. Not being able to beat New Zealand is a situation Italy should not find itself in. It was worse, because the Kiwis came close to winning the game near the end.
Normally one would feel, well, OK, but Italy will progress, which is good, and New Zealand will go home, which is also good as its soccer isn’t worth watching anyway. That was hardly the case here, when Italy produced little that was memorable, and New Zealand had patches when it played presentable soccer.
But Italy is Italy, destined to act out its reputation of just scraping through the first round and then coming alive to win the games that matter. Which is pretty much what it did four years ago in Germany.
The Italians and the Germans you never write off in major tournaments. The Dutch you usually can; they do the opposite of the Italians, starting brightly, then fizzling out. They’re living up to that, six points from two games. They won their game against Japan, but it took a wonder-strike from Wesley Sneijder to break through the determinedly defensive Japanese.
That game raised a lot of questions about the way that coaches choose to play games that they feel they probably cannot win. The Japanese coach Takeshi Okada chose caution and defense. Was that the right choice? Inevitably, it involved a timid offense. But once the Dutch had got their goal, at that point the Japanese had to go forward, and they did it with considerable craft and speed -- enough so, to make you feel they should have played this way from the start. And what on earth was Algeria up to?
Outplaying an almost pathetic England -- yet, or so it seemed, not really interested in winning the game.
England looked like a team without a center, without a focus. Who is in charge on the field? I would ask who is the orchestrator, but that is not the right question for England, which has basically done without a midfield brain for decades. The Italians call that player a regista, the same word they use for a movie director. They have a regista in Andrea Pirlo. Perhaps when he is fit, the Italians will look a lot classier. At the moment they are thoroughly disjointed, with even their defense, the abiding strength of Italian soccer, looking fragile.
Midfield brains, orchestrators, whatever, have admittedly gone right out of fashion. The chief accusation against them is that they tend to slow things down, when the modern game is all about speed. There is truth in that. The closest we have in this tournament is probably Argentina’s Juan Sebastian Veron -- 35 years old, which I suppose makes him a sort of dinosaur, whose main task would appear to be finding a way to make full use of Argentina’s almost overly rich assortment of attacking players.
In place of playmakers, we now have much more mobile players, who do not occupy a central position in midfield. They might pop up anywhere, they will likely score some goals, too.
A new all-purpose, all-action role. In that brief description maybe you’ll recognize Landon Donovan, who is a very good example of the new breed. For Brazil Kaka fills the role, maybe Robinho too. As a fantasy, I’d love to see Donovan on the current Brazilian team, taking over the Kaka role. I have a feeling he’d do pretty well.
Not that Brazil needs him. It is now nicely qualified for the next round with a comfortable 3-1 win over Ivory Coast. There were moments here that were pure Brazil, flashy Brazilian moments that always bring excitement and astonishment and enjoyment to the sport. That first goal -- in particular the slick passing that led up to it ... why can we not see more of that sort of play?
One reason was made brutally obvious when ESPN switched to its studio experts at halftime. On came Juergen Klinsmann, a self-avowed champion of attacking soccer, to tell us that the way to stop that sort of nonsense was “to do a foul.”
A tactical foul, in other words -- for which referees are supposed to give a yellow card. We have seen plenty of such fouls throughout the 29 games so far played, and this is one area where the referees have not been strict enough. Many of these fouls are committed quite deep in the opponent’s half, aimed at halting an attacking break before it has time to even start. But such is the atmosphere of the modern game, and the mentality of the modern coach, that deliberately breaking the rules, maybe having to accept a yellow card, is a perfectly permissible, nay advisable, way to play soccer.
The problem is that any referee who now chooses to punish tactical fouls with the required yellow would be likely to find himself buried under an avalanche of criticism for “not allowing the game to flow,” for not “letting the players play” and so on. We saw something of this last week in the reaction to the performance of the Spanish referee Alberto Undiano, who issued five yellows and one red card in the first half of the Germany-Serbia game. Never mind that all of his decisions were correct (that’s my opinion) what mattered was that Miroslav Klose got sent off, and that should not have happened. So referee Undiano, and not Klose, is pilloried as the man who caused the German defeat. After all, Klose was only living up to Klinsmann’s “do a foul” requirement.
It was sad to see Cameroon become the first team to be eliminated, for there is a lot of skillful talent on this lively team. Fighting for its life against Denmark, Cameroon helped to give us the best 90 minutes of the tournament so far. So Cameroon goes home, yet we are quite likely to be forced to enjoy the delights of Switzerland, possibly even Greece, in the second round.
Maybe France, too, is on its way home, though the damage here is self-inflicted and the French have not played well enough to regret their absence too much.
On Tuesday, the tournament will face an awkward moment. It ought to be a classic Latin American matchup - Mexico vs. Uruguay. We shall see. It may be asking too much. Uruguay knows that a tie will see it through to the next round as group winner. A tie will also ensure Mexico’s advance, though as the second place team. That is not so satisfactory for the Mexicans for their next opponent would the winners of Group B -- probably Argentina.
But if Mexico beats Uruguay, it tops the group and avoid Argentina. Mexico has something to play for then but it’s risky, as a loss to Uruguay could mean elimination, with France moving up as the second place team on goal-difference.
A situation that hasn’t arisen since the notorious Germany vs. Austria non-game in 1982. But now the possibility of a mutually convenient tie is present again. And there’s nothing that can be done about it. Nothing within the rules, anyway.