By Paul Gardner
On Sunday night I spent some time telling a neophyte soccer fan -- well, he’s just discovered the World Cup actually, so he's more of a World Cup fan at the moment -- that the first-round days of cautious low-scoring ties were over, and now we were into the knockout phase, and now every game really means something, so look out for fireworks and lovely soccer, and so on.
I returned home feeling that I had explained things pretty well, and had surely banished his carping about some of the games not having much excitement to them. A good night’s sleep followed, and on arising yesterday morning my first move was to watch the Netherlands vs. Slovakia game. I was soon hoping that the previous night’s soccer fan was not watching.
Mercy, this was tedious stuff -- it presented more or less everything that I had assured the guy would not happen from now on. A cautious defensive Slovakia against an ineffective, almost bashful, Dutch attack.
The game droned on, as did the vuvuzelas and the droney Brit accents doing the commentary. Two Scots actually, Derek Rae and the Legendary Ally McCoist. Suddenly I was jolted into wakefulness. A goal! Arjen Robben had just done what he does so well, though not nearly so well as Lionel Messi, cutting in from the right and taking a left foot shot at goal. This time his activities had been made considerably easier by three Slovakian defenders, who all declined to challenge him, and a goalkeeper who dived late in an attempt to stop his far-from-unstoppable shot.
The commentators were by now breathless with excitement at this “wonderful goal,” as one of them called it. They were soon taking off into an area that I have come to call “banalysis.” About 10 minutes later, the goal had become “sparkling,” and Legendary Ally had discovered that its brilliance belonged not so much to Robben, who had merely scored the darned thing, but to Robin van Persie who had made “an unselfish run” and distracted defenders.
So I went back to track this unselfishness and, yes, there goes Van Persie, charging into open space. Disappointingly, none of the defenders is paying him any attention, no one runs with him, no one even looks at him. So where does that leave Legendary Ally’s clever analysis? In the banalysis bin.
Robben’s sparkling goal, mysteriously enriched by van Persie, did nothing to enliven the game. On it trundled, with me now almost praying that my neophyte fan had overslept. Did I dream that late in the game, very late, the Slovakians suddenly came to life, forced two pretty good saves from the Dutch keeper, and even scored from a penalty kick?
Well, why would that be, why would a team that needed to win delay any serious assault on the opposing goal until the last few minutes of the game? I delayed pondering that in order to focus my attention on Brazil, which I was expecting to take care of Chile without too many problems. Which it did, but the game merely exacerbated the impression that something is askew with the sport.
Chile had been playing good attacking soccer in its previous games. It tried to continue doing that against Brazil and got comprehensively beaten. If it had played more cautiously, would it have done better? I’d like to think not, I’d prefer to imagine that attacking soccer is the best way to win a game. OK -- that works, because Brazil did play attacking soccer, and it won the game 3-0.
OK -- up to a point. My new worry is that I’m finding Brazil a rather unsatisfactory attacking team. This new Brazil, this Dunga-trained Brazil, seems more and more to be content to play as a counterattacking team. Against Chile it was prepared to absorb pressure with sturdy defensive play. But this was un-Brazilian-like play. It was scrappy, it often seemed content merely to thump the ball away; there was far too much of that.
One of these lusty thumps -- by Maicon -- found its way out to Robinho. It was not a pass in any sense of the word, but it got to Robinho and then we got a few seconds of truly Brazilian soccer as Luis Fabiano scored. Another breakaway in the second half featured a lengthy run by Ramires before Robinho scored. And Brazil’s first goal had come from a corner kick.
I guess that’s the modern Brazil. Plenty of “practical” defending, most of it not particularly attractive, with goals from a couple of counterattacks and a set play.
More than that. If that’s the way that Brazil chooses to play, then that’s modern soccer, period. Remember, Brazil was not, in this game, confronted by a team determined to play defensively. We saw that approach adopted by Portugal in the first round. Brazil did not really solve that problem, and the game finished 0-0.
Which brings us to today’s game, Spain vs. Portugal. I’ve not seen my neophyte fan and if I did what would I tell him? I feel sure that we shall see a defensive Portugal, you know “difficult to breakdown.”
This was the problem that Switzerland posed for Spain. Spain failed the test and lost the game.
Spain failed because it was relentlessly faithful to its lovely passing game -- in many ways the sort of game that Brazil, in happy pre-Dunga times, used to play with such relish, and with such success.
Yes, I want to see Spain win by sticking to its style. But the Switzerland shock must surely have indicated that some variation is needed. An occasional long ball? A looping aerial cross? Or even the willingness, as displayed rather inelegantly by Brazil, to soak up opposing pressure and go for the counterattack.
Not that I see that last option as being of much value in this game, because I don’t expect Portugal to come forward with all guns blazing. Portugal’s coach Carlos Queiroz is hardly the adventurous type, and he will not want to repeat the “mistake” of Chile, that of trying to play attacking soccer against an ostensibly superior opponent.
So there we are, a not too optimistic look at what really ought to be a festival of free-flowing soccer. Why not? Both teams will be in search of victory. Both teams have the players for a goalscoring feast. Spain has more of them, but Portugal has the incomparable Cristiano Ronaldo.
Why not? Because that’s not the way that modern soccer, modern World Cup soccer, is played. And lurking at the end of this game, is that slimy monster the shootout, which has an increasingly negative effect on play the longer a game stays tied. My hope -- for myself and all neophyte fans -- is an early goal for Spain.