So all that fuss about how the Latin American countries were dominating this World Cup has gone up in a puff of smoke. The notion was, of course, generated by statistics, and given life by our dear friends at ESPN, who seem to enjoy that sort of thing more than they enjoy the actual soccer.
It was never convincing for this reason: there were only two realistic South American candidates for the title -- and that is the usual state of affairs. Brazil and Argentina. Many would have said, did say, that only Brazil mattered. Against that the Europeans could offer six potential candidates: Italy (current champions), France (beaten finalists last time round), Germany (perennial challengers), Spain (European champions), plus the Netherlands (surely, this must finally be their year?) and England (as ever, highly touted ... by the English). The early departure of France, Italy and England still left the odds in favor of Europe.
Now, an all-European final seems almost certain. And that is nothing to be too upset about because the three remaining European teams have been playing attractively.
My preference is still Spain ... but I mean the Spain of two years ago. This Spain -- the same team, as far as the personnel is concerned -- is definitely lacking something that it had two years ago. What that is, it’s difficult to pin down.
Soccer does not allow anything to stand still, either during a game, or during the periods between major championships. Opposing teams know more about Spain than they did two years ago. We’ve already seen a mediocre Switzerland beat Spain by doing the obvious -- by being defensive. And we’ve heard the Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld give some credit for those dismal successful tactics to the USA’s Bob Bradley and the way his USA beat Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup.
But the Spain of two years back, I feel, would have coped with stubborn defenses a lot better than it has been doing in South Africa. There is an obvious answer to the problem: Fernando Torres is not fit -- he is not playing particularly well, his first touch has let him down time and again, his shooting and his passing are off. So why is he on the field at all? Fernando Llorente looks a better bet at the moment. Unless Coach Vicente del Bosque intends to continue relying on the wonderful David Villa to do it all by himself. So far Villa has done brilliantly, scoring five of Spain’s six goals -- but the fact that Spain’s total is only six goals in five games has to be worrying. After all, this is a strongly attacking team. Scorelines of 0-1, 2-0, 2-1, 1-0 and 1-0 are not going to strike terror into any opponent -- least of all the rampant Germans, who are next up.
Apart from an awful game against Serbia, Germany has been the most consistently lively team of this tournament. Its soccer is pretty straightforward -- when wide players are used, they speed into the space and get their crosses in quickly -- and the goal-scorers get their shots off quickly, and reasonably accurately. I shouldn’t have to make that last point, but the fact is that much of the shooting in this World Cup has been abysmal (and don’t give me all that crap about the unpredictable Jabulani ball). But you allow Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski a sight of goal at your peril. Then there’s Mesut Ozil, a mere 21 years old, but already so full of confidence and guile and skill and stealth as to cause problems for any opponent. Even so, he’s not the youngest of the Germans -- Thomas Mueller is a year younger, and he’s scored four goals so far, just one behind Spain’s Villa.
No, for sure, Ozil is not a typical German player -- and that fact is a measure of just how intelligent the Germans are being about bringing their team back to the center of the world’s game. This Germany is a different Germany, a much diversified Germany -- but it’s a Germany based on soccer’s most appealing aspects, on the attacking side of the game, and the attacking skills.
I mean, who’s this wearing #19 ... Cacau? A naturalized Brazilian -- to which I can only say, Bravo Germany! Ironically, while Cacau brightens up Germany’s roster, nothing like that is happening on Dunga’s new Brazil, based so cravenly on the negative features of defensive play.
Not that the Germans don’t have typical German players - I suppose Bastian Schweinsteiger is as typical as you can get for sheer size and strength ... but what a tournament he is having, arguably the most effective midfielder in the World Cup.
The Dutch were better than Brazil, no doubt about that. I don’t find them as attractive as the Germans, but they have in Wesley Sneijder a dynamic game-winner who is always worth watching. But, alas and alack and a curse on them, they have as their captain a scoundrel of a player in Mark van Bommel. A serial fouler -- and these are not minor fouls. Having watched Van Bommel many times with Bayern Munich, I can marvel at only one aspect of his play: His ability to charm or dupe referees into not giving him the frequent yellow cards that his thuggery warrants. A very, very lucky man, van Bommel.
Uruguay, I’d say is the team that has got furthest with the least resources. Diego Forlan has been the key, a player at the height of both his physical skills and his canny knowledge of what to do and where to be on the field. On the face of it, Uruguay has no chance against the Netherlands. The Uruguayans will greatly miss Luis Suarez, suspended for his game-saving (but cheating) hand ball. They will suffer even more if neither of their starting centerbacks, Diego Godin and Diego Lugano. recovers from injuries. The Romantic spirit says yes to the idea of a small country of only 3.5 million people getting to the World Cup final. The reality of big-time soccer says no.