Farewell 2010. A highly varied year for the soccer world. A World Cup year -- but it turned out to be a far from brilliant World Cup, one that, at the very end, was tarnished by a cynical and just plain dirty performance from the Dutch. They got what they deserved -- they lost -- and Spain, after promising so much for so many years -- was finally crowned world champion.
An honor abundantly deserved, but such is the current state of our sport, that it had to come after a dreadful game, indeed after an entire tournament, in which the Spanish were rarely able to show the world just how good a team it is.
Before the tournament began, the word was out -- don’t try to play against Spain, they’ll kill you. Just set up a defensive bunker and hope you can get a goal on a counter. The Swiss -- a pretty vapid team -- made that formula work in Spain’s very first game. So from then on -- coaches being the utterly unimaginative creatures that they are - everyone did the same thing. Except Chile -- and a big thank-you to coach Marcelo Bielsa for that. Of course, Chile lost -- but it went down, not fighting, but playing real soccer, and it and Spain between them gave us one of the liveliest games of this rather torpid tournament.
For the rest, it was Spain struggling to eke out 1-0 wins against Portugal, Paraguay and Germany. That unsatisfactory process continued into the disgraceful final -- and the disgrace was all down to the Dutch. Frankly, it should not have been beyond the power of FIFA to slap the Dutch with a huge fine for “bringing the game into disrepute” -- that is a recognized offense -- and doing it at the sport’s climactic event.
So, rounding up 2010 ...
• To be applauded: Spain, for never flinching, never abandoning its technical skillful soccer, not losing their heads under the Dutch assault tactics, and showing that good soccer can be winning soccer.
• To be ashamed of: all that nonsense about the Jabulani ball. The media was at its worst here, fueling a non-story with brainless reports and imbecilic quotes from, mostly, goalkeepers. That figures- - goalkeepers are never slow to make asses of themselves, and they really went overboard on this issue. Poor guys, they couldn’t keep track of the flight of the ball, it practically turned corners on them, they were helpless in the face of this diabolical ball, they’d be letting in goals all over the place. I did not read of one goalkeeper who was asked how it could be that this unpredictability would not also present a huge problem for the attacking players who, presumably, would have no idea where their shots were going. So -- were there more goals? Need you ask? South Africa 2010 was the second lowest-scoring World Cup ever. That is a stat that ought to shut the goalkeepers up completely, but of course they are so used to yelling and screaming at everyone during an entire 90-minute game that they are, by now, unable to shut up. We can, no doubt, expect more buffoonery from these non-soccer-players.
• To be burned, in huge piles: all vuvuzelas. Preferably under FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s window.
• To be cherished: the simple sight of Lionel Messi in action. Brilliant, brilliant, and brilliant again. A little man, and that is already something to be enthralled by in this age when size and strength are ever-threatening to take over the sport. And a dribbler -- also something to treasure. But something to worry about, too. Dribbling is, to my mind, the core skill of soccer - the one that most typifies its beauty. But it is a skill that is constantly threatened because of the way the modern game is played -- the speed of the modern game, we are told, condemns the dribbler as someone who “slows the game down” (I’m sure you’ve noticed how Messi does that). And then there’s the tackling -- those swinging legs, those flying cleats, those stamping feet, that are always threatening any player who dwells on the ball. Just how this wonderful game has allowed itself to arrive at a situation where its most transcendent skill is threatened with extinction because of coaches -- and referees -- who are willing to indulge and to make excuses for the vicious tackling of technically-challenged defenders is something that needs addressing. So ...
• To be regretted: the overall refereeing attitude towards physical violence. This is not a criticism of the refereeing errors during the World Cup. A couple of them were pretty clamorously bad, true enough, but we have yet to discover the perfect referee. What I’m talking about is the willingness of referees to allow poor tackling; even when a referee does issue a caution, far too often we see him then unwilling to give the second caution. The worst aspect of this is seen, most often, in the English Premier League games, with referees opting out of giving cards, settling instead for a chat with the offending player. What is the referee saying? What can it be other than “Now that was really a bad foul, I’ll let you off this time ...” -- and where does the referee get the authority to issue feeble oral cautions for what are often pretty bad fouls? I see nothing in the rule book that permits this weakening of the rules.
• Not to be repeated please!: Another MLS win by the dreadful Colorado Rapids. From the sheer bliss of watching Messi and Andres Iniesta and their superb Barcelona teammates in action, it’s only a channel switch to bring on the Rapids and their frightful version of soccer, all hard running and gritted teeth and sliding tackles and crunching collisions. Omar Cummings, the only player on the team who consistently displayed soccer skills, may well be on his way out. An excellent move on his part. The Rapids are not just a problem for those of us who have to watch them play some of the worst soccer ever played in MLS (you really are justified in wondering if they’re even playing the same sport as Barcelona), they are a huge headache for Don Garber and his MLS cronies. Not in a month of Sundays is MLS going to sell the utterly brainless banality of Rapids-style soccer to the American public.
• To be changed ASAP: ESPN spent a lot of money on televising the World Cup, a goodly proportion of it on non-soccer coverage of South Africa. The quality of most of the work on these fringe items was impressive. That was not the case when the soccer got on the screen and all those Brit announcers got going. We don’t need Brit announcers. American announcers could have done equally as well. They were not allowed to, by a soccer-ignorant ESPN hierarchy that apparently wanted the World Cup telecasts to come over like EPL games. Why they should want that, who knows.
One wonders just who ESPN sees as its soccer audience? For that matter, when the Brits Ian Darke and Steve McManaman do their stuff, who do they have in mind as the typical American viewer? I would suggest that they have no idea, that they have given it no consideration at all, and hence they make absolutely no attempt to modify their usual Brit approach, to even slightly Americanize it. ESPN is evidently satisfied with this approach. It should not be. Just a few days ago, we had Ian Darke at work on an EPL game. He was working with McManamam, their commentary being specifically for the USA. Yet Darke, trying to be funny, comes up with this: when the Chilean Jean Beausejour was fouled, both Darke and McManamam immediately start in with the standard English attitude that it wasn’t really a foul, with the accompanying implication that Beausejour had dived - “He is from South America, of course,” said Darke.
So all South Americans are divers, then Ian -- is that it? They are all cheats? Possibly Darke can get away with that sort of borderline racist remark in England, but it is surely unacceptable in this much more racially diverse country. Darke should be reprimanded for his gaffe. No, of course he won’t be -- my guess is that no one at ESPN who might be important enough to issue a rebuke is aware of Darke’s miscue -- because none of those people will be watching a soccer telecast.
• To be pondered: can FIFA really stage a World Cup in Qatar? You bet - there will be no problem, because money will solve everything. Yes, I honestly believe that.
Where FIFA will have a problem is at the next voting for World Cup assignments. The vote has to be more open. At the very least, that means the voting can no longer be secret. If it continues to be a vote from the FIFA executive committee members, then we have to know how each member voted, and those members must be prepared to explain their vote. In my opinion, that is not enough - but it would be a start.
Then, the criteria for appointing a World Cup host must be clearly set out before the bid process begins, and not altered during the lengthy build-up to the vote. This is pretty much what happened with the voting for 2022. If, as is now claimed, it was an urge to take the World Cup to unexplored territory that motivated the vote for Qatar, that criterion (remember, it was important enough to have decided the vote - or so we are asked to believe) must be spelled out before the bid process begins. Not as something that must be part of a bid, but as a highly important factor. Had it been so indicated, would the USA or Japan or Korea have bothered preparing their multi-million dollar bids? These are contentious issues. Unfortunately, they are still overshadowed by an even more ominous problem -- that of corruption. After the revelations of vote-selling before this year’s vote, the feeling is still very much alive that FIFA’s voting procedure cannot be trusted.
• To be weighed in the balance: the USA’s performance in South Africa. Well, it certainly wasn’t bad. Should it have been better -- should the USA have beaten Ghana? Frankly, I don’t think so -- I think Bob Bradley’s team got as far as it deserved to get. Once all the fuss and uproar about disallowed goals had subsided, it was worth remembering that the USA had an enormous slice of luck in its first game, when England’s goalkeeper Robert Green absolutely handed Clint Dempsey the tying goal. And despite everything, the USA did top its group.
Bradley is still there -- will he be changing anything? I would hope so -- but I’m probably getting this wrong. Maybe we’ll see something new and refreshing against Chile later in January. But the January camp players called in by Bradley just look too darned much like, well, like Bradley type players. That midfield, which I always look at first ... and the name that leaps out at once is Jeff Larentowicz. Then Dax McCarty. And Eric Alexander. Names that do not suggest anything different from the standard, straightforward gung-ho college-style running game.
I do not expect anything too daring from Bradley -- he is not that sort of guy. But a genuine attempt to introduce some ball-playing skill into midfield would be nice. And if Bradley makes the point that there are no such American players, I would have to ask how it is that Mexican pro clubs are having a field-day recruiting Mexican-Americans -- some of whom would certainly fit that category.
• To be purred over, again and again: back to Messi and Barcelona, the most blindingly brilliant of highlights for 2010. This is soccer at its best -- the ball on the ground, dazzling footwork, wonderful passing, breathtaking dribbling, climactic goals, excitement and entertainment combined. As close to perfection as we’ve seen on a soccer field for quite a while now.