My World Cup: The final four

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.

8 comments about "My World Cup: The final four".
  1. Shawn Blymiller, July 5, 2010 at 12:52 a.m.

    Germany's soccer has been the most entertaining. I like how Paul mentioned that Germany takes advantage of the chances they get, they don't waste their opportunities. Listen Spain, Argentina, and the Netherlands have looked good keeping the ball; however, I think that they are too safe too often and not trying the penetrating ball to create more goal scoring opportunities. It seems as though they wait a little bit too long to allow the defense to get numbers behind the ball. That might be a down fall for the Netherlands against hardworking blue collar Uruguay. They get everyone behind the ball very quickly. Hopefully we see lots of goal scoring opportunities.

  2. John h Borja, July 5, 2010 at 1:05 a.m.

    You, of course, have a better pulse on the status of the remaining teams and the players. I take a different view of Luis Suarez. Whether he intended handling the ball or not, he is, or should be considered a hero in Uruguay. He "took" one for their team. He sacrificed himself to roll the dice for his team. Everyone knew the Uruguay team was better at PKs. His bet won. And really won it for Uruguay. No question, however, as you say,Suarez will be sorely missed. Cheating? Naw. It's just a sacrifice fly, like in baseball. The difference is that baseball doesn't red card a sacrifice fly. Hey, what would you do for your team, short of the head butting by poor sport former French national team player Zidane?

  3. Paul Sheirich, July 5, 2010 at 2:34 a.m.

    Germany's poor performance vs Serbia was - in my opinion - due to the referee, who was man of the match as he had more impact on the game than any other person on the field. I was really surprised that there wasn't more uproar about that, but then the US had their match with Slovakia & that took center stage. As for ESPN - they have done an absolutely FANTASTIC job bringing us this World Cup, and despite the aggravation of listening to Harkes fill the air with his blah blah, I think they did the best overall job I've yet experienced here in the States. For more on ESPN, check my blog at

  4. Peter Forrest, July 5, 2010 at 5:03 a.m.

    As usual, I enjoyed reading your column, Paul (can't believe the amount of unfair and largely ignorant abuse you regularly take on here),
    A couple points on Spain:
    1. Yes, Torres is not playing amazingly well and probably not fully fit (though I thought he looked quite lively against Honduras but got a lot of criticism after that game because he missed a few chances--a shame). But why aren't more people realizing that the thing that sets them apart from two years ago, and the reason in my opinion that they are struggling, is that Del Bosque has followed the rest of the cautious coaches in the world and undermined his team's swashbuckling style by playing two holding midfielders in Busquets and Alonso? This means that Xavi is played further forward than he's most comfortable (no doubt this is part of the reason that Xavi has been mildly underperforming), Iniesta is played less centrally than he is at Barca, and there is one less attacking/wide player on the field (Silva, Navas, etc). Perhaps this has made Spain a bit more solid defensively, but arguably if they were at their free-flowing best, they wouldn't need the defensive cover. If Del Bosque has doubts about either Busquets or Alonso doing the job on their own, then maybe he shouldn't have left Marcos Senna behind, so influential as the sole 'ball-winner' two years ago.
    2. Full credit to the Germans for how they have played, but surely another reason why Spain haven't been as impressive going forward as the Germans is the way opponents line up against Spain (Paul does pick up on this). Especially since the Switzerland result, virtually every team has lined up against Spain with the intent of sitting deep and stifling the play. I very much doubt that if Germany's opponents played this way against them every game, they would have scored as many goals as they have. Sure, the German's have earned their early goals with enterprising play, but they haven't been facing the most cautious, talented, or resolute defenses, and once they have gotten the early goal they have had the luxury of sitting back and hitting on the counter.

  5. PHIL PIRIOU, July 5, 2010 at 6:10 a.m.

    The Jabulani ball is really affecting the World Cup. Look at Forlan's goal against Ghana: the ball was heading to the right then at mid-course turns to the left. It's obvious on the video: . This unpredictability is also obvious by the number of balls released by goal keepers in this World Cup. Very abnormal. Concerning Van Bommel, I agree he's such a thug. I believe we should have a dedicated camera following his nasty actions during the match, the same way it was done with the famous Totti spitting case. Nothing can beat visual proof.

  6. Edgar Soudek, July 5, 2010 at 8:25 a.m.

    Boy, little ol' Paulie-Boy certainly never misses an opportunity to disparage Brazil - how he must hate that country, and it's people...

  7. Loren C. Klein, July 5, 2010 at 11 a.m.

    It's not that difficult to pin down the difference between the Spain of Euro 2008 and the Spain of the 2010 World Cup. They're missing Marcos Senna, plain and simple. Xabi Alonso has been picked by Del Bosque to take Senna's role, but the problem is that not only Alonso is struggling to maintain match fitness, but also the fact that Alonso is not the same type of player. Senna is a ball-winning defencive midfielder with the ability to spring a counterattack with his passing. Alonso has the latter, but not the former, upsetting the balance in midfield. It's plain to see from a armchair perspective, so why is it so hard for a professional writer to notice it? Hmm... To be honest, the most dangerous Spain have looked this tournament was after Fabregas came on against Paraguay and Spain switched to a more rigid 4-2-3-1, as Fabregas has nearly the same passing ability as Iniesta and Xavi, but he can also take the ball and drive forward, and even score. However, Del Bosque won't go with it because he prefers a bigger man up top in the form of Torres, who, even when crocked, has more mobility than Fernando Lloriente.

  8. Christopher Holden, July 5, 2010 at 3:44 p.m.

    Spain, Spain, Spain ... you saw how Paraguay outplayed them, and if they had a striker on their (the Paraguayan) team it would have ended 3 - 1 ... of course the Cabanas shooting in a bar comes back to haunt the Paraguayan team. By the way that first goal was not offside, by anyone's interpretation of the rules. If Spain thinks they can get past Germany they have another thought coming. Even without Mueller Germany will show the world what a powerful crew of big midfielders can do against Spain. This game will be won in the middle of the pitch. Villa will not roam free on the left hand touch line, and the Germans, not the Spaniards, will control the ball. I'd like to see Víctor Valdés start so that we can enjoy a close game but if Del Bosque goes with Casillas you can say bye bye to any chance of being in the final. The only way Spain wins is on a referee blunder (or two), and that is still an option. Now what would be the odds of that?

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