By Paul Gardner
It is to be expected that each World Cup will, from now until eternity -- or until television and the marketers and the sponsors and the hype-merchants bury the whole thing under the relentless flow of their infantile antics -- will be the best ever.
We shall be told that, over and over again until we -- feeble-minded consumers that we are -- are bludgeoned into believing it. Such will be the fabulously expensive brainwashing that, quite probably, we shall come to believe it even when contrary evidence is staring us in the face.
I’m hoping that we haven’t already reached that stage. By which I mean, I hope we haven’t reached the first stage of that deterioration, the stage at which we cease to judge the World Cup by the one criterion that really matters: The quality of its soccer.
I’ll admit I haven’t been paying that much attention to the range of best-ever categories that are now being touted -- most of them involving money or showing off some sort of economic power -- most tickets sold, biggest payoffs for the teams involved, highest fees ever collected from official sponsors and so on.
We’ve also been deluged with political propaganda reminding us of the significance of this first-ever World Cup in Africa. I have no doubts that all of it is true. But I’m interested in the soccer, of all things, and I’d have to say that, by that yardstick, South Africa fluffed its lines badly by becoming the first-ever host country not to get out of the first round.
The political triumphs represent precisely nothing on the soccer front. Ditto for the marketing successes. It is of no interest to me to learn, in the middle of this supposedly soccer event, that FIFA has managed to get a couple of ambush-marketers arrested.
As for FIFA’s, and Sepp Blatter’s, and the South African organizers’ attempts to convince everyone that those moronic vuvuzelas are an indispensable and traditional part of the fun, please guys, credit us with some common sense.
By any of those synthetic, and to me irrelevant, criteria World Cup 2010 may well be the best ever. But can we take a look at what’s been happening on the field, you know, the soccer? This is what matters, and the news is not good.
The quality of the soccer has been decidedly ordinary. Yes, we’ve had a few dramatic games, well dramatic finishes anyway. But outstanding games memorable for great soccer? Forget it, not a single one. Star players? Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Franck Ribery have all gone home, having left no indelible memories for us to feast on. Landon Donovan did better than any of them -- and he’s already back playing in MLS.
Even the referees, who started the tournament so well, have suffered a letdown and given us one too many distorted results.
You may retort that all of my evidence is subjective. A lot of it certainly is -- actually, that is what we deal with mostly in this sport -- opinions. But I can move away from opinions, over into an area of figures and numbers. Let’s take a look at some stats.
The key one here is goalscoring. Those of you who do not agree, those who find low-scoring games completely acceptable may as well stop reading right now. Because I consider this the biggest of soccer’s problems.
As things stand, we have so far played 60 games in this World Cup, and 133 goals have been scored. An average of 2.21 per game. Make that 2.2166. The extra figures are necessary because World Cup 2010 is in a tight race with World Cup 1990 for the crown of worst-ever World Cup -- well, lowest scoring. The 1990 figure was 2.2115, so the South African edition will probably escape being tarred as the worst. Just second worst.
Of course, the South Africans are not to blame for this mess. Nor for that matter, is the “controversial” Jabulani ball. Remember how all the Jabulani hogwash started? As always, with goalkeepers, who moaned loud and long that the ball was a disaster for them, therefore it must mean more goals. There is no need whatever to listen to those guys, they’ve never made any sense.
The Jabulani has not been a factor. The blame for the goal drought -- I should say for the growing goal drought, for there is no sign at all that it will go away -- belongs squarely with FIFA and its tame little rules-making group, IFAB.
It is from those bodies that instructions and rule changes should have come, over the past decades, designed to maintain a balance within the sport between offense and defense, to ensure that it is neither too difficult nor too easy to score goals. A plan of action well known to American sports, but something that has so far proved to be beyond the grasp of the FIFA minds.
So massed defenses and their ever-complaining goalkeepers dominate, and coaches put on the field frightened formations with just one forward.
Rightly and properly all of those teams have gone. We are left with the Netherlands and Germany, both lively and committed to attack, Spain -- an attacking team, for sure, but one that so frightens its opponents that they all prefer to confront it with a massed defense -- and Uruguay, which may well have to rely on defense against the Dutch.
A flurry of goals in the semifinals would be nice -- to make sure this isn’t the lowest scoring-ever World Cup, and just to give us a taste of what we’ve been missing so far.