Saturday, July 01, 2006

Starting to Lose the Faith

Following the quarter-final stage, the World Cup has already turned into rather a disappointment for me - perhaps I was naiive to expect things to be different this time.

The second round of matches, were, as the weather report used to say, a mixed bag.

The Argentina-Mexico clash was an excellent, absorbing game. Mexico were for periods the better side - they closed down Argentina's passing game, counter-attacked at pace, and can count themselves unlucky to go out to Maxi Rodriguez's wonder goal in extra time.

The Portugal-Holland match, which ended with nine players on both sides, was derided by some as a disgrace and a near farce. But in between the cards and controversies, I thought it was dramatic and entertaining, and there was three times as much skillful football as in the entire England-Ecuador match.

The flurry of red and yellow cards was partly due to loss of control by both teams, and partly to over-officious refereeing. In terms of actual fouls, it was nothing close to as bad as, say, a River Plate-Boca Juniors derby - as Portuguese coach Luis Felipe Scolari candidly acknowledged, saying “I'm used to that; I've coached in the Copa Libertadores” (S.American club championship).

Ukraine-Switzerland I understand was a predictable bore. I also found the Italy-Australia game very frustrating, in that Italy were patently the more talented side but constrained by a nervous lack of ambition. It was a great adventure for Australia, but in the second half, against ten men, they never looked like scoring.

Spain against France was, in the manner of things to come, a game of considerable skill but little incision. As I mentioned in my previous post, it wasn't a great surprise to see the experienced French shut out Spain’s pretty passing game and hurt them on the break.

When all the dust had settled, there still looked to be three classic match-ups in store for the quarter-finals, plus a chance for Italy to continue their sleepwalk into the semi-finals against Ukraine.

Italy duly obliged, with a 3-0 win suggesting that they are moving into their stride at the right time.

But the other matches were ultra-cautious battles of attrition played by teams afraid to lose. Three goals were scored in three games - from a corner, throw-in, and free kick - and two of the matches were decided by penalties.

The best of the bunch was probably France-Brazil, if only for the impressive performance of the French, and the heartening fact that a guy two years older than me – Zinedine Zidane – was easily the best player on the field. But it was rather depressing to see the much-vaunted Brazil show absolutely nothing, their “marvellous quartet” feeble and anonymous.

Great things weren't really expected from England and Portugal, who duly obliged with a 0-0 stalemate. The obligatory controversial sending-off / brave English battle with 10 men / penalty shoot-out debacle was so predictable it makes you groan. Someone come up with a new script, please!

But perhaps the biggest disappointment of all was the Germany-Argentina match. This should have been a classic, between the two teams who had impressed most to date. Instead, we saw a cagey, conservative encounter which was tense, but ultimately pretty dull.

There was always a good chance that Germany's resilience and power, with home support, would overcome even the best of teams. But Argentina should at least have made an attempt to overwhelm them with skilfull, attacking football. As it was, they knocked square balls around with excruciating caution for most of the first half, and hardly created a shooting opportunity.

They still managed to nick a 1-0 lead midway through the second half, with a header from a corner. But then, in a disastrous loss of moral courage, Argentinean coach Jose Pekerman decided that they were going to be Italy. With 25 minutes still remaining, he pulled off Juan Roman Riquelme for defensive midfielder Esteban Cambiasso and brought on the ineffectual Julio Cruz for Hernan Crespo. With an injury to the goalkeeper, all the subs were used up, and exciting young Lionel Messi had no chance to get on the field.

When Germany duly pinched a goal back, Argentina had nothing left. As the game went to extra time, Crespo, Messi, Riquelme, Javier Saviola, and Pablo Aimar - Argentina's best attacking players - watched helplessly from the bench.

After the game, as some Argentina players were involved in an ugly brawl, it was as if all their demons had returned at once. The philosophy of playing a confident, attacking style had been abandoned when it mattered most, and it seemed almost karmic to see the old petulance return.

It's probably unfair to France and Germany, neither of whom have done anything wrong, but for me the charm and romance has already gone out of the tournament and I don’t care much who wins.

The best we can hope for is that in four years time in South Africa, some team – perhaps an African one - will break the mould and show that it's still possible for football to inspire the imagination, rather than simply mimicking the calculating materialism which mostly governs our modern lives.

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