Saturday, July 08, 2006

I Take (Some of) It Back

OK, I admit my errors. After posting "As long as it's not Italy vs. Germany" and writing off the World Cup as a disappointment after the quarter finals, the semi-final match between those two teams turned out to be the game of the tournament.

It was a contest of great skill and tension, helped along by an excellent refereeing performance and a positive attitude by both teams. Italy won deservedly with two brilliant goals in the last three minutes. Could have been a script written by Verdi.

The Italians played a beautiful passing game, as attractive as any of my past or current flaky teams, but added to a resilience and self-belief that the latter always seem to lack. Germany were relentless, and contributed hugely too.

France vs. Portugal wasn't a bad game either, though not up to the same standard. In my view, Portugal have been wrongly vilified at this tournament, and were a bit unlucky in this game. Their neat, skillful midfield play is as good or better than anyone, but their lack of a striker was never more painfully obvious than when they went behind to a marginal penalty, and battered away impotently for most of the second half.

So then to the final...

After their great performance in the semi, I was almost about to do the unthinkable, and support Italy for the first time in my life. Then, when France began to play some scintillating stuff early in the second half and threatened to overwhelm the Italians, I decided that it would be poetic justice for les vieux to take a second World Cup.

By the time it all petered out and Italy won on penalties, there had been Materazzi's nipple-twist, the rumoured racist insults, and Zidane's headbutt. You wouldn't really have been surprised if Buffon and Brathez had then engaged in a drawn out swordfight, before leading the rest of the players in a rousing final chorus as the curtain was lowered.

Time may well be kind to this World Cup. There were so many close contests, and more controversy and drama than since at least 1986; before long the dives, the punches, the crotch-stamp, the wink, the nipple-twist and the headbutts will becomes as mythical as la mano de dios.

But despite the redemption served up by Germany vs. Italy and the operatic finale to the final, the overall point of my previous post still stands: there wasn't much on the field of play to truly inspire.

Games in the knockout rounds were tight, skillful, and with some positive intent, at least in theory. But goals were undeniably few, and those that came were mostly been from set pieces (including several dubious penalties). Excluding the third-place match, there were just two goals scored from open play in the post-second round stages: Italy's two last-minute strikes in the semi-final.

There was a lot of good defending, but it was just a bit too easy for the defenders. With modern day fitness levels and carefully-coached systems and tactics (the dreaded 4-5-1), even a pretty mediocre team can shut out and frustrate the opposition (as Greece showed par exemplar in Euro 2004).

Not only were goals scarce, but even opportunities for scoring were few and far between. In most of the knockout games, keepers hardly needed to make more than two or three serious saves a game. Much attractive build-up play ended somewhere just outside the penalty area.

There's been a lot of debate and comment about whether there need to be changes to the rules to open up the game and allow more scoring opportunities. Some of the suggestions are radical, such as widening the goals, or removing the offside rule. Others scoff at any such suggestions. But football is a game that can adapt itself to changing times like any other; indeed, it has a history of rule changes such as outlawing the back pass in the early 90s, which led to a period of more open play.

In my view it's more tweaks than transformations that are needed; football is a simple game, and the main thing will be to change the attitudes - from an overpowering fear of failure, to a situation where there's some incentive to take risks. Here are what I see as the priorities that most need addressing:

-Retrospective awarding of, and appeals against, yellow and red cards. This should do something to quell the epidemic of diving, exaggerating fouls, and trying to get people sent off. There's no question that this is a somewhat despicable aspect of the modern game.

-Better use of the advantage rule by referees, a la rugby. The Mexican referee in the Germany-Italy game was the best example I saw in the tournament of how this could be done.

-Some way to reduce the significance of penalties for minor fouls in the penalty area when a goal is not really likely. This is a very tricky one, as any law change I can think of is likely to have unintended consequences. Nevertheless, options should be put on the table.

-World Cup format: I think we need to go back to the - not particularly popular - second group stage format which predominated from 1974 - 1982. With at least two games each, this gives teams a chance to really show how good they are, and reduces the overpowering fear of making a mistake which makes otherwise creative sides choke up in high-stakes, knockout games. Knockout can wait until at least the semis, and perhaps the final.

-An extra suggestion here is a possible bonus point for scoring three or more goals (again, a la rugby) in either the first or both the first and second rounds.

-Do not decide games on penalties!! Some of what made the Italy - Germany contest so good was that neither side really wanted it to go to penalties, and the Italian were absolutely desperate for it not to. As many have suggested, one solution could be to take players off the field, one from each side every ten minutes after 90 minutes. Once it gets to seven against seven, somebody has to score. If the final itself ends in a draw, it should be replayed.

-For now, leave out widening the goals, broadening the field, or changing the offside rule. Let's see if tweaks like the above work, then take it from there.

Of course, it would be fantastic if some new, great coach and team just went out there and played irresistible, attacking (and winning) football, and everybody wanted to become like them. For a while in this tournament, I thought Argentina could be that team. But it wasn't to be. Within four years, such a team may emerge, perhaps from Africa. But I wouldn't count on it.


Anonymous said...

It has been a pleasure to read your commentary both for your prospectives and perspective. I, too, was hopeful the world would stay in the cup, but knowing somehow that science, discipline, and economics, for now, weigh heavily against heart and luck. I favour keeping the game rules as they be and let the world rise to the challenge. Cheers.

Susan said...

Much to my surprise, as a usually non sporting person with no interested in "ball chasing" games, I have really enjoyed your essays on the World Cup and am sorry it is over. Thanks for all the great comments which are much more interesting than the newspaper provides and have been something to look forward to and have even meant that I can comment semi-knowledgeably about some of it. I'm looking forward to the next issue you take up.

Cecilia said...

Ok, completely unrelated I know, but....

Happy Birthday, Simon!!!

Now, don't you think it's about time for a new post??