Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Cup Review

Ok, so now I'm back for Peru, where I literally had no spare time, and was frequently away from anything like reasonable internet access. Something like normal blog service should now resume.
For now, here's a summary of how my World Cup predictions turned out. Thanks for all the offers to buy me an octopus.

All Whites
First of all, I'm happy to have been proved wrong in my (with hindsight) pessimistic prediction that New Zealand would lose all three games. We did indeed achieve the anticipated "success" of scoring a couple of goals, but the difference was that Ryan Nelsen, Mark Paston and company achieved the remarkable feat of restricting the opposition to just two goals as well. I was jumping up and down deliriously when Winston Reid equalised in the last minute against Slovakia, and burst into hysterical giggles when the game against Italy ended with the score still tied at 1-1 (I missed the Paraguay game in the middle of the fiesta of San Juan in Sibayo).

Possible winners
Ok, so I was as wrong as I could be. Not only did none of my predicted teams win the title, but this was the first time in 19 World Cups that the final did not include any of Brazil, Germany, Italy or Argentina. Spain and the Netherlands have traditionally been flaky teams that played nice football and lost the important games. Both of them managed to shed that that reputation somewhat during this World Cup, in ways that would probably be more pleasing to the Spanish than to the Dutch.

As for my choices, Italy did indeed have a shocker, but I would not be at all surprised to see them bounce back in the next European Championships and World Cup. For much of the tournament, Brazil looked fairly unstoppable, and it was strange to see then get rattled and fall apart against the Netherlands. Germany were as strong as I expected and so impressed with their counter-attacking demolitions of England and Argentina that a number of pundits started picking them to win. I can't prove it, but from what I had seen of the tournament by the semi-final stage, I wasn't surprised to see Germany go out fairly limply against a Spanish side that was never going to be anything like as naiive or disorganised as their previous opponents.

Dark horses
Neither France nor Argentina managed to overcome the burden of their respective coaches: the loathed, arrogant Domenech and an excessively adored, tactically naiive Maradona. Argentina were one of the more entertaining teams until the quarter-finals, although their individual talents never really looked like cohering enough to go all the way. Again, I can't prove it, but I did verbally predict to a number of people in Peru that Germany would beat them in the quarter-final.

African teams
I was also wrong that an African team would make it to the semi-final for the first time, although there was only milimetres in it, with Asamoah Gyan's 120th-minute penalty for Ghana against Uruguay dramatically pinging off the crossbar. Nigeria and Cameroon were disappointing, though it took a couple of outrageous misses in front of goal for Nigeria to fail to qualify for the second round. South Africa also failed to live up to my prediction that they would make it to the quarter-final, though to be fair they did beat France and along with Slovenia were the "best third-placed team", unlucky to go out of the tournament after obtaining 4 points.

Unlucky losers
As I suggested, Chile and Mexico were the teams that played the most sparkling football -- particularly Chile -- yet both dipped out in the last sixteen. Chile was the only team that really tried to attack Spain, and gave them a real fright for the first 60 minutes or so -- even when down to ten men. Unlucky? Well, Chile was well beaten by an imperious Brazil, although they were missing several key players through suspension. Mexico certainly had an element of bad luck against Argentina, with numerous goal-scoring opportunities and a definite offside in Argentina's first goal.

General tournament impressions
For me, this tournament was better overall than 2006, 2002 and 1990, though not as good as 1998, 1986 and 1982, with 1994 hard to evaluate because it's forever coloured by the final being won on penalties after finishing 0-0. The first round of group games was pretty dire and defensive, perhaps because almost all teams thought they had a chance, and were desperate not to lose. After that, it improved, and I found most games to be intense and absorbing. Though perhaps better for the fanatic than for the casual fan.

In 2010, there may have been fewer goals per game than in any previous tournament, but you can put some of that down to the lack of outright thrashings in the group stages. There were many more goals in the knockout stages than the dry offerings of 2006, and I was very pleased that only 2 out of 16 knockout matches were decided on penalties. There was no match to rival the Italy-Germany semi-final from 2006, and the closest to a "classic" match was Uruguay-Ghana, with dramatic last-minute twists and turns weighing more than the absolute quality of the play.

Another factor for me was that the best team overall won the tournament, and in almost all the knockout stages the best team advanced -- a possible exception being the Uruguay-Ghana quarter-final, where over the 120 minutes I thought that Ghana just shaded it. The Netherlands didn't look anything like their famous teams of 1974, 1988 or even 1998, but as finalists they weren't as weak or uninspiring as Germany in 2002 or Argentina in 1990. The ideal final should really have been Spain vs. Brazil.

There's been a lot of debate, mainly in the British press, about whether Spain was "boring" or "the new Italy". Part of that is just an inferiority complex from a nation whose team were completely unable to keep the ball. But in part, it's fair to question a team that won with a string of 1-0 results, managed only eight goals in the whole tournament, and whose obsession with maintenance of possession almost forced their opponents into Internazionale-esque defensiveness.

On balance though, I think we should cut them some slack. Yes, their apparent desire to pass the ball into the net got infuriating at times. But the low goal tally was partly due to some incredibly inept finishing (the Honduras game should have been won at least 6-0, there should have been at least two or three against Germany), in turn due to striker Fernando Torres being at about 50% effectiveness. And the overall conservatism can be understood given the weight of historical underperformance: desperation to get the result demanded by the squad's talent produced caution in both selection (two defensive midfielders where one might have sufficed; witness the change when Fabregas replaced Xavi Alonso for the last part of the final) and style of play (all those sideways passes). I'd expect to see a more liberated Spain in Poland/Ukraine 2012 and Brazil 2014.

A word on the octopus
Paul the octopus originally rose to fame on the strength of predicting Germany's results. Only on achieving this fame were his predictive skills directed at the final, between two other nations. Paul made his selection by preferring one or other of the flags of the competing teams, which were lowered into his tank. He predicted Germany's wins over Australia, Ghana, England, Argentina and Uruguay, and its losses to Serbia and Spain, as well as Spain's win over the Netherlands.

Germany's flag is dominated by yellow and red, as is Spain's. Ghana's also includes yellow, red and black, as well as green. The flags of the the other countries are dominated by blue (Australia, Argentina and Uruguay), white (England) and red and blue (Serbia and the Netherlands). A simple preference for yellow and red explains most of his choices (the German wins against Australia, Argentina, England and Uruguay, and Spain's win against the Netherlands). In the games involving Germany against Ghana and Spain, a 50/50 choice between similar colours suffices. Only the prediction of Serbia's win over Germany is un accounted for by this theory.

1 comment:

Steve Robinson said...

I still think that Frank Lampard's goal against Germany was the goal of the tournament.
Steve R.