Saturday, March 01, 2008


Heffalumps and Rabbits, Part 1

My obsession with old World Cup matches has continued, and of late I've been able to download a couple of games that have featured teams of different class facing off: Brazil v. New Zealand from the 1982 tournament in Spain, and the 1986 champions Argentina playing their first game of that tournament, against South Korea.

When one watches games like this, the question always arises: what constitutes the gulf between the two sides? Of course, it rather depends on the nature of the superior side, or the "heffalump", as an irreverent sports journalist once described such teams. In a match such as the Germany v. Saudi Arabia game from the 2002 World Cup, it was in physical strength and tactical organisation that the Germans were so superior, resulting in a scoreline of 8-0. Technically, man for man, the Saudis could hold their own.

In the two aforementioned games, though, it was of course the skill on the ball, the ability to manoeuvre in tight spaces, and the standard of passing (and, up to a point, finishing) that so starkly distinguished the teams. Yet there were some interesting features thrown up by both games.

First, the encounter between Tele Santana's Brazil - surely one of the most entertaining and admirable international sides of all time - and the brave Kiwis of 1982.

For the first half-hour of this game, New Zealand more or less held their own, surprisingly enough. Yes, Brazil had the lion's share of the possession, looked far more dangerous going forward, and passed the ball more convincingly. Yet John Adshead's men worked some nice triangles in midfield as well, and once or twice posed a threat to the Brazilian goal. These rabbits had a bit of bite.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Brazil lacked the finish to their many polished moves, and the Seville crowd was actually moved to whistle the men in yellow quite noisily after another promising move fell flat.

Then suddenly the game changed dramatically.

First Zico scored from a magnificent bicycle kick, and two minutes later, following a New Zealand free kick, Brazil put together a superb breakaway move which resulted in another goal, tapped home rather more prosaically this time by Zico.

And the rest of the half was as one-sided a period of football as I've ever seen.

Brazil returned to their imperious best, passing crisply, moving off the ball with wonderful guile and inventiveness, and showing marvellous individual skill. The Kiwis barely got a touch of the ball for fifteen minutes...and the initiative continued well into the second half.

And, in my opinion, the change occurred partly because the Kiwis stopped playing to their strengths.

Of course, the Brazilians had gained huge confidence from their two goals (the spectacular opener in particular), but New Zealand helped them considerably by sitting back, and allowing them to build from the back without the physical pressure which they had applied in the opening period.

One particularly stark contrast was in the matter of the goalkicks.

Frank van Hattum, the New Zealand 'keeper, had punted plenty of long kicks down the middle in the opening half-hour (the Brazilians, by contrast, preferred to kick short to a defender), and the pressure that New Zealand applied both in the air and at the second balls meant that they often came up with the possession.

Following the two goals, almost every Kiwi goalkick, for the rest of the match, fell almost instantly to the Brazilians. And although Toninho Cerezo, Oscar and Falcao did well in the air, it was more to do with the fact that the Kiwis seemed to have given up challenging for the ball in these situations...which had been such a strength of theirs at the beginning of the match.

With no weapons of their own to match the Brazilians' skill, Adshead's men were simply overrun. They did recover somewhat in the second half, thanks mainly to the left-wing skill and guile of Steve Wooddin, but it was basically one-way traffic after the 30th minute.

That the game ended 4-0 rather than 8-0 had more to do with the Brazilians' wayward finishing (which would eventually cost them dear in a tournament they should perhaps have won); certainly, they created an enormous number of chances in the game.

Next, a look at the Argentinians of 1986, and their unheralded opponents who should have believed in themselves a little more.

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