Friday, July 02, 2010


Some Reflections

Now that the World Cup has reached its first hiatus, it's time to have a look back at the course of the event so far, vis-a-vis the performances of the different confederations.

Not a day has gone by without another pundit making reference to the fact that this has been, on the field, South America's World Cup rather than Africa's. The men from CONMEBOL have been splendidly successful, all five teams advancing to the knockout stage (it's worth noting that four out of five made it through in 1998 as well), and four of them still alive at quarter-final time.

Tim Vickery has written a typically perceptive and well-argued piece for the World Soccer website, and it's hard to disagree with his conclusions. Leaving aside Argentina and Brazil, who are always competitive at the tournament, South America's teams have shown not only excellent organisation and fine individual skills but a bit of grit as well; the 18-game CONMEBOL qualifying marathon may infuriate European club coaches, but it certainly aids cohesion among the national sides.

The most salient example of the resilience of the South Americans was Uruguay's climb from the canvas against South Korea in the second round. The game, and particularly the second half, had been dominated by the Asians, but Uruguay were able to find a second wind when it mattered, after which the class of the forward line provided the breakthrough.

This leads us to Asia. It is the first World Cup without a West Asian side since 1974, and yet it has been Asia's best yet (discounting the host-friendly 2002 event), with two sides making the knockouts and another only missing out on goal difference. Is this significant?

I'm not sure, but it does seem that Australia's entry into the Asian confederation has caused the other nations, especially in the Eastern half of the confederation, to sharpen up physically. Japan proved much tougher in the air than in previous events, and the Koreans too - apart from that spell in the second half against Greece - were not as easily dominated physically as in the past. It will be a while before the Asians can think seriously of aiming for the semis or beyond, but they seem to be on their way.

What to say about Africa? Although there is one African entrant still in the frame, it has been a dismal showing on the whole for the host continent. I think there are a few reasons for this, but mainly it comes down to organisation once more; the two nations with far and away the best chance of making a real impression, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, changed coaches ridiculously close to the start of the tournament. As a result, the teams looked unsettled and the game-plans slapdash, and Nigeria in particular could have done better. The Ivorians were unlucky to be placed in such a tough group, but they too might have gone further had they been able to avoid the upheavals of the last few months.

It was a pretty typical World Cup for CONCACAF; Mexico out at the last 16, the USA gallant but short of guile. Having said that, I think that we will see the Americans continue to improve in the next few years, to the extent that they might be considered genuine semi-final contenders by 2018 or 2022.

Last but not least: Europe.

The old continent has never been more aptly named than in this event: too many teams were relying on old ideas, long-serving coaches, and players who had seen better days. Although the early exits of Italy, France and England had different immediate causes, the same thread of staleness ran through all of them. Elsewhere, teams like Greece and Denmark showed too much faith in old stagers, both on the field and on the bench, while Portugal were undone by the now-familiar phenomenon of a world-class star donning lead boots for his European national side.

The Swiss and the Serbs couldn't find a cutting edge and were also plagued by ill-discipline, and while Slovakia did well to reach the knockouts, they were never likely to trouble the confident Dutch. Slovenia presumably entered the tournament with limited expectations, and they acquitted themselves fairly well.

That leaves us with Oceania, and we can surely say that it was a very successful World Cup for FIFA's smallest confederation. Whether that confederation continues to exist within a couple of cycles is another matter...

"Japan proved much tougher in the air than in previous events."

I have no idea, in terms of any observation I have made or can make, or am even logistically capable of researching, whether this is true.

I am going to assume that it is.

This is a mere example.

Mike, you actually blow my mind.
Thanks Mike

And who has 'West Asia's' (middle east really) spots? Australia and New Zealand. Probably why they are yet to back our 2022 bid.

The Asian Cup should show us what they think of that.
Hamish: I'm mainly thinking of our game against them in 2006, when we really bossed them in the air for the final half-hour or so. IIRC they suffered similar problems when at home against European sides in 2002.
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