Friday, 27 June 2014

World Cup 2014: Stand By For Mordant Commentary

Just a quick warning before we proceed: I'm going to be working as many puns about biting as I can into this post. I don't know if any Uruguayan folks read this blog, but if you're out there, and you think Luisito has been railroaded by a joint Anglo-Italo-Iberian conspiracy, this next post might leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth. Now, without further ado, let's sink our teeth into the group stage, and then look forward to a taster for the first knockout stage.

(I did warn you).

FIFA takes a bite out of unsporting play

By way of clever segue, it seems only fair to discuss Suarez's early exit from the World Cup first off, and to chew over the implications for what could now be a toothless Uruguay squad. One thing to get out of the way: pace Diego Lugano and Uruguay's assorted other Diegos who have cast aspersions on Giorgio Chiellini and the entire fourth estate in Europe, it's pretty clear that Suarez bit Chiellini. One has only to look at the footage of Suarez's head dipping down on Chiellini's shoulder to see that.

The real question is why resort to such tactics. It seems clear that Suarez is fiendishly clever about the strategic foul or misdemeanor. His handball four years ago against Ghana, for instance, kept out a sure goal and led to Ghana being eliminated on penalties. It was shitty of him, but it also turned out to be a very effective tactic. One struggles to see what advantage he drew from biting Chiellini, though - beyond unnerving the other player, it seems to have backfired a bit. Not only will he not figure at this World Cup again, but he won't be allowed anywhere near Liverpool's facilities until well into the upcoming Premier League season.

It's also worth asking what will happen to Uruguay now. I can see two scenarios: in one, the team pulls together in the face of effectively worldwide opprobrium and wins the entire tournament. Italy, after all, won in 2006 against the backdrop of the Tangentopoli scandal, which appears to have helped the team's cohesiveness. And cohesiveness is, to be frank, the true deciding factor in international footballing success. Contrast the super-organized Spain from 2008-2012, which pretty much consisted of Barcelona, with the shambles of Cameroon and Ghana this year, or the Dutch in other years.

This scenario is appealing, from a Schadenfreude perspective, because it would see Brazil losing on home soil, again, to the team that beat them for title in 1950. It would also continue Brazil's tradition of never having won a World Cup in Brazil. It has to make you smile, this irony.

On the other hand, Suarez's exit may have pulled the teeth from Uruguay's attack completely. You have only to contrast the team that played against Costa Rica and lost 3-1 with the team that won 2-0 against England. Colombia was in pretty good form, and could reasonably eat the Uruguayans alive now that la Garra Charrua is without its most incisive forward. And even if Uruguay gets past them, they'll have to face either a Brazil team on home soil, or a Chile team that was good enough to beat Brazil on home soil. Progress is not guaranteed.

The Tao of travel

Speaking of guaranteed progress, it's kind of exciting that the US made it to the knockout stages again, eh? Well, it is for me, at any rate. I did figure the US would get past Portugal again, in part because of that previous win in 2002, and in part because of the relative strengths and weaknesses of certain teams when playing on certain continents.

One of the guys on the Guardian football podcast was pooh-poohing the notion that travel is still any sort of factor in the World Cup, but I don't think you can really discount it, even with the relative ease of long-haul travel. One of the reasons a European team didn't win the first World Cup in Uruguay was that most didn't bother to make the trip; but it's also true that they still haven't won in the Americas or in Asia, whereas Brazil's won on almost every continent (except Africa) and even Argentina won a World Cup outside of its home region (Mexico 1986).

For better or worse, travel across time zones continues to play a factor in most teams' form. In fact, the only exceptions were when Brazil was built around players of such scintillating form that they couldn't help but win: Sweden in 1958, featuring Pele, and Japan/South Korea in 2002 featuring Ronaldo. In 2002 at least, Germany did well to get to the final, but they did so by playing in a style that Greece used to win the European Championships two years later: dourly eking out a succession of 1-0 wins.

A sabermetrician (or whatever the word is for soccer stattos) could probably go back through all the tournaments and find a common thread to explain why this should be. From my perspective, there's no reason why a European team shouldn't win in Brazil this year, but the fact remains that the stats are against them, because no European team has done so up until now.

So who the hell will win, wise guy?

I'm glad I asked. My money is still on Brazil, as it has been since before the tournament started. While they haven't been enormously convincing, they have managed to eke out the necessary results, and I suspect that home support will become more effective as they progress through each round. I also believe that the South American teams they'll face on the way (Chile, and then either Colombia or, more likely, Uruguay) will not have enough quality to beat Brazil, though I'd put my money on them against most of the other teams still in the tournament.

Argentina, on the other hand, I believe will make it to the final, but will do so by eking out results against Switzerland, the US and the Netherlands. Argentina hasn't been very convincing, particularly against Iran, which was easily the worst team of the tournament for me, but I don't think they'll be found out until the final. I think Argentina's too good for Switzerland, too organized for the US, and the Dutch will implode internally before the semi-final.

To clarify, as well: I believe the US will beat Belgium, too, and get to the quarterfinal. I haven't seen Belgium play, but everything I've read about their games so far suggests there isn't much going on there. If the US was able to hold Portugal, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, to a 2-2 draw, I believe they can get past Belgium, whether on penalties or in normal time.

Of course, that's the beauty of predictions: I could get the next round 100% wrong. I stand ready for a barrage of abuse should that happen. See you on the other side of the round of 16!

Friday, 20 June 2014

World Cup 2014: More Scalps Are Collected

Gosh, that's a lot of big names out of the tournament already, eh?

Since I last posted, Spain became the first team to be knocked out, followed by England today. In the "expected exits" category, Cameroon, Australia and Honduras have also been eliminated, while Groups F, G and H have yet to play their second games. They'll be crucial deciders for each of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Portugal and Algeria, but if any of these teams squeaks through to the next round, my money will be on Portugal (despite my prediction that they'll lose to the US, I can't deny they have the quality to make it out of the group).

But let's get back to those big name exits for a moment, shall we?

Spain's ignominious defeat marks the second consecutive time that the reigning champion crashes out at the group stage, and the third time it's happened since the turn of the century. In 2002 France crashed and burned without scoring a single goal; they only managed a point because of a 0-0 draw with Uruguay. Meanwhile, Italy in 2010 was so bad that it couldn't even defeat New Zealand, a team of part-time players who'd taken vacations from their jobs in banks and schools to participate.

Which is actually kind of heart-warming, seen from the distance of four years and through the lens of other champions' misfortunes. But I'm not here to rail against the influence of money on the sport (maybe some other time). My concern is more around what exactly is happening in the biggest national teams that they can be so good one year (or in Spain's case, for about six years straight), and then collapse so spectacularly.

After all, Italy's implosion in 2010 could be traced to their lackluster Euro 2008, and the subsequent rehiring of Marcello Lippi (France's collapse in 2002 is harder to explain, however, given that they won Euro 2000). Sure, Spain found itself dismantled by Brazil at the Confederations Cup last year, but that doesn't mean anything - they also lost to the US in the semi-final of the 2009 Confed Cup, and still went on to win the following year's World Cup.

And in some ways, I suppose I come back to that quote from last week, about national team coaches picking players for their reputation, rather than how well they play as a team. It's simplistic to say this is the same Spain team that won the last three consecutive tournaments - ignoring the mystifying omissions (like Llorente), and the retirement of the entire defense, Iker Casillas in particular was a shadow of his former self. Which we perhaps should have expected, since he doesn't appear to have played much for Real Madrid this season.

Spain does have one more chance to avoid the wooden spoon, both in its group and in the tournament as a whole. It still faces Australia who, while playing with a lot of heart and passion, are probably still not good enough to beat an already-beaten Spain. But I think it would be a shame if Spain did beat them - Australia came into the tournament with little expectation of progressing, and yet they didn't roll over for either Chile or the Netherlands. Indeed, they almost equalized against Chile and briefly led against the Dutch. If a lot of teams are effectively there to make up the numbers (*cough* Iran and Nigeria *cough*), Australia at least had the decency to make it look difficult.

As for England...

Well, it's hard to be too critical. Sure, they looked woeful against Uruguay, but they were more dynamic against Italy, who managed to lose against Costa Rica - the team that pretty much everyone (including me) had written off before the tournament started. Their case is probably similar to that of Spain (and Australia): too many players who've been in the national team set up for too long.

Steven Gerrard has come in for a lot of criticism, as has Wayne Rooney (but that's nothing new). Although it's fair to say that the newer players haven't been great either, especially at the back. And that's the real problem - in contrast to club coaches, a national team coach selects the players he has, not the ones he wants to buy. There have been no credible replacements for Gerrard in England's midfield, and so Roy Hodgson had little choice but to bring him along - much as Fabio Capello did and Sven-Göran Eriksson before him.

There was one positive for Rooney in the Uruguay game, though, in the form of his first World Cup goal. While it must be great for him to finally have that particular monkey off his back, I have to confess to a certain amount of disappointment that he's broken his scoreless streak at the tournament. Before yesterday, Rooney stood as a sort of monument to disappointment - the man who had never scored a goal at the tournament, despite being widely hailed as one of the best in the world. Now, with his solitary goal, he's just another underachiever - if he'd gone his entire career never scoring at the World Cup, he could have held a record (albeit not a very satisfying one). Now he's denied himself even that scant recognition. It seems kind of a shame.

By contrast, I'm hoping German poacher extraordinaire Miroslav Klose gets a run-out at some point this tournament, so that he can equal or even surpass Brazil's Ronaldo in the all-time scoring tables. Klose's the anti-Rooney in some ways - despite an undistinguished club career, he's now Germany's all-time top scorer. Sure, he's played around twice as many games as Gerd Müller, the previous record holder. But it's refreshing to see someone play better for his country than his club, and this makes him stand in sharp contrast to the likes of Rooney and Messi (who has only scored two goals at World Cups, let's remember).

Somebody has to score the goals for teams to win, after all. If the big-name players can't or won't do that, then it might as well be the ones who, for whatever reason, actually can get themselves into scoring positions.

Monday, 16 June 2014

World Cup 2014: End of a Trend

The problem with traveling during the World Cup is that everything moves so quickly - you get on the plane for ten hours, and when you get off again the footballing world has been turned on its head.

Or not. But it is true that I'm now three days behind, and haven't had the chance to regale you with my thoughts on England v Italy, or any of the other matches that have taken place since then.

That said, part of the flight was spent productively, listening to the Guardian's Football Daily podcast, hosted by James Richardson and chums. I may have mentioned it before (it's usually weekly, but goes daily for the big tournaments), but it's a great collection of footballing insight and terrible puns. The timing of the matches means that they have to stay up really late to record it, and some games go missing (like Ivory Coast v Japan). However, I was happy that at least I caught the one where they talked about England v Italy, and that amazing Netherlands v Spain match.

In any case, while listening to the episode about yesterday's matches, one of the gang made an interesting observation, namely that we hadn't had any draws so far. I had, in fact, noticed this too, so I was intrigued when they said it was probably the longest stretch since 1990 that a World Cup has gone without a draw.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and so it proved today when Iran met Nigeria.

Bliss, followed by ennui

The day started rather promisingly. Germany, whom several of James Richardson's cohorts had written off, due to injury problems and the lack of strikers, decided to roll over a strangely quiescent Portugal. Although Portugal did manage to get Pepe sent off, for hitting and then (lightly) head-butting Thomas Müller, so they weren't that quiescent, I suppose.

I don't have a burning hatred of the Portuguese team, so the result didn't give me the warm glow of satisfaction I got when seeing Spain get humbled. It may be because Portugal never wins anything. But it was satisfying to see such a complete demolition of one team by another (and seeing Cristiano Ronaldo, whom I do loathe, made unhappy also helped).

I'll admit I didn't have amazingly high hopes for Iran v Nigeria, but it didn't take me long to realize that neither team actually knew what it was doing. Both were so cagey that they couldn't seem to get more than one man forward at a time, although that made no difference, because they also couldn't string together two passes to save their lives.

Now, I've become concerned lately with the question of all the teams that come to the World Cup but don't win anything. Realistically, in any given World Cup there are maybe four or five teams that can win it, and they always come from Europe or South America. It's great that teams from Africa, Asia and Oceania now participate regularly, but it's hard to come up with any scenario that involves one of them winning. Iran v Nigeria was a masterclass in why that should be.

On the other hand, Ivory Coast v Japan was more lively, and featured goals - I just didn't get to see it because it was on so late. My understanding, though, is that as soon as Didier Drogba came on for the Ivory Coast, Japan fell apart, which hints at a vast gulf between the respective footballing philosophies of both continents. It would just have been nice if the teams that played today had shown any kind of philosophy, or interest in tactics. Hell, it would even have been interesting if they'd had the balls to at least kick each other a few times.


Luckily, we were straight back to winning ways with USA v Ghana, although that game was also not without its problems. The US did well to score early - I missed the goal, so I don't know how they built up to it, but there can't have been much build-up because it came in the first 30 seconds or so of the match. But that just meant Ghana were chasing the entire time, and an equalizer was inevitable.

Ghana had 62% of the possession, and took 21 shots compared with the US's 8. At one point, Univision showed the difference in passes completed, which was also illuminating: Ghana had managed around 280, while the US was at 180. Seeing that stat, and the fact that Team USA couldn't string together multiple passes, made me wonder what exactly Jürgen Klinsmann is doing as their coach - surely he and the players understand that the passing game is king? This is why Spain has won three tournaments in a row, and England hasn't won anything since 1966.

It was clear, watching both the US and Ghana, that neither team was particularly good tactically. If the US was let down by poor passing and ball control, Ghana suffered from an inability to finish - according to the BBC, despite their enormous number of shots they managed fewer on goal than the US did. Given how rampant Germany was earlier this morning, I find myself a little worried for both the US and Ghana about how they'll cope - I don't think I'd like to see either of them ship more than two or three goals.

On the other hand, they should be fine against Portugal...

Great Expectations

Speaking of which, I said above that Portugal was quiescent, and none more so than Cristiano Ronaldo. This is just continuing proof of the fact that he and the other big names of the moment still have yet to make much impact in key tournaments. Lionel Messi is one example, given that his first World Cup goal came 8 years ago, and his second was yesterday. I don't want to take anything away from the achievement, of course (even if one of the guys from the Guardian suggested, perhaps with a touch too much glee, that it might be taken away from him and listed as an own goal), but given the expectations that always surround Messi, based on his performances for Barcelona, you'd think he could create magical goals out of nothing a bit more often, no?

Wayne Rooney, of course, is even worse - in three World Cups he's scored not a single goal. Part of that may be the bizarre insistence of three separate England managers on playing him out of position; but it's likely also related to the lack of players in key positions. One thing that no one seems to remember is that, back in 2008, before England had failed to qualify for the Euros, then-manager Steve McLaren paired Rooney up front with Emile Heskey, and the team all of a sudden looked fluid and dangerous again.

I'm not such a fool as to suggest that Heskey was an amazing player, but it is true that since 1998 England's game hasn't been that exciting. Someone else on the Football Daily podcast said something about managers choosing the best individual players rather than those who fit together best as a team, and attributed the generally low quality of World Cup football to that tendency. It sounds like a good explanation as well for why the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Rooney have failed to live up to their own reputations (to say nothing of people like Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o, who probably fails because his entire team doesn't like him and refuses to pass to him).

Saturday, 14 June 2014

World Cup 2014: We Have Liftoff

Well, I've been off for a while, haven't I? The vagaries of travel and of unreliable internet kept me from holding forth on a variety of subjects the last couple of weekends, but now I'm back, and celebrating my return with some thoughts on the World Cup in Brazil!

We've had two matchdays so far, which comes out to four matches. All four ended in wins, which is perhaps not that surprising for this early stage of the tournament, and only one big upset, during the Netherlands' 5-1 thrashing of Spain.

We have goal-line technology, now we need football-boot technology

We've also already picked up our big refereeing controversy of the tournament - if the South Africa tournament was characterized by ghost goals, this one already seems to have more than its fair share of goals disallowed for offside. In fact, not a single match has passed so far without it - in some cases fairly, and in other cases less so. The question, beyond what can be done about it, is: does this herald a new attacking mentality in the global game?

It's kind of become a truism among football's eminences grises that the quality of World Cup football isn't what it used to be. And it's true that we've frequently had games that were dour to the point of Scottishness. Although one of the main purveyors of this talk is Scottish himself, Sir Alex Ferguson - and he's never been above making statements like that to promote his own interests (namely, not letting his best players leave for international duty).

But for this tournament so far, it looks like the teams are really going for it, which is positive. Even Australia, which yielded to the inevitable last night and lost 3-1 against Chile, kept on playing up until the 90th minute, and looked like equalizing at several points (they had a goal disallowed too, albeit justly). This trend will probably end when we get the mid-tier European teams playing, like Switzerland (who have some terrible, terrible games in their past).

So I'm hoping that we keep seeing offsides, with concomitant disallowed goals, for the rest of the tournament. As a friend in college always said, it means the teams are getting forward and going for goal.

Group A: First blood goes to the New World

Everybody talks about the Group of Death, and it's defined differently depending on who you ask. But the one thing that's not in doubt is that Brazil will get out of its group - after a number of tournaments held in countries that weren't particularly strong (Japan in 2002, South Africa in 2010), it's nice to see another tournament where the host is expected to do well. And they got off to a good start with their 3-1 win against Croatia.

A couple of people I chatted to suggested that Croatia could have gone on to win, but that's just fanciful. Croatia never seriously looked like scoring, and the only reason they did was because of an own goal. My thought, and I'm ready to be proved wrong, is that Croatia's still reliant on too many players who've been around forever - Pletikosa and Olic, for instance.

Mexico seems to have broken with its past a little more (ie, Cuauhtemoc Blanco has finally retired from international football), but they looked to have the same problem with finishing. Although in their 1-0 win against Cameroon, they suffered two disallowed goals, so the scoreline could have been much higher.

Given that Brazil is clearly the strongest team in the group, the question now is who will come second, and follow them into the next round. Mexico is best-placed to do so currently, but still needs to get at least a point against Croatia to advance. However, Croatia's already finished the hard task of playing the hosts, so they're probably banking on gaining their points from Mexico and Cameroon anyway.

And Cameroon? My initial guess had been that they'd come second in the group, possibly for emotional rather than footballing reasons, but that looks unlikely now. Their next match is against Croatia, who desperately need points to progress, but even if Cameroon wins they'll face Brazil next, and their only hope then will be a draw against hosts who are already through and looking to rest key players. But it's Brazil's first World Cup at home since 1950, and they'll be looking to dominate.

Group B: Rematch

Now this was a real Group of Death. World and European champions Spain, 2010 finalists the Netherlands, and wild card Chile looked like the ones with the best chances of going through, and poor, creaky Australia looked like it was there to make up the numbers. Now that each team has played its first match, the group still looks that way, although I don't think anyone was expecting the Dutch to beat Spain so handily.

It's a cliche that you never know which Dutch team will show up on the day. Even in 2010, they got to the final in stylish fashion, only to change their approach at the last minute and act like they were up for a gold medal in taekwondo rather than football.

So it was a bit surprising to see them so rampant against Spain last night. Interestingly, at half-time it was pretty even, with both teams on the scoresheet. But then Spain inexplicably collapsed and let in 4 in the second half, suggesting that they aren't quite as invincible as in previous tournaments.

Australia, meanwhile, went down fairly predictably against Chile, although as I said, they didn't exactly roll over. After pulling one goal back, through a great header by Tim Cahill, they looked like equalizing until about the very end. Unfortunately, this may be the high point for them, as they now have to play an apparently in-form Netherlands next, followed by a Spanish team that will be both desperate to progress and good enough to do so. They'll be unlucky not to snatch the wooden spoon, to be honest.

In fact, I still think Spain and the Netherlands will be the ones to go through to the next round, as Spain will have taken last night's result as a big wake-up call, and I don't believe Chile has the ability to counteract Spain's normal tactics. The question, though, will be how far they go beyond the group stage. I initially guessed Spain would win the group, which would allow them to avoid Brazil until the final - but now it looks like they'll come second, and will face the hosts immediately.

In that case, it could be a short tournament for Spain, as Brazil famously thrashed them in the Confederations Cup last year. But given that Spain won in 2010 after losing their opening game (albeit not so spectacularly), it would be premature to rule them out even so. And if they do beat Brazil in the next round, it'll be hard to see who can beat them after that.