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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.