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!