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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

World Cup 2014: Two Hours Plus Pain

We're done with the round of sixteen in the World Cup now, capped by the US crashing out after an epic slog against Belgium. I was a little surprised to see how affected I was by the loss, even if it wasn't all that surprising (although I did say last weekend that the US would win, didn't I? Well, I'm not Nate Silver, after all).

Overall, most of the teams that have progressed to the quarterfinal now were the ones expected to do so - the only one that was maybe a surprise was Colombia, although as I said last time, there was the danger that taking Luis Suarez out would defang the team (#sorrynotsorry).

Quality Shows Through at the Very End

The interesting thing about the knockout round so far, which everyone else has commented on, is how most of the games have been settled in the last few minutes of play, or after extra time. In fact, the only match that wasn't decided by a last-minute flurry of goals was that same Colombia-Uruguay encounter, with James Rodriguez scoring in either half.

What's interesting is that the final results, being pretty much expected, obscure the effort that the winning teams put in to get to the next round. Anyone looking at match-ups like Argentina v Switzerland or Germany v Algeria would have assumed the more heralded teams would progress, but who would have expected both matches to be decided in extra time?

This may be because all of the teams are just a bit weaker than usual, and because the teams that experienced 4-0 or 5-1 drubbings in the group stage have already been eliminated. Sure, Germany looks great when they score 4 goals against a Portugal side that then fails to beat the US; but they then struggle against an Algerian team that led against Belgium for large parts of that first match, and that drubbed South Korea 4-2.

Argentina, in the meantime, was clearly the best team in its group, and better than Switzerland (who, let's remember, went down 5-2 to France), but that remains an unconvincing statement given how their wins against Bosnia and Iran involved own goals and/or last-minute brilliance from Messi.

It's kind of a shame that a tournament that began as the most exciting (goal-wise) in decades should turn into a knockout round full of goal-less draws, but it seems clear that teams are getting more cagey as the prospect of elimination becomes more immediate. It's clear, then, that the trick for weaker teams in the quarter-finals will be to kill off the game early. But the example of Mexico should be an important warning: killing it off means by more than one goal, because where the stronger teams are excelling is in marshalling their fitness against their opponents right at the end.

Team USA crashes out gloriously, again

That is, in fact, the most heart-breaking thing about the US's loss today. The game wasn't exactly dour in the first 90 minutes, but neither the US nor Belgium seemed particularly awake until de Bruyne scored. Then the US came back into the game, with Wondolowski missing what the British call a sitter. Super-sub Julian Green knocked one in with his first touch, but the game was beyond the US by then.

The problem was that the US, individually, still just wasn't good enough. Tim Howard may have broken a record for saves in a single game, but that's only because the four defenders in front of him weren't doing their job, and nor were the midfielders in front of them. The US did well to fall back, and strangle many of the Belgian attacks, but the defense still looked fragile. Remember that Cameron and Besler (and Bradley) were the ones whose errors let Portugal go in front and then equalize, at opposite ends of that match.

Up at the front, Dempsey was generally stranded on his own, because the midfield wasn't able to get up to support him. Bradley's last touch was pretty dreadful, as well. The only other bright spot I'd mention is DaMarcus Beasley, who seemed to be at both ends of the pitch at all times, and snuffed out a good few attacks on his own.

So the question now is where US Soccer goes from here. Frankly, it doesn't look great - the next World Cup will be in Europe, where the US has never won a competitive match; in three tournaments (1990, 1998 and 2006) the team has registered 8 defeats and one draw. This doesn't mean that the US can't get out of the group in 2018 - but it will depend on which group they're drawn in, and whether or not this travel-bug that still afflicts teams is real or not.

On the other hand, the US maybe could get the 2022 World Cup, if FIFA - grudgingly - takes it away from Qatar. If the tournament comes back here, and US Soccer's youth programs continue to pay dividends, then the US might even be in with a chance to win (although let's not get too excited, either...).

Platini and Blatter: Why Don't You Both Shut Up

Of course, if FIFA president Sepp Blatter gets his way, the US might have an even easier time winning. Blatter has suggested that UEFA's 13 spots should be given to the African and Asian teams, as well as those from CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. UEFA president Michel Platini countered by saying that the World Cup could be expanded to 40 teams (divided in 8 groups of 5), which makes room for more of the smaller teams while keeping Europe's contingent unchanged.

Both are pretty terrible ideas, frankly. Platini's is more obviously bad, because although it sounds exciting to have even more teams and games and whatnot, think about the teams that would be coming in additionally. Costa Rica may have been a revelation this year, but most of Central America isn't that great - the only teams that consistently qualify and progress from the group stage are the US and Mexico.

Asia and Africa's teams are even worse. I used to protest about Oceania having to win a playoff to send a team to the tournament, but that was when there were two decent teams playing in the region - now that Australia qualifies from Asia, a full spot would give New Zealand automatic entry. This makes a mockery of the entire qualification process. Sure, Brazil always qualifies, but that's usually because they really are good enough to do so - otherwise it's because they're hosting it.

Blatter's idea, meanwhile, seems fair, as it would give more teams a chance to win the World Cup. But if Europe's involvement were reduced to, say, five or six teams, a win by one of these African or Asian teams would potentially be devalued, because they would likely have played another weak African or Asian team to get to the final (either that, or the South American teams would just roll over everyone every year).

What they should do is run the tournament on a coefficient system, like UEFA does with the Champions and Europa Leagues. Confederations whose teams do well would be rewarded with additional places, while those whose teams stank up the tournament could see their participation diminished. Obviously each confederation would have a lower limit, so that no confederation could be completely sidelined, the way Oceania is.

Although even on that basis, it's hard to argue that the African or especially the Asian teams should get even one extra qualifying spot. Three of the five African teams failed to qualify from the group stage, and now there are none in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, all four Asian teams came last in their respective groups, none having earned more than a single point. Theoretically, under the system I'm suggesting, Costa Rica's run of success this year could lead to an extra CONCACAF spot, at the expense of UEFA, but that would mean more teams like Honduras getting in, and so in eight years we'd likely be back to the same allocation.

But it would be fairer than what Blatter and Platini are suggesting, while also keeping the big names in the tournament. Because, after all, even if Ronaldo and Rooney (and previously Messi) don't really do much at big tournaments, they're still the players that fans come out to see. And that's the important thing, in the end.