2010 FIFA World Cup: How the Big Guns Are Defying National Stereotypes
There is a joke about a mayor from some tiny rural town who regrets the reputation which has stuck with him for life. He helped to build a new school, repaired the roads, and carried out other great works of public generosity. Unfortunately, all that he is remembered for is the one time he shared a romantic moment with the village goat.
Such is the plight of many international football teams, particularly in the eyes of reporters around the world. They can play how they like, but they will never escape from the national stereotypes they have been tagged with.
The trouble is, they are often out of date and do not really stand up to closer scrutiny. Italy have already gone home with a goals conceded figure which surely destroys their reputation as a great defensive side.
At least four other nations remain, however, who are subverting the accepted views about their approach to the game.
The first World Cup to be televised in colour around the world was the 1970 edition in Mexico. The flashing yellow shirts of Brazil captured the imagination of the planet. Their style, flair, and attacking intent was savoured by millions.
It is a reputation the nation can be understandably proud of.
However, the days when the Selecao loved only attack and had no clue how to defend have long gone—if they ever existed in the first place. This team has some of the toughest nuts to crack in the global game.
Running into a brick wall must be preferable to colliding with Lucio, flying full-back Maicon is like a battering ram when in full flow, and Felipe Melo looks like a martial arts expert let loose on a football field (which is probably because he is).
In short, this team knows how to defend and then some. The way they smothered out El Nino Maravilla, Alexis Sanchez, against Chile was an abject lesson in how to negate the opposition's star player. He scarcely saw the ball with fewer than two Brazilian defenders breathing down his neck.
There's still a stylish swagger to their play but its swathed in strength and discipline. A bit like coach Carlos Dunga's choice of clothing—it may not always look good, but it does the job.
The beat of the samba is only a distant one, and perhaps only heard once the opposition is at least two or three goals behind.
It used to be said that there was nothing more dependable than the old West Germany. Without ever being particularly exciting, they always reached the semifinals at the very least. Never thrilling to watch, they nonetheless won tournaments.
This view is still trotted out at every major competition. Yet the current side does not seem to live up to that dull Teutonic billing. They are actually an entertaining outfit.
In Mesut Ozil they have had one of the undoubted stars of the World Cup so far. A player of vision, skill, balance, and an unerring ability to find the gap between midfield and attack and exploit it in style.
How does that fit with the traditional view of Germany?
Even the idea that they never know when they are beaten is being undermined. The only time this team went behind, to Serbia, they were unable to claw their way back.
So, not so dependable any more but much more fun to watch.
The term was coined back at the 1966 World Cup when the South Americans met England and it has hung around undeservedly since then. Where Brazil are described in glowing terms, there is usually cynicism and skulduggery expected from their most bitter rivals.
They are supposed to be the masters of gamesmanship—see Maradona's handball goal in 1986—and ready to stoop to anything to win. Except they haven't been playing that way so far.
If there is a team with more attacking intent than Argentina they have been well hidden up to this point. Gonzalo Higuain has been banging in the goals and if he doesn't get you, then Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, or luxury substitutes like Diego Milito and Javier Pastore probably will.
They are not without their more defensive players, but that is really not what the team is about. They look expansive, entertaining, and are a side most people would happily pay to watch. What happened to all the dark arts?
Dutch Total Football
This was a reputation carved out in the 1970s with the team built around Johann Cruyff. The interchangeable nature of the players and cavalier attitude typified that side. It is not the hallmark of their modern incarnation.
Arjen Robben might be part of that tradition, but the current Oranje are more than happy to dish out some harsh treatment. Mind you, if memory serves, so were the team of three or four decades ago.
Nonetheless, the idea the Netherlands play in the flamboyant style of their predecessors has looked laughable at this World Cup. They have been strong in defence and boast one of the most resolute midfields in the competition. They are not afraid to dish out the fouls.
Anyone expecting goals from 40 yards or defenders streaming into the penalty box to act as strikers should probably look elsewhere.
So, in point of fact, is anyone conforming to the lazy stereotypes attached to them? Spain have so far not collapsed under the weight of expectation, all the Balkan nations have kept their cool and the African sides have rarely looked tactically naive.
Only England's elimination at the hands of the first big name they met seems to fit with tradition.
Maybe it's time to rip up that book of conventional views of international sides. After all, it has been looking out of date for an awful long time.
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