As the World Cup has drawn to en end, albeit a fairly ugly one, it presents us with an opportunity to look back at the proceedings to see what exactly the world's biggest sporting event can teach us about the state of the world's most popular sport.
1. England are still very, very, very far behind...
Going into the tournament, cautious optimism was higher than it had been in some time, mainly on the back of their undefeated qualifying campaign, the seemingly calming influence of their new Italian manager and the unbelievable form of Wayne Rooney.
Before English expectation came crashing back down to earth, it reached a fever pitch with Steven Gerrard’s fourth minute strike against the United States that seemed to suggest that England just might be able to contend. The other ninety minutes or so of the match however would be a far more realistic sample of what the Three Lions had to offer, and sadly it wasn’t very much.
Shaky defending, a midfield short of imagination that was chronically unable to get proper service to the forwards, a shocking lack of options up front with a star striker unable to find his form with the unrealistic expectations visibly weighing heavily on his shoulders.
If England are to ever contend in international football in my lifetime, a real emphasis needs to be put on grassroots football in a similar movement to the one that took place in Germany in the early 2000’s. Facing the possibility of losing some of the biggest clubs in the country to bankruptcy (sound familiar?) the Bundesliga and the German FA decided it couldn’t sustain the amount of funds being spent on big-named foreign players. Clubs made a concerted effort to fund the cultivation of home-grown talent instead and the dividends of this effort was seen in the success of the German national side at this very World Cup. Not only would such an effort be beneficial to the English national team, but to the Premier League clubs currently swimming in debt in order to stay competitive.
2. ...and Fabio Capello may not be the answer.
As mentioned, part of the enthusiasm surrounding the England side had to do with Don Fabio and his seemingly immediate transformation of the fragile English player’s psyche. Gone were the days of Sven Goran-Eriksson’s laissez-faire man management and Steve McLaren’s ineptness. Capello came in meaning business.
He wouldn’t be bringing anyone along who wasn’t fit and in form and he wouldn’t tolerate the debacle the WAG’s caused in Baden-Baden in 2006 because he wouldn’t allow family to accompany the players. He’s Italian, so we assumed he possessed some kind of tactical sophistication we hadn’t seen in an England manager. The success of the qualifying campaign seemed to be proof positive of Capello’s ability to win everywhere he goes. Wayne Rooney’s tremendous goal scoring form for club and country was even being attributed to Capello’s tactics and confidence-building. In short, they expected 1966.
What we didn’t expect was Capello forgetting how to coach as soon as the tournament actually began. The first sign of trouble was the fact that he went back on his word leading up to the tournament in his squad selection by bringing along a banged-up Rio Ferdinand, a pseudo-fit Aaron Lennon, a coaxed-out-of-retirement Jamie Carragher, a Ledley King who, although in terrific form, hasn’t been able to play two games a week in years and waiting until the very last minute to bring along the unfit and possibly still injured Gareth Barry.
Then the reversion to an archaic 4-4-2 formation that seemingly got the best out of no one, despite having used a more adaptive 4-3-2-1 to qualify for the tournament was mind boggling. Though, perhaps, not as mind boggling as the players he chose to fill the 4-4-2 formation. In the first match, against the United States, Capello first chose to start in goal not the experience of David James, or the form of youngster Joe Hart but (the shakiness?) Robert Green, whose gaffe which allowed the American equalizer will be one of the lasting images of England’s world cup. Shaun Wright-Phillips was brought in as a substitute on the left hand side of midfield of that same match and put together a performance worthy of not playing another minute of the tournament, only to instead be chosen again and again instead of Joe Cole, far and away one of England’s most dynamic players and England’s best player in the last world cup.
Tactically, it seemed as though the only plan of attack that was prepared leading into the tournament rested at the feet of Wayne Rooney, as once England faced any type of resistance from their opponents, they quickly hit the panic button by reverting to the punt-and-run long-ball of the... when? 50’s? 60’s? England never stood a chance. Capello’s services have been retained, but the carte blanche he enjoyed pre-tournament isn’t likely to ever return.
3. The American Sports Media Doesn’t Now, and Haven’t Ever, Known Anything About the Beautiful Game.
It only takes a casual follower of football to know that American “soccer” has come a long way. They should be favourites to qualify for every world cup in the foreseeable future. They should not however be considered anything even remotely resembling contenders to win it all. Back when the draw was announced and The United States was drawn into the same group as England, a buzz of enthusiasm and excitement came over the casual “soccer” fan that makes up the vast majority of American “soccer” fans.
It wasn’t necessarily unfounded enthusiasm— the United States certainly had a chance against England (as we now know.) The problem was the optimism had more to do with the talent of the American side rather than the shallow depth of option of the English side. Around that same time, an American “soccer” pundit, on ESPN radio described American keeper Tim Howard as “maybe the best keeper in the world.”
I had to pause to make sure he hadn’t qualified that statement with the word “American” in there somewhere, but alas, he hadn’t. Howard plays for Everton of the English Premier League. Here are four keepers off the top of my head amongst the same twenty teams who are undeniably better than Howard: Petr Cech, Chelsea. Pepe Reina, Liverpool. Shay Given, Manchester City. Edwin Van Der Sar, Manchester United. Howard might be the fifth best keeper in the Premier League, no small feat to be sure, but that leaves him far from the best in the world.
In short, the American media created a buzz of possibility in order to sell the game to the public. In truth, the US national side never stood a chance. And as if outlandish, exaggerated claims weren’t bad enough, the opening match (which always features the host country, remember) of this world cup was between South Africa and Mexico. The next day, while recapping the first day’s events, ESPN wrongly displayed host country South Africa as Russia (a country which didn’t qualify) because they were confused by the Republic of South Africa’s official short-form of RSA. This happened of course after ESPN’s campaign to gain credibility by replacing the American commentators of 2006’s terrible coverage with English commentators who know the game. Apparently they should have recruited an English production crew as well. There’s always 2014.
4. FIFA Needs to Change Something, Anything to Better Officiate the Game.
While FIFA’s continued refusal to admit technology exists is inexcusable and frankly ridiculous, their desire to protect the human element is, if nothing else, understandable. It doesn’t look as though Sepp Blatter is about to bring in the red flags and instant replay of the NFL, and that’s most definitely a good thing, but there’s no reason why something simple like goal line technology can’t be implemented.
In every match, there is a fourth official whose duties are usually limited to holding up the electronic board to inform the crowd of substitutes and the amount of extra time to expect as well as taking the verbal abuse of the managers who are too far away to properly direct it at the head official. There is no reason why the fourth official cannot be given a monitor on which to review close calls in a quick and timely manner.
Even better, why not add another head official to every match? Doing this would have a doubly positive effect. Each official would then only have to cover one half of the pitch, immediately making it easier to be in a position to see not only whether a ball has or hasn’t gone in the net, but help alleviate probably the greatest scourge on the game today: Diving, or as I love to hear it be called, "simulation".
It is a part of today’s game largely because players that don’t exaggerate don’t get the calls because the referee can’t properly see just how much contact actually takes place. The burden placed on the referee would be immediately cut in half and an immediate reduction in the amount of diving and exaggeration would take place.
5. When Push Comes to Shove, Lesser Sides Often Do Just That.
The final between Spain and the Netherlands was an ugly display of football to say the least. What was obvious during the match however was that Spain`s skill with the ball at their feet and their ability to maintain posession (best exemplified by Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the heart of midfield) reduced the Dutch, who themselves had played an attractive brand of football throughout the tournament, to more “anti-football” than the “total football” they became famous for in the 70’s.
In truth, calling the Dutch display anti-football may actually be offensive to the José Mourinho’s of the world. American football is probably the most accurate description as some of their tackles would have been better served on the gridiron than the pitch.
The Dutch were overmatched by the starving of possession Spain has mastered over the last few years and there was little they could do with their frustration but take it out physically on their opponents.
The Spanish display of diving and exaggeration that ensued was equally disappointing and embarrassing but Spain managed to continue to play their style of football while the Dutch betrayed the beautiful football they had played all tournament to reach this point, regressing instead to the physical primitivism so often seen in the Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletics of the world.
Not exactly the company one would associate with a world-class footballing power. In the end, the best side deservedly won, but it was a far cry from the sumptuous football we had anticipated.