For the first time in a generation this was supposed to be about style and individual superstars raising their games and teams to magical levels…
…Instead we got substance. Patient, proficient substance, but substance nonetheless…
…And much of the time it was boring to watch.
This 19th rendition of FIFA’s quadrennial world football championship confirmed what the game has become for better or worse in the 21st century: The total team concept of tactical rigidity and technical discipline where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As has become the norm so far this century, this was not a World Cup for the ages, but the lasting image will forever be that the best team on the planet over the last four years, that lost only twice in that span, and was clearly the best over the month-long tournament, was finally rewarded with the world championship it so desperately desired for close to one hundred years and richly deserved.
In a tournament in which unimaginative counterattacking became the offensive norm, it is worth noting that the team that won, Spain, eschewed this for a very patient, short-passing, efficient possession game. This was a team that didn’t really wow throughout the tournament. Spain was not a glamour team with mega-superstars, rather one that valued possession and a patient attacking buildup more than scoring. While their defense was very good, it was more a function of Spain’s overwhelming advantage in possession that allowed only two opposition goals, tying France in 1998 and Italy in 2006 for the fewest ever by a world champion. The proof was in the pudding: Spain scored only eight goals over seven games, the lowest total number of goals ever scored by a World Cup winner…
…New motto: Defense doesn’t win championships, possession does.
Once the dust has settled and mist cleared, the 2010 World Cup will be remembered primarily for two characteristics; (1) superstars failed to live up to their billing, allowing for a few youngsters to become genuine revelations, and (2) of more concern, tactical rigidity, constant physical interruptions of play and mostly counter-attacking were king. Not unlike Germany four years ago, the primary tactical scheme in use in South Africa was a disciplined four-man backline with five midfielders supporting one target man up front. The difference this time is the consistency of the five midfielders. Most teams using this scheme usually kept two defensive/holding midfielder/orchestrators in front of the backline, and in front of them were two halfbacks on either flank supporting one center attacker. If teams got behind or wanted to get more adventuresome going forward, then there would be just one defensive/holding midfielder, with two center halves supporting two advanced flankers up front in an attempt to spread things out and open up play – still with just one target man in the box.
This is what defined pace and tempo in South Africa. Most teams were content to sit back and wait for their opponents to bring the ball to them, wait for a mistake or mental lapse, then get the ball up field quickly on the break using long passes and through balls, usually ending with badly-taken long shots. This direct counterattacking wasn’t very efficient but it sure was momentarily exciting. The key to success for this scheme were the stoppers in front of the backline who came to define the brutishness in this tournament, for it was they who perpetrated most of the hard tackling and rough play that interrupted opposition attacks. This is not a coincidence. For the better part of 12 years now the key to success for any team, be it club or country, has not been the creative magicians up front but the grunts behind them who stop opposition attacks before they get to the rearguard and distribute the ball to the open players who will start the attack.
There was no better example of this than the runners-up, the Netherlands. Having long since given up on the “Total Football” concept they were famous for, the Dutch employed arguably the hardest midfield duo in the tournament that for whatever reason didn’t see getting forward as their job. Yet they were brutally physical in stopping any attack before they got to the back, and quickly got the ball to their front players before the opposition could transition back to defend. In so doing, the Netherlands got to their first World Cup Final since the heyday of “Total Football”, and actually had a better chance at winning that elusive first world championship than their more famous and magical forbearers…
…How ironic, then, that the team that eventually beat them, Spain, played the more open and creative system invented by the Dutch better than the Dutch.
A lot was expected out of a number of the football superstar in this tournament. To a man they all failed, and for those teams relying on them (Portugal, England, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Cameroon) their fortunes went with them. Argentine coach Diego Maradona, himself a mega-superstar who carried the fortunes of his side as a player with Argentina to a world championship in 1986, hypothesized that it takes an especially arrogant and selfish yet uber-skilled superstar to want to get it done himself. Today’s superstars just don’t have that arrogance and selfishness. Even they have been brought up during an era that convinced even them that the total team concept is what gets you through.
It is hard to argue given the results. National sides in this tournament with little international pedigree and few or no star-quality players (Slovakia, Paraguay, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea, Chile, Japan, Slovenia, Switzerland, New Zealand) did a helluva lot better than former world champions and sides loaded with football stars (France and Italy in particular) – all because they bought into a tactically and technically rigid and disciplined system and never let themselves be taken out of it. That requires teamwork, not one or two self-absorbed hot dogs who do it all themselves.
Whether football purists like it or not, that is what the game has become. If it works for football minnows then why wouldn’t football royalty employ it, too? Get past it and move on.
However, while the football superstars may have had bad outings, we got to witness the rise of a few young players who are clearly stars in the making. The future looks particularly bright for third-place finishers Germany, whose two 20-year-old midfield talisman, Mezut Oezil and Thomas Mueller, will probably be the linchpin of a Nationalmannshaft side that will win a few international tournaments over the next ten years. While the football may have become less beautiful, there is still a lot about its up-and-coming youngsters to get excited about.
Over the short term, two things about this World Cup that were deleterious and had immediate game-changing effects will be remembered. The first is that the overall goalkeeping was just average. All it took for any side to go deep into the tournament was to have a goalkeeper who was just merely reliable and at least executed their basic duties, because there were goalkeeping gaffes galore that dramatically altered the fortunes of several sides. Spain’s Iker Casillas, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, won the tournament Golden Glove Award simply because he just performed dependably without ever making any fatal mistakes.
Secondly, while the overall officiating was slightly better than four years ago in Germany, the mistakes a few game officials did make were cataclysmic doozies. Maybe Mexico, England and the United States would have crashed out when they did without the help of dreadful game-changing calls, but it certainly did not help their causes. Look for the old guard at FIFA to go kicking and screaming towards goal-line technology and video reviews in the not-too-distant future.
If you live in the United States, you may have been disappointed that the national side didn’t get further, but every day during this month-long tournament you were rewarded with excellent World Cup coverage by ESPN. A few noticeable technical glitches aside, the cable sports network did their best-ever job covering this tournament. They went out and hired the best play-by-play announcers there are in veterans Martin Tyler and Ian Darke, had among the best game analysts in Efan Ekoku, John Harkes and Ally McCoist, and studio analysts Alexi Lalas, Ruud Gullit, Steve McManaman and Jurgen Klinsmann really broke down games in-depth. ESPN clearly doesn’t treat the World Cup or international club football like a novelty anymore, understanding that the game’s popularity as a spectator sport in the United States is growing and that its fans are football smart.
A special shout out must go to South Africa. The country took a lot of criticism about preparation leading up to the tournament and mostly about safety for the hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world both in the stadia and out. South Africans showed they were up to the enormous task of putting on the most popular sporting event on the planet, allying everybody’s fears about preparation and safety all month long. There were issues of ticketing and more empty seats at group fixtures than they would have liked, but that was more the fault of FIFA and their complicated ticketing system they employed for this World Cup in particular. When private security became an issue at a few stadium venues, the South African government stepped in quickly and hired more law enforcement officials to take up the slack. What I came away with mostly, though, was the sheer joy by South Africans for hosting the world. Their elation and ecstasy was boundless and infective, and their overwhelming willingness to show the world their country and their society gave everybody who went there a lasting impression that was the polar opposite of the image most people had of the country. Their horrific apartheid past so far in the rear view mirror – a past they don’t hide or run away from – South Africans succeeded in showing the world just how far they’ve come since and how wonderfully civilized they really are.
What follows is an analysis of all 32 teams in this year’s tournament, in order of finish. In order to find a particular section or team, just type in the country in the site search area at the bottom of the page, or type the appropriate header (i.e.: “Quarterfinalists”, or “The Bottom Seven”), or click the appropriate tag on the top right of this article, and MCZ will direct you the appropriate blogs entries.
FIFA Final Four
Third Place: Germany
Fourth Place: Uruguay
Round of Sixteen
12. United States
15. South Korea
Nine Who Made Waves
17. Ivory Coast
20. South Africa
22. New Zealand
The Bottom Seven
32. North Korea