Tag Archives: World Cup

World Cup 2018: Group A First Matches

The 2018 World Cup kicked off in Russia with the host country facing Saudi Arabia.  It should first be noted that Group A is one of, if not the not weakest group of all time at the World Cup.  That’s not just my opinion.  It is what a detailed analysis by fivethirtyeight.com determined.  Did Russian money deliver an easy group for the host country to give them a chance at making it out of the group stage?  We may never know, but FIFA has been rife with bribery allegations and scandals for years.  It is widely believed that both this year’s Russia World Cup and the 2022 Qatar World Cup were bought with bribes.

As for the opening match, it was a battle on the wings.  Both teams were unable to control the middle of the field and pushed the ball down the wings for crosses into the box.    This resulted in an early Russian goal on a cross and header in the box by Yury Gazinsky.  The Saudi defense did a very poor job clearing the ball and some poor defense and spacing led to a second goal by Denis Cheryshev for the Russians late in the first half.  The Saudis put very little pressure on the Russian goalie in the first half, but created a couple of opportunities with some wing runs.  The Saudis actually controlled possession quite a bit, but continually turned the ball over, leading to quick Russian counterattacks.  Midway through the second half, the Russians scored yet again on another good header from a cross, this time by Artem Dzyuba.  The Saudis appeared to give up at this point and the Russians added two more goals in extra time due to poor efforts by the Saudi defense and goalie.  The 5-0 win for the Russians gives them a great goal differential that will help them get to the 2nd round in case of a tie.

In the other Group A first round match, group favorite Uruguay faced off against Egypt.  The Egyptians were playing without their great star, Mo Salah, who is still recovering from an injury but is expected to play in the group stage.  This game was marked by many missed opportunities by heavily favored Uruguay.  The Egyptians managed to play Uruguay fairly evenly early on, but as the match advanced, Uruguay began to dominate possession.  Uruguayan star Luis Suarez blew an excellent opportunity midway in the first half, failing to cleanly hit a low volley from point blank range.  Suarez would miss several more good opportunities in the second half.  Just as the Egyptians began to believe that they would manage a draw, Jose Gimenez delivered the match winner on a header off a free kick in the 89th minute.  While Uruguay won the match as expected, the numerous missed opportunities makes one wonder if they can handle the big stage.  Suarez in particular is known for melting down when things don’t go his way.  Uruguay should still advance out of this easy group, but they may have problems in the knockout round where they are likely to first face Spain or Portugal.

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Words Of Wisdom from Phil Ball

Talking of injustice, the decision not to pick Spain and Portugal for the 2018 World Cup has, of course, gone down here like a lead balloon. The press, as in England, has called for a reform of FIFA and of the process of picking the hosts. One almost forgets, in all the hullabaloo, that the most important thing is to win the World Cup, not host it, but money speaks as loud as trophies these days.

The decisions to elect Russia and Qatar have their virtues, but they seem outweighed by the dysfunction of the whole messy process. It’s hardly rocket science to realise that if you adopt a system of individual, non-accountable secret voting, the process will be susceptible to corruption. And why elect the hosts of 2018 and 2022 at the same time? It seems obvious that decisions made towards the one will condition those made for the other. And so both Spain and England have called for ‘reform’, without specifying exactly what they mean by that word.

Well for starters, Sepp Blatter said that the world was changing. Ok – sure. But how about changing the world instead? I don’t wish to come over like Mother Teresa here, but why not hold the World Cup in Haiti, for example, so that football could actually begin to do some good?

Instead of looking around for rich and powerful countries, and then rewarding them by giving them even more money and power, why not direct the private investment that surrounds a World Cup into a poor country, so that it can begin the process of recovery? Give a country the infrastructure that it needs for the World Cup, but that it needs much more for its own survival. Haiti is just an example. There are plenty of other candidates.

And if we want ‘reform’, then the only way to bring it about is to elect a much wider judgement platform, in the shape of a multi-lobby committee drawn from all sections of society and chosen from a greater range of countries. This committee would then be charged with seeking consensus on about six criteria – six boxes that the candidate countries for a World Cup would have to tick. The committee’s job would be to decide on these criteria, arrive at a consensus, and then invite the candidates to apply. Nobody needs to vote. The whole process would be entirely transparent.

And the criteria? Well – as you know, most of them were ignored anyway by the present committee, since both Russia and Qatar ticked fewer boxes than most of the countries snubbed. But say, for example, that you insisted on some political criteria. Why not? The decisions for hosting have often been politically motivated, but not explicitly.

So why not insist, for example, that the host country have a decent record on human rights, a balanced distribution of wealth, a free press and some sort of political democracy or franchise? Because obviously, given such entirely reasonable criteria, Brazil, Russia and Qatar would have struggled to tick all the boxes. It wouldn’t necessarily exclude them from the prize, but they could then be encouraged to fulfill the criteria, although obviously I’m not suggesting (in the case of Qatar) that an Emirate become a western-style democracy overnight.

But the granting of the right to host a World Cup should always be provisional, and subject to conditions. If you grant a country the right to a bonanza in 12 years’ time, then you have the right to check, every couple of years, that the qualification criteria are being respected, even initiated.

In short, you use football to change things for the better, and exploit its enormous media power to generate wealth and democracy in poorer countries, instead of patting rich governments on the head for consistently interpreting human rights as if they belonged at the bottom of the page, as an optional clause.


2010 FIFA World Cup Retrospective: What Happened and How Did It Go Down

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

Champions:        Spain

Runners-Up:       Netherlands

Third Place:        Germany

Fourth Place:      Uruguay


5.     Argentina

6.     Brazil

7.     Ghana

8.     Paraguay

Round of Sixteen

9.     Japan

10.    Chile

11.    Portugal

12.    United States

13.    England

14.    Mexico

15.    South Korea

16     Slovakia

Nine Who Made Waves

17.    Ivory Coast

18.    Slovenia

19.    Switzerland

20.    South Africa

21.    Australia

22.    New Zealand

23.    Serbia

24.    Greece

25.    Denmark

The Bottom Seven

26.    Italy

27.    Algeria

28.    Nigeria

29.    France

30.    Honduras

31.    Cameroon

32.    North Korea