When Italia '90 was universally panned by non-Teutons as being a hopeless bore because it finished with 2.21 goals per game, FIFA stepped in with two major, positive rule changes. First, it introduced the rule that teams would get three points for a win instead of two. Second, it banned goalies from picking up the ball after it had been played back to them from a teammate's foot. Leagues across the world followed the change and by USA '94, the average goals per game increased to 2.6.
Right now, we've regressed from the low standards of Italia '90 by almost two-thirds of a goal per game. Moreover, the quality of goals has been low. I can't recall a free kick on target, nor can I remember a quality shot from outside the box. There are two major causes of the stultifying play:
1. Damn you, Jabulani! Who is with me for a boycott of Adidas? The prevailing impression that I have taken from the first 16 games has been of attacking players futilely chasing balls as they run out of play for goal kicks. On the rare occasions where teams have found themselves in promising attacking positions, their passes have typically been too heavy for the players making runs. Quality crossing has been virtually non-existent. Top strikers who are noted for their first touches have been bumbling balls out as if they were over-the-hill drunks in a park. Maybe this is the result of the fact that FIFA and Adidas, in a shameless grab for filthy lucre, changed the object of the game - the ball - on the eve of the tournament. Can you imagine if Major League Baseball reduced the seams on the baseball before the playoffs so pitchers couldn't get the same spin? Bud Selig may be a goof, but he's Pete Rozelle compared to Sepp Blatter. And naturally, FIFA and Adidas didn't account for how their new ball would perform at altitude, which makes perfect sense since Johannesburg and Bloemfontein were all at sea level until last week. In the end, the best footballers in the world are playing with an oversized racquetball. I'm hoping that they get used to this abortion of a sphere, but I'm not hopeful.
2. Creeping Mourinhoism. You knew I'd blame Jose somehow, right? With limited exceptions, the coaches in this tournament have been remarkably conservative. Kenny Hassan was right on point on a World Football Daily episode before the tournament when he said that every team seems to be planning to play on the counter, so nothing is going to happen. It used to be that inferior teams played on the counter and teams with talent (save for Italy) would, you know, actually try to pass and score. Now, mimicking the Special One, numerous talented teams refuse to commit players forward, instead waiting for the other teams to take risks. The problem with being a parasite is that you need a prey. If everyone is a parasite, then everyone starves. The nadir was the Ivory Coast-Portugal game. Sven Goran Eriksson and Carlos Queiroz managed to neuter two teams packed with talent such that each team had about one good scoring chance. I say that on information and belief for last 15 minutes because I fell asleep on 75 minutes. If a game loses me, then it's fair to say that it's losing a casual fan. I feel especially bad about the spineless instructions given by managers to their players because ESPN has expended a great deal of time and money to sell this product. Soccer is becoming more mainstream in this country, but a tournament with record-low scoring will not be good in that respect. In a certain sense, I shouldn't care. If the games are on, why does it matter if I'm part of a select few watching them? I care because I love talking and writing about the game. The more fans, the more I get to do that.
Other thoughts on the first 16 games:
- The Dutch looked uncomfortably similar to the 2006 version that struggled to create chances and bowed out of the tournament in the round of 16. They struggled to generate chances against an organized Denmark side. The problem with the team was that Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart are similar players, not unlike Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. When they play next to one another, they look to do the exact same things: get the ball in a center-left position and make the final pass. They got in each other's way repeatedly and they lacked targets, other than the well-marked and off-form Robin van Persie. The Dutch looked much better when they hauled van der Vaart off and brought on Eljero Elia, a younger, fitter version of Arjen Robben. With a passer and a dribbler in the attacking midfield instead of two passers, the Dutch looked much better. When Robben is healthy, the Oranje should click. Until then, Elia needs to start.
- France can't score without Zidane? Knock me over with a feather, I'm shocked!
- I tipped Nicolas Lodeiro before the tournament as the missing link for Uruguay. He lasted 18 minutes. FML.
- I got misty this morning listening to the Honduran national anthem. I can't imagine how exciting it must be for that small country to see its players and hear its song on the world stage for the first time in 28 years. As much as I bitch about this World Cup, I still love it like family.
- Yes, my bitching at the start of this post started before my Spanish friends laid an egg today. Yes, that egg has further fouled my mood on the tournament. I didn't see the match, so I don't know whom to blame other than the ball and the injuries that the team suffered at the end of the European season. And no, I'm not going to accept that the reigning European champions are bottlers.
- It's funny listening to English announcers express surprise at Brazil struggling to break down a defensive side. They are aware that Dunga is Brazil's coach, right? And that half of Brazil hate him because his teams play so defensively, right? And that 1970 and 1982 were a long time ago, right? It's not unlike being told over and over that the Dutch are perpetual disappointments, despite the fact that they come from a country of 17 million. And I'm still waiting for someone to acknowledge that the Germans are playing the most attractive football of any team so far. If the performance against Australia would have been delivered by a team in orange or yellow, we would never hear the end of it (and I say that as a fan of the Dutch). This Germany team is fun to root for. They're young, athletic, attacking, and multiethnic. They could be a great metaphor for the modern success of that country. (I have The Third Reich at War waiting on my bookshelf for when I finish Inverting the Pyramid. These nice statements about Germany will surely cease.)
- Speaking of our friends in central Europe, if the English want to know what they're doing wrong, they should take a peek at the Germany side. The Mannschaft is loaded with young talent: Muller, Badstuber, Khedira, Ozil, and Neuer are all young players who have gotten domestic and European experience playing for top Bundesliga sides and are now performing on the highest international level. When was the last time that promising young English players broke into any of the Big Four? Chelsea, Liverpool, and United all feature lineups that they bought and Arsenal's youngsters come from everywhere by England. (Yes, I am aware of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshire. Let's see them break into the first team.) Germany's clubs produce young talent and then give young players quality experience. England's clubs see their top young players waste away at Middlesboro and West Ham. This is why you fail.