Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup Thoughts - Peter Sanger

The first round of games from the Group Stages has been completed. So now, like everyone else, I’ll take on the role of analyzing what’s happened and what’s now to come! So here are the big stories so far.

Vuvuzelas: You can’t avoid hearing them; these are the horns being constantly blown throughout the duration of every game played in South Africa. Many find them annoying and there has even been a call to ban them from the tournament altogether. I’d have to disagree…every country you go to has different cultures, and often you can tell from listening to the TV. where a particular game is being played. For example, in Spain, there’s often whistling, England has team based songs, etc. Therefore, I’m not sure what the big fuss is all about. From a player’s perspective, there’s nothing I like more than playing in a loud, energy-packed stadium.

The Jabulani: Every four years, since Adidas has sponsored the tournament, a new ball debuts at each World Cup. The idea is to update it with the newest technology to make for the best soccer. I’ve had the chance to play with all of the balls dating back to 1990. It’s become somewhat of a tradition for the ball to be criticized each tournament for a number of different reasons. In the United States in ’94, the Questra ball was blamed for being too unpredictable, France ’98, people didn’t like that the Tricolore ball was colored (the first of it’s time), the Fevernova was too light-weight from 2002 Japan/Korea, the TeamGeist from Germany ’06 was even lighter, now the ball of 2010: the Jabulani. This ball has drawn complaints for its trajectory, being too light, and for a hard plastic-like feeling. Unfortunately, I have to agree. My club team of the summer recently began playing with the ball and it’s completely unpredictable. Judging aerial balls is a nightmare and playing long balls is a turnover waiting to happen. Short passing and dribbling remain unscathed, but it’s definitely putting a damper on the World Cup. A great example of the ball’s unpredictability lays in the number of goalkeeping howler’s already taken place so far this tournament. Robert Green of England and Faouzi Chaouchi of Algeria both have been guilty of misreading shots coming towards their goal and costing their team valuable points as a result!

Conservative Play: There’s been a lot of fuss about all the draws and low scoring games so far of group play. There are a number of reasons for all of these:

1) It’s a feeling out process: The first game of a country’s World Cup campaign really can set the tone for it’s whole tournament. Coming away with 0 points from a first game immediately puts you in a 3 point whole in the search for qualifying to the knockout rounds. Just like many NBA teams, it’s rare for a team to peak until later on in the tournament.

2) Once again, the Jabulani: Although it has caused two goals via goalkeeping blunders, it’s the offensive play that has been most affected so far this tournament. Taking away the ability to play quality and accurate crosses, driven passes, and long through balls is like taking away the 3-point line or the ability to throw a deep pass in football. Thus, defenses can make the field very compact, disrupting fast-flowing, short passing games that teams like Spain thrive on. Furthermore, many of these teams and players are used to playing with different balls throughout their club seasons. The only major league to have used the Jabulani before this tournament was the Bundesliga. Any guesses where that takes place? Germany, which just so happens to be made up primarily of German National team players. As a result, it’s no surprise that Germany has arguably made the brightest start to this year’s tournament.

3) Match-ups: When Switzerland, ranked 24th in the world, comes up against heavy World Cup favorite and FIFA’s 2nd ranked team in the world Spain, it only makes sense that they play more conservatively. To try and beat Spain at their own game would’ve put them in the loss column, however they packed things in defensively, stayed disciplined, and took their chances (*chance) on the counterattack and won the game 1-0. Another prime example was the 1-1 draw deemed a success by the United States against England. Largely second best throughout the match, Clint Dempsey took a chance from distance, and the United States rode tough defense and luck to a point out of largely the most anticipated game in group play.

There’s a ton of games left in group play, let alone the entire tournament, so it’s too early to read too much into any of the results so far this tournament. The Germans, Dutch, Brazil, Chile, and South Korea have all impressed while countries like Portugal, The Ivory Coast, Spain, Italy, France, and England have thus far failed to live up to the hype. In saying that, I’d caution against ruling out many of those teams. Italy looked anything but a favorite in the Group Stages before winning it all in ’06 and the same can be said about eventual champions Brazil from ’02. So after viewing the first action of the group phase I’ll leave you with a couple more players to watch as you continue taking in the world’s greatest game at the world’s greatest sporting event.

Mesut Ozil-Germany: Silky-smooth and full of creativity, Ozil used his sublime dribbling skills and accurate and penetrating passing to help Germany roll over Australia in South Africa. Ozil is thriving with the absence of Michael Ballack, taking over as the creative hub for Germany’s attack.

Alexis Sanchez-Chile: Explosive and direct are two ways to describe the way Sanchez plays. This dynamic winger showed that he’s got what it takes at the international level in an inspiring performance against Honduras. In the mold of Cristiano Ronaldo, he uses his speed and ferocious shot to catch goalkeepers on their heels.

Park Ji-Sung-South Korea: Hardly a newcomer on the international scene. Park is finally showing why he became Manchester United’s first Korean player. He’s been playing in somewhat of an anonymity after his dazzling display for South Korea in 2002, but he’s finally taken leadership of the team and scored a beautiful goal over Greece in South Korea’s round 1 win.

P.S. Don’t write off Spain yet! If you read my last post, I picked them as my eventual champions, and it wasn’t without reason. I said with a healthy Torres, Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta, the Spanish would thrive. With Torres looking ready to start their next match and Fabregas sure to get a chance, I think Spain can still realize their unfathomable potential.