Monday, July 12, 2010

Ugly tactics & antics close off a good tournament

The Dutch are destined not to win the World Cup. Their total football failed to win the World Cup in 1974 and 1978 and on Sunday, their ugly brutal football failed to land the 2010 trophy. Yet, the Dutch ironically contributed to their own downfall. The architects of their total football Rinus Michels and Johan Cryuff found their way to Barcelona in the 1970's and laid the first seeds of Dutch footballing ideas in Catalunya. Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard nurtured those attacking philosophies further and contributed to Barcelona becoming an attacking force. And those Barcelona players were a huge reason why Spain won their first World Cup on July 11. In a way, Dutch footballing ideas taken from the Ajax academy and planted in Barcelona over a course of three decades led to a Dutch defeat. Although the Spanish added their own key ingredient of play-acting, cheating and diving to ensure the Dutch would have no chance. Sure Holland's tactics were brutal but the Spanish attempts to con the referee were no less ugly. Iniesta was especially guilty of such antics and his most clear cut dive was to get Van Der Wiel booked. Busquets complained to the ref about Dutch diving yet it is Busquets who took the biggest dive of the 2009/10 Champions League season when he performed a somersault at the hint of a slightest touch against Arsenal's Denilson. Oddly, the one Dutch player known for his diving chose the wrong time to become honest. Robben was through on goal for a 2nd time, after missing his first clear cut break away chance in the 62nd minute, and was clearly held back by Puyol yet Robben decided to stay on his feet for a change. Had Robben gone down, then Puyol would surely have gotten a red card.

If Spanish players can't take the kicks, then why must Arsenal put up with it?

Plenty of neutrals are praising Spain for their beautiful football but in reality, Spain were nothing special. They controlled the ball but that was because Holland opted to unsettle Spain by fouling them off the ball and disrupt their play. The Germans also decided to sit back and let Spain have all the possession but the Germans failed to pull off a Swiss result and created no counter opportunity.

It is funny to see the Dutch getting criticized for their negative play by English writers, especially since this is the tactic adopted week in week out by Blackburn, Stoke and Bolton when they play Arsenal. Yet, Arsenal are told to get on with it and are said to not like the physical aspect of the game. But the Spanish are treated as victims when Holland went all Blackburn on Spain. Arseblog sums it up perfectly:

When professional footballers speak before a game about how you have to kick Arsenal, literally, to compete in a game they have a little titter, complain about Arsene Wenger moaning and accuse us of being weak, needing to man-up. Yet they couldn't condemn the Dutch fast enough. And leaving aside van Bommel and de Jong there wasn't another dirty player on the pitch. Bookings are part and parcel of the game, Spain picked up a few too. There's another thing - why do they ignore the cynical side of the Spaniards? If you're going to have a go at dirty/foul play why not criticise the Spanish for the way they constantly crowded the referee waving imaginary cards?

Interestingly, Howard Webb freely gave out yellow cards during the final yet on many occasions in the English league, he has kept the card in his pocket for similar or worse tackles thereby allowing the English players to freely get stuck in against the opposition.


A year ago I used to admire the Spanish ball movement but over the last few months it has become very hard to appreciate Spain because their Barcelona players have transformed into an ugly propaganda machine in their effort to bring Cesc back to Barcelona. Cesc has a legal contract with Arsenal yet Barcelona have tried every single disgusting trick to pressure Arsenal into selling their key player. Now it seems the dirty tricks of the Barca players have extended even to Pepe Reina who is a Liverpool player. I cannot understand why Reina, Puyol & Pique resorted to this trick of putting a Barca shirt on Cesc during the Spanish post world cup celebrations. Disgusting!

Nothing at stake = lots of goals

Before the tournament, I would have liked either Spain or Holland to have won the trophy on the basis of the amazing technical players they had. But after watching a terrible final, I rather the trophy was given to one of Germany or Uruguay who put on quite a show in the 3rd place game.

I have wanted the 3rd place game to be eliminated for a while now but the one positive thing about the fixture is that it traditionally provides plenty of goals. One would have to go back to 1978 to when the final had more goals than the 3rd place game (in France 98, both the 3rd place game and final had a total of 3 goals.) And so it was again on Saturday when the meaningless game provided 5 goals and plenty of excitement. Germany won the game 3-2 but Forlan came within inches of taking the game into extra-time when his last second free kick rebounded off the bar. The game also gave Muller & Forlan a chance to notch up their 5th goals of the tournament, a result which meant that Muller took home the golden ball. Back in 1998, Suker also took home the golden ball after scoring a 6th goal in a 2-1 win over the Dutch. Ofcourse, Just Fontaine made the most of this fixture when he grabbed 4 goals in France's 6-3 win over West Germany in 1958 taking his goal tally to 13, a record that will never be broken.

Regional overview

32 teams is too much for the World Cup, especially since many teams are there just to make up the numbers. Ideally, I would like to see the number trimmed back to 24 and a coefficient system used to determine how many teams from each confederation will be allowed for future tournaments. Such a coefficient system is currently used in the Champions League and ensures that club teams from the various countries try to perform well otherwise their nations risk losing key spots.

1) Europe

13 spots is too much for Europe, especially since Denmark, England, France, Italy, Greece, Slovenia, Portugal, Switzerland and Serbia were plain awful. Slovakia provided a thrilling finale against Italy but were unadventurous against Paraguay. In the end, European teams took the top 3 spots in the tournament but only Germany and Spain can hold their heads up given the football they played.

2) Africa

Only Ghana did Africa proud whereas Nigeria, Ivory Coast & Cameroon look to have taken a few steps backwards in the last few years. Africa's 5 spots seems too generous given the poor football on display in 2010.

note: South Africa got the 6th African spot as hosts.

3) South America

Considering that there are only 10 countries in the confederation, 5 South American spots seems too much but in fairness all 5 teams did full justice to their World Cup places. Still, one spot can be trimmed, most likely the play-off spot between the 5th place South American team and the 4th place North & Central American team.

I am not sure if there is a possibility of 6 South American in 2014 since Brazil are the hosts. 6 would be too much for South America.

4) North & Central America

Mexico and USA carried the region's flag proudly although Honduras went home with no goals. Still, 3 spots seems to be a minimum for this region.

5) Asia

South Korea & Japan did amazingly well, especially when it came to free-kicks, scoring 3 goals from set-pieces. North Korea had a decent 55 minutes against Brazil but were clearly out of their depth in the other 2 games. Australia came in through the Asian qualifying path and should only improve as they have managed to establish some rivalries, especially with Japan, from playing in Asia. I would leave Asia's 4 spots untouched, although I would remove the option for a 5th team in a play-off with Oceania.

6) Oceania

New Zealand had the easiest path to the tournament and managed to leave as the only unbeaten team. That is quite a remarkable achievement but I still want to see Oceania merged completely with Asia, thereby providing New Zealand the same chance as Australia to frequently play better opposition.

Balancing the numbers

If 32 teams are to be reduced to 24, then I think this is how the 8 spots can be eliminated:

Europe should lose 4 automatic spots.
Africa should lose 2 automatic spots.
The additional play-off spot between Asia and Oceania should be eliminated.
The additional play-off spot between South America and North & Central America should be eliminated.

This would give a total of 23 automatic spots with Europe (9), South America (4), Africa (3), Asia & Oceania (4), North and Central America (3). The 24th spot can go to the host nation and have no bearing on the regional quota.

These numbers should not be fixed permanently and instead should change with every World Cup depending on how the various regional teams perform.

Also, an additional option could be to have more inter-regional play-offs such as between Europe & Africa, Europe & Asia, South America & North America to ensure teams that reach the World Cup are there on merit rather than making up the regional numbers.

Change is required

I can safely assume FIFA will not do anything with the regional numbers. Too much lobbying effort is spent by each federation to ensure their numbers are kept intact. Also, the FIFA president requires votes from each of the federations so one can assume any decision against one federation could endanger those votes.

However, as a minimum, FIFA must introduce goal-line technology to ensure that the games are not ruined by horrible decisions. Also, FIFA must have the power to ban divers after reviewing each game and reverse incorrect yellow card decisions in a game. Muller's yellow card seemed harsh in the Quarter-Final and caused him to miss the game with Spain where he might have made a difference. Laurent Blanc famously missed the 1998 World Cup final after Bilic dove in the semi-final earning Blanc a ridiculous red card.

Also, the number of games played by the top players in the world has to be reduced. FIFA has to eliminate the useless Confederation Cup, along with trimming some of the World Cup qualifying games. UEFA also needs to do their part by reducing the qualifying games for the European Championships especially since 24 teams will be allowed in future tournaments. 24 is almost half of the 53 teams that play in UEFA, so why should European teams have to play in a group of 5-6 teams to qualify for the European Cup?

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