Sports

First 9 days of World Cup already a blast

The World Cup is only 9 days old but I feel confident saying that it’s the most exciting one I’ve seen in recent times.  There’re already several big storylines even though it’s only halfway through the group stage.

The end of an era for Spain
The same great team that won Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 crashed out of the tournament this week after losing both games they played (they’ll play the final group game Monday but it’s only for pride). After being crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands, most people figured Spain had serious issues but that they could beat Chile. Instead, Chile dominated them to win 2-0, bossing Spain around in midfield and capitalizing off poor goalkeeping and defending.
I’m not a fan of Spain (they beat my favorite team Germany in the Euro 2008 final and the 2010 World Cup semifinal) or their tiki-taka playing style (which revolves around continuous short passes and keeping the ball away from opponents), but I still feel a bit of sadness for them. Their squad were the same formidable players who’d won Spain all those titles and boasted so much experience, but who were now looking cowed, hapless and markedly inferior. Their losses weren’t due to absence or injuries to key players or bad luck or shady refereeing, but to being completely outclassed and outfought by their opponents.

I don’t think Spain became bad overnight, but that they were just old and exhausted. In terms of age, their key players aren’t that old (midfielder Xavi, 34, and keeper Iker Casillas, 33 being the oldest starters), but they’ve been playing continuously since at least 2008, when they started their era of dominance. Spain have played every summer from 2008 to now, except for 2011, due to their having to participate in Confederation Cups in 2009 and 2013 as European and World champions.
Ironically, perhaps their main strength became their weakness, as they had been dependent on a special group of players, notably midfielders Xavi and Andre Iniesta, playing a special style, that they continued to play these players and consequently they have become too tired, physically and mentally. Spain also had the luxury of an excess of talented players, both established stars in their mid-20s (Juan Mata, Javi Martinez) and promising youngsters in their early 20s (Koke, Isco, David de Gea etc), who have been sidelined or little utilized. Spain will recover of course and become a good team again, though it’s hard to say if they can become great.

Three powers and former champions fighting for one place
This unlikely (putting it mildly) scenario is unfolding in Group D after little-fancied Costa Rica followed up their victory over Uruguay by beating Italy 1-0 yesterday. This means they did exactly what England couldn’t, which is why the latter were the first to bow out of this group. To put this into perspective, Italy (no. 9 in the world), England (no. 10) and Uruguay (no. 7) are all former World Cup winners, with Uruguay (no. 28) having come fourth in the last one and Italy winning the 2006 tournament. England may be a bit mediocre but are a perennial international upper-mid-level team. Costa Rica are a decent CONCACAF (North and Central America, Caribbean) team but playing in only their fourth World Cup with their best achievement being reaching the second round back in 1990.

I only saw Costa Rica’s game against Italy (as I missed their clash against Uruguay) and they deserved their win as they held their own and stifled the Italians. I have no explanation for how Costa Rica are so good but damn, it’d be something if they could go on and do something big. Costa Rica’s goalscorer was Bryan Ruiz, a guy who played for Fulham, the team that finished last in the English Premier League, and in fact he was loaned out to Dutch team PSV Eindhoven while Fulham were relegated. This is in stark contrast with England, whose players are all playing in the top Premier League clubs and begs the question of whether talent or tactics and teamwork are more important.
As it is, Costa Rica have qualified for the second round, which they have already reached before, so maybe they can make at least one step further.

More excitement, more goals
The overwhelming majority of the games have been exciting, interesting or compelling. The games have been noticeably better than in the last World Cup, although for me actually being there (South Africa) at that time colors my memory positively. Teams are playing more positively, preferring to attack rather than sit back and defend in numbers, with the possible exception of Cameroon and Nigeria. And goals are being scored at a very high rate. And teams are finding it hard to defend one-goal leads, since in at least 6 matches, the team that scored first has gone on to lose!
I remember being surprised when the Dutch continued to attack Spain even when 2-1 up, rather than defend their lead, and it paid huge dividends for them. Meanwhile smaller and (supposedly) weaker teams have taken the fight to bigger teams, such as Costa Rica but also Bosnia/Herzegovina against Argentina. The tournament has been remarkable in that up till the fourth day and 13th game, there were no draws. The first draw, a 0-0 game between Brazil and Mexico, was considered by many to be a thrilling affair with the Mexican keeper becoming a star in the process. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the other 0-0 draws afterwards (Iran v Nigeria, Japan v Greece).
Adding to the interest and excitement, but in a very negative way, was atrocious officiating by referees in the first few days, where dubious penalties were awarded while legitimate goals were waved off for dubious offside calls. For instance, in the Mexico-Cameron game, a total of 3 (three!) goals, two seemingly legit goals by Mexico and one by Cameroon, were waved off in the first half though Mexico eventually scored a goal that was accepted and deservedly won the game. Thankfully this problematic refereeing has subsided.

Best game so far: Netherlands vs Australia
I never expected this, and I’m sure hardly anyone did including even the most rabid Australian fans (a former Aussie coworker of mine was stunned as the game went on), but Australia put up a good fight against Netherlands to produce the best game I’ve seen so far. By good fight, I don’t mean being scrappy and playing rough and dirty, but being offensive minded and going for goal right from the start against a supposedly superior opponent, with both teams playing good football throughout. Australia ended up losing 3-2 to the Netherlands, but it was filled with action, lead changes and goals. For good measure, an Australian, Tim Cahill, also scored the best goal so far when he volleyed a powerful shot directly from a long cross with a defender right on him (what makes it extra-special is he did it almost right after Holland went 1-0 up).

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