I looked forward to this World Cup, fervently, out of the belief that something historic or even cataclysmic would happen. Either we would see beautiful, fluid, attacking soccer from Brazil or Argentina or Spain to a degree that recalled Brazil 1970, or something dramatic would happen in a different vein such as a terrorist attack akin to Munich 1972. I had little compelling data to substantiate the belief in either of these claims, but somehow, the combination of “South Africa” and “2010” suggested that something extraordinary would happen. South Africa was different from Japan and Korea of 2002 because many of the games would be played at altitude and in near freezing temperatures unseen in previous World Cups, including those held in Europe.
On one hand it seemed that something truly extraordinary and pivotal was happening with the Brazilian team. They had qualified for the Cup with three games to spare, won Copa America, won the Confederations Cup and created a backline that promised to silence pundits that said Brazil couldn’t defend and relied too much on their strikeforce. And intriguingly, for the first time in at least two World Cups, they didn’t have any serious gunpowder amongst their strikers or attacking midfielders. Instead we saw the first Brazilian squad in decades that functioned like a team, with players who knew how to find each other and grind out a victory in difficult situations without relying on players who could “change a game” like Ronaldo, Rivaldo or Ronaldinho.
All of this was inspiring and suggestive, particularly because Brazil didn’t have minnows near the mouth of goal, either. Luis Fabiano and Robinho could certainly put the ball in the back of the net and anyone who knew anything about football saw how Kaka headed to the dugout at half-time against the USA in the Confederations Cup, in South Africa 2009, and returned to the pitch in unstoppable form to orchestrate Brazil’s 3-2 comeback victory in the final from a 2-0 half-time deficit. Compared to other winning World Cup teams, this year’s Brazilian team was ordinary but promising by virtue of its coherence and record of success. And for the first time in decades, they were blessed with a coach who believed in hard work and discipline instead of players who would celebrate the nightlife with abandon.
And then there was Argentina. True to form, the South American team that qualifies last in a World Cup often does strikingly well, and this year was no exception. We saw flashes of brilliance from Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi against highly competent teams such as Nigeria, South Korea and Mexico. And viewers were treated to the engaging spectacle of Diego Maradona gesticulating wildly up and down the coaches box in light beige suits, pausing to put his fingers to his chin or stroke or his mane of curly black hair. As with Dunga, Maradona’s squad selection was the subject of much debate since he had left out Javier Zanetti and Cambiasso and opted instead for players that he trusted and to whom he was close.
But Brazil and Argentina failed to deliver, as did Spain, even though Spain went on to win the Championship by notching up victories against formidable opponents such as Germany and the Netherlands. Spain played their passing game as best they could, but their victories lacked the goal scoring displays of Argentina or Germany or Brazil. And all in all, the Cup was a magnificent disappointment for the sport and the game. True, we all saw glimpses of brilliance and excitement from Germany, Ghana, Uruguay and even Argentina. But the number of total goals continues to drop from 171 in France 1998, 161 in Japan/Korea 2002, 146 in Germany 2006 and 145 in South Africa 2010.
Everyone will remember the sublimity of Landon Donovan's stoppage time strike against Slovakia, Asamoah Gyan’s extra time goal against the U.S., Diego Forlan’s sublime free kick against Ghana and his long range strike against South Africa. Or the spectacular, curling free kicks from Japan’s Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo in their 3-1 victory against Denmark. And then, there was Germany’s magnificent 4-0 demolition of Argentina heralding the emergence of a new generation of German players in the form of Muller, Ozeil, Podolski and Schweinsteiger in what appeared, in more than a few moments, as quite possibly the greatest team in modern times. Yet the irony was that all of these remarkable teams were eliminated before the final, most pertinently by the Netherlands and Spain.
The Netherlands played well, even if they didn’t play the total football for which they were famous in the 1970s. Arjen Robben’s attacking threat down the right side emerged as a threat to be reckoned with as the games progressed and Wesley Sneider, meanwhile, like all great goalscorers, opportunistically found himself in the right place to put the ball in the back of the onion bag at the right time. Spain, on the other hand, didn’t fail to disappoint or impress. They found their form, for the first time in the tournament, against Germany, pressuring the Germans in midfield with Xabi, Iniesta and Busquets combining to keep their opponents from launching any kind of serious counter-attacking threat. But their strength in midfield interestingly failed to translate into any kind of torrent of goals of the kind that you would expect from creative midfielders that would serve up the ball, on a platter, for strikers of the quality of David Villa and Fernando Torres. True, Villa scored five goals but the team as a whole edged its way to its first World Cup championship on the back of four consecutive 1-0 victories against Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and the Netherlands.
All this is to say the goal machines failed to continue chugging in South Africa 2010, even though we saw plenty of glimpses of them throughout the tournament in different moments. The lack of goals may have something to do with the 4-3-2-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation that teams are increasingly using, with less emphasis on the wingers and more on a frontal attack, straight down the center of midfield that fancies its chances against the traditionally strong central defense. As one might expect, the debate about how to reform the game has begun most fervently in Brazil as they prepare to host the Cup in 2014. Almost everyone has an opinion but refreshingly, no one really has an answer about how to both bring back jogo bonito and ensure that Brazil wins on its own soil. As if it were a political debate of some kind, former players and coaches such as Romario, Branco, Leonardo and others have thrown their two cents in the ring, only for us to see nothing of substance stick in the form of a real vision of how to reform the sport to produce more attacking, attractive football marked by more goals. The good thing—amidst all this uncertainty about the sport and what comes next—is that all of us with an investment in attractive football should take heart from Spain’s victory because it underscores the power of a strong midfield that we should expect to see replicated by teams in serious contention for the trophy in 2014.