Go with a smile!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Brazil laosai vs Germany

That was unexpected. Brazil got whacked 7-1. Every tournament has had a moment that got everybody talking, and I think that has to be this tournament’s. To recap, here are the ones from previous tournaments.

1974 – crazy Zaire player kicked the ball away before Brazil had the chance to take its free kick. Also, the Holland final.
1978 – World Cup taking place while Argentina is being ruled by a military junta
1982 – Algeria getting knocked out of the World Cup because Germany and Austria fixed the last match of the group stage between themselves so that they got a result that would see them both get through and Algeria getting knocked out. Also the great 10-1 defeat of El Salvador.
Also one of the greatest Brazil sides gets kicked out by Italy who unexpectedly goes on to win.
Also a German goalkeeper beats a French attacker into concussion.
1986 – Maradona’s hand of God, and then his greatest ever goal.
1990 – Rudi Voeller and Ruud Gullit spitting incident. Cameroon’s Cinderella story. Klinnsman dive.
1994 – Andres Escobar murder. Maradona failing drugs.
1998 – Ronaldo having a seizure before the final.
2002 – South Korea’s improbable march to the finals. Portugal, Argentina and France out in the first round.
2006 – Zidane head butt.
2010 – Luis Suarez hand of God part 2. The lack of sportsmanship in the final.

I think that Brazil’s loss 7-1 to Germany would qualify to be this tournament’s sensational moment. That’s for sure. It isn’t about a team you previously thought was strong losing. Spain losing 5-1 to the Netherlands in a repeat of the 2010 final was pretty sensational. But this was worse because it was a thrashing that took place in front of their own fans.

This brings back memories of 1950, and before this World Cup had begun, a lot of Brazillians were talking about 1950. Everybody thought that Brazil was going to win. They had won their last few games handily. And they had come into the tournament on the back of thrashings of Spain and Sweden. But they came up against a more determined Uruguay, who beat them to clinch the title. This event was supposed to be so traumatic that it’s an incident which haunts Brazil all the way up till today.

This was traumatic because people thought that Brazil was going to win, and it was merely a victory procession. They only needed to draw the match to become world champions for the first time. But they managed to lose against Uruguay. And this was in front of a watching audience of 200000 people, in a stadium – possibly one of the greatest football stadiums in the world, specially built for Brazil to be crowned champions. It happened in the one nation that was more crazy about football than any other place on earth. And part of the trauma was that everybody had assumed that victory was such a foregone conclusion that they even printed out a lot of brochures proclaiming Brazil as world champions before the game.

To be fair, people always recognized that with this current crop of players, it would be a stretch to win the World Cup. There was talk about Brazil being the hot favourites for this World Cup, simply because Brazil had defeated Spain in the Confederations Cup. The problem is – it’s not that difficult to defeat Spain, as we now know. Even Chile – with all due respect – even Chile can do it.

Which is why I was wondering whether it was actually better for Brazil to not knock out Chile (which it did by the narrowest of margins). Instead maybe it ought to have just bravely fought but lose to Chile in an earlier round, rather than to get to the semis and get royally fucked by Germany. When I saw Brazil narrowly get past Chile, I was thinking, “what doesn’t knock you out today merely postpones the inevitable”. I did not expect these words to ring so true.

Great runner ups.
There has been a tradition where people remembered the great runner ups of the World Cup. There were the great teams who probably should have won the World Cup, but they fell at the last hurdle. The most famous of these teams was Brazil, when they were hosting the cup in 1950. That was the first and only time that the finals was decided by a group round robin. Ostensibly it was done so that the finals would not be decided in such a dramatic fashion. But as it turned out, it didn't achieve its intended objective.

But there was also the great Hungary side of 1954, who had even met their opponents earlier in the tournament. They had thrashed a weakened Germany side 8-3. The Germans didn’t need to win and was resting their players for a more important match. That Hungary side had played 4 matches and won them all with an aggregate score of 25-4. But they lost that last match to Germany. That was a great tragedy because Hungary’s great football side disbanded in 1956 after the Soviets took over, and they never again came anywhere to being the great side that they were.

And last of all there was one of the most unique sides in all of football – the Dutch in 1974. They were imperious, and they had the core of the Ajax side who had won three European Cups from 1971 to 1974. But they tried to screw around with the Germans in the final and they lost. And to be fair to the Germans, they were probably the other great team at that point in time. Then there was the Brazil side of 1998, who had the best player in the world at that time, and a pretty handy team. And everybody thought they were going to win. But France had a team of what in hindsight were great players. In fact, in the next World Cup, their fortunes were reversed when Brazil won and France got dumped out of the first round.

Attack vs Defence
Well there are two matches left and we are 4 goals away from this being the World Cup with the most number of goals. The previous record was 1998, the first time the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams. At that time, people complained that when you expand the number of teams, the football quality goes down. But this world cup had two nice surprises. First surprise is that almost everybody who qualified deserves to be here. Of course there are a few killjoys like South Korea, Cameroon, Russia, Japan, Honduras and Greece. Their job is to stop people from playing. But there were no whipping boys, Honduras and Cameroon aside. Everybody who qualified for the second round fully deserved it, other than Greece. And there are many sides who didn’t make it past the first round that I have time for: Ghana, Ivory Coast, England, Portugal, Italy, Spain. I don’t think 32 nations is too huge. Also there were the Cinderellas – Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile and Belgium.

I had drafted an article 2 years ago concerning the size of a major tournament, and back then they were talking about expanding the Euros to 24 teams. I’m going to publish it soon. Back then I would have approved of it, but seeing as it is that Europe’s sides are actually going backwards, maybe I might revise my opinion that a 24 team Euros is actually good.

So the pleasant surprise for the group stage is that the tournament has had plenty of nice high scoring matches, in spite of the near absence of whipping boys. Instead of having whipping boys, many of these nations have progressed to the next level – being fairly incoherent but good at defending.

I think there has been a change in football tactics. From the 60s onwards, football became much more negative because of the prevalence of catenaccio and dogged defending. But the success of attractive sides like 1970’s Brazil – still one of the best sides today – the total football of Holland 1974, and the classic 1982 Brazil side were quite well beloved. It was basically a battle between pretty football and brutal defending. However the 1982 Brazil side getting knocked out in the quarters was probably a turning point. There would still be great sides like the France side of the 80s, or the Danish or the Belgians. But by 1990, the game had reached its nadir and they had to make a few more changes to the rules to favour the attackers – first 3 points instead of 2 for a win, and secondly the outlawing of the back pass. As well as some tweaks to the offside rule.

However by the turn of the millennium, there was an erosion of the traditional 4-4-2 approach in favour of some systems that shared players between midfield and attack. This also had a more stifling effect on the game, because often there was only one out-and-out striker, and the game became more European and tactical. Games became bore draws / low scoring affairs. For the World Cups in 2006 and 2010, 7 of the 8 semi-finallists were from Europe.

However there have been positive developments in football strategies recently. First, in spite of the greater emphasis on systems, we haven’t been short of great players. In the last 20 years, Romario, Ronaldo, Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoitchkov, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho and Messi are contenders for greatest of all time. Second, there has been the rise of the great Spain / Barcelona team between 2009 and 2012, engineered by Luis Aragones and Pep Guardiola. Tiki taka football may not be extremely high scoring, and opinion on it is divided between those who think that it’s the most boring thing ever, or those who marvel at how wonderfully engineered it all is. But they deserve their place as one of the best sides ever. Also, the high scoring Bayern Munich side which has taken Barcelona’s place as the greatest club side in Europe is not too shabby either. The last few seasons in the EPL have produced good club sides who love to attack, in Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal. In particular, the 11-12 and 13-14 seasons have been pretty good. Liverpool have disproven the adage that you can’t build a title challenge without a good defence, even though they lost out on the title in the end.

It’s hard to pinpoint why the balance has tipped towards attacking in recent years. Possibly there is a lack of great defenders. After Cannavaro, John Terry and Ashley Cole maybe there haven’t been a lot of great defenders. I would struggle to think of any defences I would call great these days. The last great defensive partnership in the EPL – Ferdinand and Vidic – petered out quite some time ago.

Perhaps another issue is how much more effective attacking football has been. Perhaps the passing has been more accurate, perhaps tactics have improved so that people know better where all the weaknesses in all the defences are to be found. The lone striker football has been in existence so long that a lot of teams in the EPL did not really know how to deal with a strike force like Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge team like 2013-14 Liverpool. The number of goals scored per match has been creeping upwards. In any case, this is great news. Long may it continue.

It’s possible that sports science and analytics can help managers better pinpoint the weakest portions of the opponent’s defence. It’s possible that attacks can now be more intricately choreographed so as to get past the most determined defences. Although the main story of football is that it has always been about an arms race between defence and attack.

The knockout rounds, other than the 7-1 massacre, have been pretty bleak in serving up number of goals. The finals could possibly be a bleak affair, especially if Germany scores early. However, these teams are perfectly capable of serving up a lot of entertainment, as we can see in the Germany – Ghana match. If only Argentina had a world class coach who could best harness the abilities of Messi, Higuain, Aguero and Di Maria, I’d have more confidence in them. Fourth place matches are usually high scoring affairs, because everybody’s tired, and they don’t have to play catannacio anymore because progression is no longer at stake. Hopefully we will set a new record, but it was disappointing to have to stagger over the 171 mark.


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