It’s much too early to start comparing the 2010 World Cup with World Cups of the past. Where South Africa 2010 will ultimately rest among the pantheon of WCs would have to wait to the end.
But we have now had a chance see all 32 teams play at least once. With an assuredness not found in most of the games thus far, we unequivocally state that 2010 will not go down as one of the better World Cups.
To say the tournament got off to a slow start would be flattering the teams. The first week was horrendous, uninspiring, no ambitious approach, no one-touch passing, movement and pace. Germany’s demolition of Australia aside, teams and players produced stale, unimaginative, one-dimensional soccer, showing only glimpses of precise attacking play.
Putting the positive approach from most sides was missing following conservative showings in their opening games.
We must wonder why teams with the best and richest players in the world, with vaunted attacking riches, are finding it so hard to find their flair. There are a number of reasons: long drawn-out seasons that leave players a spent force, injuries, altitude. But it seems that above all, caution and defensive organisation are triumphing over the cavalier approach that brought fame to some World Cups, particularly 1970 which remains the seminal World Cup for its free-flowing, attacking play.
Fast forward to 2010 where there is a paucity of risk-taking. It’s a case of keep what you’ve got – a clean sheet at kick-off – and hope to nick something along the way, rather than let’s show the world what we can do. This attitude was obvious when Switzerland shocked Spain for the biggest upset thus far. It’s not that the Swiss played better. They defended against a team they knew they could not beat. The tactic worked and there was a bonus; an errant, winning goal.
Moral: Defending is easier, not better. It’s easy to play against a big team if you just sit back, speculate and wait for a counter-attack.
The pressure not to lose in the opening game is understandable but pressure will only intensify as the competition progresses, so it would not appear that the shackles will soon be flung aside. And even if they are unchained, by the time teams realize that boldness is the route to glory they might be already ousted.
The lack of impact from star names, whether missing in action or missing all together from the tournament, is less to do with their absence, outright or otherwise, than in their ineffectiveness in international systems.
Against North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire and the US, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney respectively seemed to be fish out of water in their national teams, as opposed to their clubs in which they do swimmingly.
Domestically, teams are built around them over a course of months and years. However, the same players neither practice nor play with country a fraction of what they do with club. Against Nigeria and South Korea, Lionel Messi finally copied and pasted his magic from Barcelona to Argentina. But for the most part the World Cup countries are still unable to make the most of the club stars they possess.
The success of any World Cup rises and falls on the strength of goals scored and this World Cup is as weak as they come. In the first round, in 16 games, a paltry 25 goals were netted for a measly 1.56 average (2.5 is the bare minimum expected of a World Cup). And that, despite playing with the Jabulani, the ball that supposedly dances in front of befuddled goalkeepers.
Things have started to improve in the second round with Argentina blowing away South Korea and Mexico embarrassing France. As of writing, four games into the second round have been played and 13 goals notched, for a that’s-more-like-it 3.2 average.
Still, South Africa 2010 has so far been tame and still desperately needs to spring to life. The teams are cohesive and disciplined, resilient in their defensive displays but unadventurous, unwilling to go forward and are creating little attacking invention. They apparently ran out of ideas before game time.
We worry about the fate of this World Cup. There are signs it is rising out of the mediocrity it was entrenched in. But it’s not over yet.