Another World Cup is over, here come the new Champions, a different name on the trophy but one that has been there before. Italy won their fourth World Cup, twelve years after they last appeared in a final and lost when Roberto Baggio’s penalty sailed high over the crossbar and into orbit over Los Angeles. It ended a twenty four year wait for them to repeat their 1982 triumph, itself ending a forty-four year wait from 1938. England’s forty year wait does not seem so bad when it is put into that kind of perspective because lets face for most of the sixty eight years since 1938, the Italians have been and still are a better side than England.
Anyway, this years tournament continued the upward spiral of hype and perhaps that is why it was so painful to watch England. The level of performance that was expected just never arrived, particularly disappointing given the performances that were put in during Euro 2004. The tactics remained the same, score once and defend for dear life. The myopic Swede never experimented before May of this year, never played without Rooney and / or Owen. Never tried to get Lampard and Gerrard into the same team, centrally with a holding midfielder covering them. And all of it showed. Steve McClaren has his work cut out trying to get them into the same side and bringing through youngsters such as Aaron Lennon who it has to be said was one of two bright spots from Germany, the other being the form of Owen Hargreaves who showed in the three games he played why he was in the squad.
And what of the the rest of the World Cup? It seemed unbelievable to be sat watching the opening game, something had to be wrong as they were normally dour, low-scoring affairs. “It’s the ball” cried out the commentators and Goalkeepers Union. By the time Rosicky scored in the Czechs drubbing of the USA, we were inclined to believe them. But if that was the case, why weren’t more long range efforts flying in. Most of the long range shots seemed to me to end up some ten or fifteen high of the goal. Is that poor technique or was it the rarified altitude of the stadia wreaking havoc with the technique of these highly paid players?
Cambiasso scored the goal of the tournament, no doubt about that. Slick passing and flicks given the finish they deserved. So early in the game, “nobody will be able to live with this Argentinean team” screamed various media mouthpieces. Mexico exploded that myth in the second round in what for me at least, was the game of the tournament. Marquez’s goal was the perfect start and the Mexicans were buzzing. But Argentina struck back with a dubious goal awarded to Crespo – it was an own goal but not according to FIFA’s committee. Schweinsteiger will surely be awarded a hattrick in the 3rd and 4th Place Play-off on that basis. Maxi Rodriguez finally put paid to the Mexicans with a cracking strike but in the Quarter Finals, the hosts put the South Americans to the sword with ruthless efficiency in the Penalty Shootout.
The hosts were for me the surprise of the tournament. Having seemingly been in disarray before the tournament, they were the most consistent team on show. Unfortunately for them, the team was functional rather than gifted and that proved to be the difference between success and failure. Do not get me wrong, they are a potent threat and will be better in years to come, perhaps even starting Euro 2008 as favourites. They have certainly set the standards for the remainder of the competition in terms of fitness and psychological preparation, to win penalty shoot-outs requires both attributes – look at their penalties, they do not require luck to score, all are cleanly struck with power, low towards a corner. That is technique that requires plenty of practice to achieve consistently.
African nations did not fare as well as in previous tournaments, partly due to countries such as Togo and Angola qualifying – no qualms about that, they won their right to be there and need to qualify to play against a higher standard of opposition / different styles of play – but also the draw did not favour the Ivory Coast, one of the pre-tournament countries who were tipped to surprise others. Ghana however, performed admirably, pushing Italy hard until they conceded the second goal and deservedly securing their place with a win over the Czech Republic, who themselves were a great disappointment. Second Round defeat by Brazil holds no shame, even if the Brazilians were not functioning properly.
FIFA have announced that Podolski was the Young Player Of The Tournament, Lothar Mattheus observing that Ronaldo had been punished for his gamesmanship. I’m not sure that I would agree with the choice as Podolski worked hard and you can see he has quality but for four weeks he struggled to hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. This was a tournament that was bereft of individual star quality, something that is hard to define but definitely easy to spot when it is missing. Jens Lehmann probably edged it for me which says it all if I think a Goalkeeper was the best player of the last four weeks. But to reward Zidane as Best Player of the Tournament when FIFA have denied Ronaldo for gamesmanship was just plain nuts, or basically what we have come to expect from the World’s Governing Body.
A parting shot on Horacio Elizondo, referee last night. He got the decision spot on, FIFA have stated that the fourth official who does not have access to video replays (despite what the French are claiming) saw the incident on the pitch. I have but one request of journalists. When he is appointed to officiate another England game or appears at an international tournament, feel free to mention the dismissals of Rooney and Zidane. But for Christ’s sake, ensure that the sentence reads, “Horacio Elizondo, whose dismissals of Zidane and Rooney were entirely correct,…”.