Back to Reality: Does the World Cup Still Matter?

Golden Boot? 2006 Was About the Golden Shin Guard

It was tough defenders with an ability to raid
the flanks like Zambrotta, rather than forwards
like Totti or Luca Toni, that shone for Italy

As a football spectacle, Germany 2006 was pretty grim: It was all about cast-iron defensive organization and packed midfields strengthened by double columns of steel at their base. It was Italy’s ability to keep a clean sheet, rather than the exploits of its strikers that got it to the final. And even there, they prevailed over France largely by virtue of David Trezeguet’s error by a matter of fractions of an inch in striking his penalty. France had done the bulk of the game’s attacking, although to be fair to Italy, it had taken the game to Germany in the semifinal and reaped the reward. Still, the Italian stars of the tournament are not Luca Toni or Francesco Totti, but Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianlucca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso – and the magnificent Gianlugi Buffon, easily the best keeper at the tournament. Italy scored 12 goals, you’ll be surprised to learn, in their seven matches (because it always felt like they were getting by 1-0). France did slightly better with its 9 goals over 12 games, but again, it was rarely Thierry Henry who was bagging ’em. Henry and Toni, of course, shared the grim task of being a lone forward searching for scraps in front of a five-man midfield. Same as Pauleta for Portugal, Rooney for England, Crespo for Argentina and so on. Germany were the exception among the final four in playing a 4-4-2, although even then their strikers didn’t set the tournament alight. Sure Klose finished methodically for his five goals, he didn’t exactly terrify defenses. Defensive organization prevailed in Germany. As Simon Kuper noted early on, it has now become commonplace for a Cinderella team coached by a well-seasoned Dutch, German or Serbian pro to demonstrate the kind of defensive organization capable of holding just about anyone at bay. Look at Trinidad, who held off both Sweden and would have done the same to England had Crouch not gotten away with using Brent Sancho’s dreadlocks to hoist himself up for the opening goal. And very few teams were willing to play the sort of football necessary to overwhelm a well-drilled defense.

I don’t think Germany 2006 will be remembered for its tactical innovations, except perhaps for its confirmation of 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 as a kind of tactical conventional wisdom. Less adventurous, of course, but can be brilliant when it’s done well – look at Argentina. Also, it was notable in the fact that some of the most memorable players in Germany were raiding fullbacks – Italy’s Grosso and Zambrotta, France’s Sagnol, Germany’s Lahm, Portugal’s Miguel, Tunisia’s Hatem Trabelsi and so on. Their adventures on the wing are enabled by those two holding midfielders providing cover. There are, of course, some kinds of strikers that simply aren’t effective alone up front – Wayne Rooney is the obvious example. He doesn’t play with back to goal and hold the ball up, he’s most effective when he’s running with the ball at the defense, which means in a 4-4-1-1 he’s the player just behind the lone striker and his work rate allows him to be everywhere. That’s Ronaldinho’s most effective role, too, somebody ought to have told Coach Parreira.

Back to Life; Back to Reality

The enduring image of the World Cup for me was the little video clip ( click here to view it of Portugal’s Deco and Holland’s Giovanni Van Bronckhorst sitting side by side in the stands as they watched the rest of their match together, commiserating after being sent off by the card-happy ref. This was not just some touching solidarity among sinners. The friendship between them is based on the fact that Deco and Gio are teammates at Barcelona, and in a couple of weeks they’ll be back at work together. The rival national shirts they wore in that fearful clash will have no more significance than the different colored bibs they might wear on any day’s training. Some may be tempted to see the Rooney-Ronaldo incident as a counterweight to the Deco-Gio moment: The Portuguese international sought to have his Manchester United teammate sent off. The moment it happened, I took it as confirmation that Ronaldo has no intention of returning to Old Trafford, and will be playing for Real Madrid next season. Not that Rooney didn’t go out of his way (perhaps out of loyalty to his club) to assure the world that he held no grudge against Ronaldo.

Rooney and Ronaldo, like Deco and Gio and most of the players who turned out in national colors in Germany, who will soon return to their day-jobs at the top clubs of Europe (even if some of them change clubs having impressed buyers with their abilities). A month from now, their world (and ours, speaking as a football fan) will be turned back on its feet: Ronaldinho will be terrorizing defenses; Thierry Henry will be getting buckets of goals; Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will be breaking from deep and scoring cracking 30-yarders, and so on. Busines as usual, you might say, although we hardly saw any of these familiar spectacles in Germany.

Aside from the poor performances of various established stars (perhaps because having given their all in a club season, spending their summer hols at the World Cup was never going to get the best out of them), there were very few surprises. Unlike World Cups of years gone by, these days most of the players were actually familiar to those of us watching our own favorite clubs week in and week out. Ecuador, I think, were the only team
whose stars were mostly unknown to the world’s year-around TV soccer audience, because they play in Cuito and Cuenca. Ghana may have thrilled and surprised, but everyone
knows Michael Essien from Chelsea and Steven Appiah from his days at Juventus. ESPN brought us the World Cup, but they also bring us the Champion’s League, in which we can see pretty much all of the players of the countries who reached the last 16 play week in and week out.

I’m not even sure that I buy this old equation about Latin American teams not able to win in Europe. First, it must be recognized that all of the Brazilian team and most of the Argentines actually play in Europe these days, meaning that’s where they live. The Brazilian style of play here had little in common with the freewheeling style of old. With their solid defense and twin holding midfielders and emphasis on keeping possession, there was something very Italian about their game. Argentina, too: remember, most of their players actually play in the Spanish league.

The Deco-Gio moment also reminded me of the more fluid notions of national identity that football pioneers these days: Deco represents Portugal, but he is Brazilian; Gio plays for Holland but his roots lie in Indonesia. (There were Brazilians on five teams other than Brazil at this World Cup: Portugal, Mexico, Japan, Spain and Tunisia.) That, and the obvious disdain of all but three or four of the French players for their national anthem, were reminders that no matter what meaning the fans attribute to the spectacle unfolding before them, for the players engaged in the increasingly cosmopolitan world of European club soccer, they are a fraternity of gladiators.

It’s hard not to wonder whether FIFA will manage to maintain the preeminence of the international game in the face of the growing power of the clubs that play in the Champion’s League, whose players make up most of the World Cup squads. It’s pretty obvious that the tension will increase when players return for summer training, banged up and knackered after the World Cup, and the clubs that have spent tens of millions of Euros on them have to get them in shape for another grueling club season that begins a little over a month from now.

Club vs. Country

Figo and Zidane captained opposing teams, but they’re old friends from Real Madrid

Interesting, also, to note the fate of the national teams from the three domestic leagues that dominate European football – Italy, Spain and England. Italy may be the exception that proves a rule that the more accomplished a country’s domestic club system, the less likely
they are to prevail at the World Cup. And if the prosecutors get their way and Juventus and AC Milan are relegated, the Italian league will get a lot more competitive and interesting, but will also fall quickly out of Europe’s top tier – those two clubs pretty much carry Italy’s hopes in Europe, unlike say Spain where in recent years the likes of Sevilla, Betis, Valencia and Villareal have all joined Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Euro spotlight. It may even be argued, in fact, that uncertainty over their post-World Cup fate because of the scandal may even have spurred Italy to greater heights. In the case of England, however, it was patently obvious that players that had dominated Europe’s premier competitions at club level – Lampard, Gerrard, Terry, Joe Cole – simply couldn’t find their best game in an England shirt.

Could it have something to do with the emotional peaks of a player’s season? For example, could Steven Gerrard ever have mustered the passion for England that he did for Liverpool in that epic Champion’s League final against AC Milan in Istanbul two years ago? It never looked like it. And I’m not sure that England’s showdown with Portugal (and his year-round
teammates Carvalho, Ferreira and Maniche drew more out of John Terry than did Chelsea’s Champion’s League showdown with Barcelona, that pitted his defensive qualities against two of the world’s best attackers in Ronaldinho and Samuel Etoo. The Football Club is the form in which most players play the game most of the time, and it is the affinity built up in the course of a season-long campaign there (or in cases like Gerrard’s, the continuity with the boyhood passion for his local team and his adult captaincy of that team) that do more to shape a player’s identity than occasional outings with the national team.

I suspect that for established players in the top flight, finding themselves playing in the national team may sometimes feel a little like lapsed Jews or Catholics might feel when circumstances – a wedding, a funeral, a bar mitzvah – thrust them back into the houses of worship they knew as children. It’s like they’re pleased to make a nostalgic visit to their roots, but they can never quite feel the bond that supposedly binds them to the place.

Not sure. But while I’m holding this thought, it’s also interesting to note that France’s run was driven by two players whose connection with their clubs was tenuous. Zidane has essentially retired, and this was his swansong; Patrick Vieira had long signaled his unhappiness at Juventus and the possibility of their relegation makes it even more likely that he’ll move on. Thuram, also at Juve, is also retiring, while his club teammate Trezeguet will no doubt be looking for a new club. Gallas, also, has long been unsettled at Chelsea. Two such key leadership figures as Zidane and Vieira who have no affinity beyond their immediate (in this case national) team would certainly drive the others on to greater heights, and inspire the youngsters like Sagnol, Riberry and Malouda to give their best. (Indeed, if you looked at the on-the-field conferences between Henry, Zidane, Vieira and Makelele, and the comparative silence of Raymond Domenech on the sidelines, you get the feeling that the French coach played a kind of Executive Producer role, while Zidane and Vieira were the directors.) Henry, by contrast, who has just committed his future to Arsenal and had a long domestic season ending in disappointment against Barca in the Champion’s League, has looked decidedly jaded except for some moments in the final. So did the Chelsea-bound Ballack and Shevchenko

Why Brazil Failed

Sure he scored a couple, but he missed about a half dozen that he would have scored a few years earlier

I remember after they lost to France in 1998, there were all these conspiracy theories that Nike had used its massive sponsorship of the Brazilian national team to exert improper influence, to the extent of forcing an unfit Ronaldo to play. I’m pleased to say Germany 2006 must have killed those rumors. Not only is the obsession with Ronaldo clearly a Brazilian problem (Nike, after all, has transferred its affections to Ronaldinho, although it did insist on airing one particular ad featuring Ronaldo in his prime, zipping around and tearing up defenses at such great speed that it only made us more aware of just how appallingly static his corpulence has made him.) And if Nike had any influence, Ronaldinho would surely have been allowed the same freedom to create as he enjoys at Barcelona. Instead, the notoriously conservative Carlos Alberto Parreira had him playing as a pretty orthdox left midfielder (not a winger, as much as a wide midfielder with the attendant defensive responsibilities). If playing Ronaldo wasn’t sufficiently disastrous, he was often played alongside Adriano, another big lumbering fellow who brings little pace to the party, meaning centerbacks facing Brazil had a rather easy time dealing with two pretty static forwards. They only looked lively when Robinho replaced on of the front two, although injury deprived us of the pleasure of watching him even if it’s doubtful that Parreira would have used him enough. But on why Brazil failed, I think there’s no better place to go than Alex Bellos, who has written books about Brazilian football and did this fine analysis for the Financial Times. The other problem he highlights is Parreira’s reliance on established stars, regardless of their form. Ronaldo, Adriano, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Emerson all fit this description. It was, in other words, a self-inflicted wound.

I want to do one more observation on African football and the World Cup, but that will have to wait.

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16 Responses to Back to Reality: Does the World Cup Still Matter?

  1. Mambo says:

    I think you need to edit the link to the Alex Bellos article.

  2. markus says:

    Henry, by contrast, who has just committed his future to Arsenal and had a long domestic season ending in disappointment against Barca in the Champion’s League, has looked decidedly jaded except for some moments in the final. So did the Chelsea-bound Ballack and Shevchenko

    To be fair to Henry he never got the service and support that he thrives on at the Arsenal. At times he looked dangerous and he gave demonstrations of what he is capable of, but he needs a younger athletic midfield moving forwards at speed to link up with him.

    I agree totallyl about this being the World Cup striking by defence. The galacticos of Italy deserved to win – with a good all round performance. They conceeded one goal, and scored 12 (by ten different players) which is a telling statistic.

    As for Materazzi – as far as I am concerned he wins no glory with his racist taunts about Zizou’s children. Zizou’s headbutt was also not glorious, but it had a beauty about it. I will remember Zizou for a lot more than the last minute of that match, but I don’t think I will ever forget that awesome act of agression.

  3. Tony says:

    Markus — yes, as un-PC as this may sound, if indeed Zidane’s last moment in football was a lapse in professionalism sparked by an assault on his dignity — and the dignity of everything he represents — I won’t think any less of him for that final moment of “madness.” Sometimes, when a red line is crossed, somebody needs to blow the whistle, or strike a blow. If Zidane leaves the game and his legacy is to make the authorities pay more attention to what is acceptable in the use of words, not only elbows, among players on the pitch, that may not be a bad thing. And if Materazzi had indeed been making racist taunts, frankly, he got only one small part of what he deserves. If it can be proved, he too needs a lengthy ban.

  4. sandrahn says:

    Hi Tony, this is Sandra, the Brazilian in Brooklyn. We exchanged e-mails early on during the World Cup. I’ve been reading your blog for awhile now and only now just registered. I had to reply to your last entry on the World Cup re Zidane. As a huge fan of Zidane, it was quite devastating for me to see him leave the match on Sunday the way he did. I just wanted to point something out about some of the Italian players. I’ll upset some people here but here goes. I occasionally read the Italian press (I’m half Italian) and some of them are linked to racist fascist groups in Italy. The goalkeeper Buffon, for example, has publicly declared his admiration for Mussolini and has been seen wearing pro-Mussolini t-shirts. It’s difficult to believe Materazzi’s claim that he doesn’t even understand the meaning of the word “terrorist” as he claims. Whatever the case…it is difficult for me to believe that Zidane was not seriously provoked to do what he did. Not that anything excuses his behavior. He unfortunately has a history of lashing out like this. For awhile it seemed like he had learned to control his temper. I think he’s a brilliant artist who’s been elevated practically to godhood, who was under enormous pressure and did a lot of mental work during the tournament (it seems as if he alone forced the French team to put aside their egos and cohere into a unit thru the force of his will, and without the help of the coach) to make France get as far as it did. He was also in pain and forced himself to stay in the match (probably a mistake). I think like many great artists so beloved and deified, he crashed and fell in a huge crack-up equal to the level of his great artistry. I have to be honest and say that I cannot join in the universal praise of the Italian team. Yes they have some very fine skillful players, no one can deny that. And it would be unfair to dismiss them as the traditionally boring defensive Italian team. But I just didn’t find them to be anything more than technically skillful and diverting. I never found them especially inspiring or terribly interesting to watch. I found the experiene of watching flawed but talented players like Henry, Vieira, Makelele, Ribery and of course Zidane was one of watching quality football beyond technique. The Italian team seemed like a good successful corporation. The French team seemed to me like a tight crew of struggling talented veteran artists forcing themselves to find openings to create beauty and not always succeeding. I’m sorry, that’s a purely emotional response. Also, Tony, your link to the Alex Bellos article is not working.

  5. Carol says:

    With one blow Zinedine Zidane lifted the World Cup to the Shakespearean stratosphere. Forget the mundane and trite displays of sports as a synonym for the bread and circuses of the dying Roman Empire: Zidane as Othello is the new reality.

    What slur did the devious Mozaratti whisper in the ear of the French Moorish General? What was so awful that defending his honor was more important then winning the war? What key elevated human failings over gamesmanship?

    The symbolism is undeniable: Othello and Iago duel again, and again, the dark star loses. Only those with limited imaginations see this as simply one more example of poor sportsmanship. A good playwright would engrave Zidane’s tragic flaw to the historic levels of Julius Caesar and Brutus. The Machiavellian Latin versus the heroic Everyman; the possibilities are endless.

    Think how different our history would be If Caesar had possessed a stunning head butt to counter the knife blade in the hands of ‘friends’.

    So don’t worry about the kiddie’s sense of sportsmanship. This morality play contains endless opportunities for learning about honor and winning at any cost. Typical soccer would have seen Zidane walk away, and then on the next play ‘accidentally’ cripple Mozaratti. No one would have called that extreme or unsportsmanlike. Only Mozaratti would know he owned Zidane’s soul.

    Instead, in a scene out of High Noon, the hero turns; faces the bad guy; looks him in the eye and shoots him down. Then he accepts his punishment without comment and leaves the stage. What more could we ask of these footballers then some of the greatest real life drama in the world?

    Where is the dramatist to enshrine this moment in the world’s best literature? Shakespeare, we really need you now. Or maybe we just need a great Director to stage Othello in Football shirts and shorts…

  6. Tony says:

    Carol — beautifully put. I was going to invoke Frantz Fanon, rather than Shakespeared, but the bard works too. And I agree on the significance of the rupture of “normal” soccer practice, and it’s almost revolutionary impact. As the dust settles, it’s fascinting to me that while the French sports press forgives Zidane for his “moment of madness,” the kids in the projects are hailing him even more for defending his (and by extension, their) dignity. Materazzi left with a winner’s medal and the stench of racist thuggery hanging over him; Zidane left with a red card and his dignity…

  7. billy says:

    Certainly the relgion analogy is an interesting one, and I share your puzzlement at the often listless performances at world cup level, but there are still nations who manage to rally around the flag. I don’t think you can accuse the Italians of lacking national fervour, and once again the Germans delivered 100% for their nation despite the largely average talent of their individual players.Putting them all to shame, though, are the Australians, who display a passion in their national colours that really puts the English to shame. And I await with interest your thoughts on the African nations.

  8. Mambo says:

    Our local NPR station gets the BBC overnight, and this morning, they were saying that Zidane was going to speak out today. (Do the time markers in that sentence make any sense?) Did anyone hear what he said?

    I saw the segment about this on “Countdown” last night. ( One of my (few) beefs with Keith Olbermann is that he openly dislikes professional soccer as a sport. ) They showed a short clip of the French team on a balcony in Paris, all wearing dark suits and ties. Zidane was standing at the back, even though the crowds were chanting his name. The other players grabbed his arm, clapped, pushed him forward. He looked uncomfortable, the only time I’ve seen him look embarrassed. He almost stumbled to the front, waved one arm as he turned, and was gone. For some reason, the details that stayed with me were that his tie wasn’t on straight, and that he never really faced the crowd.

    Carol, very well said.

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  12. Pat.s says:

    I agree with you Tony Karon.

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