Sunday, June 29, 2014

My World Cup so far

My previous article was hoping and preying for a great World Cup, lamenting the previous few tournaments and possibly an event in decline, a victim of global football media overkill.

Fear not, Brazil '14 to the rescue.

The first couple of weeks have provided a wonderful, heady mix of stylish attacking verve, established nations going out and no shortage of drama.

There have been a myriad of subplots, Brazil's nervous progress, Messi's magic, some wonderful South and Central American performances and some lamentable European ones.

So who looks like a likely winner?

Brazil the hosts were the first team in to the quarter finals but they look fragile. The defence is full of attacking panache but lacks solidity, Thiago Silva apart.

The midfield lacks energy although Fernandinho looked an improvement on Paulinho. My own Chelsea's Oscar looks a prime culprit for Brazil's toils however given the continuation of his listless recent club form. His place must come into question.

Brazil also have problems at centre forward with neither Fred nor Jo of the required calibre. Possibly pushing Neymar further forwards and bringing Willian in to the team would give Brazil more urgency and movement. It is time for Scolari to earn his salary.

Argentina, similarly look short of balance within their team. Lionel Messi has however shown up and how. Should he continue in this vein, echoes of Maradona and '86 will come to the fore. Could he drag them to the title almost single handed?

With the hugely attractive Chile and Uruguay now out of the tournament, South America's other great hope remains Colombia. They will certainly fancy their chances against Brazil and whilst they remain an outsider, they are certainly part of the discussion, especially if they go on to knockout the hosts.

The European challenge has proven very lopsided. Belgium and France have progressed unmolested but only really Holland and Germany have impressed in any great way.

For the Dutch, Arjen Robben is rivalling Neymar and Messi for individual feats and the Oranje will be preying he keeps his fragile body fit.

Germany possibly look the most complete team with strength in depth and quality in all departments.

Thomas Mueller is having a fine tournament and with the likes of Goetze and Kroos around to unlock defences, they are a major force. Khedira and the returning Schweinsteiger add solidity in front of the back four.

There was much talk of Belgium before the tournament and it is hard to gauge them properly so far as their group was so benign. Tough tests away this promising side with the acid test of a potential quarter final against Argentina should they progress.

The big disappointments so far.

Spain's instant and lamentable exit was the first big story of the tournament. Reminiscent of France's defence in '02, Spain crashed out after losing their first two games to admittedly good opposition in Holland and Chile.

For several players, Casillas, Xavi and even possibly Andres Iniesta, it looked a tournament too far. The team lacked energy, cohesion and ideas and with far too many individual mistakes.

Whilst this current 'tiki taka' generation has come to an end, Spain should not panic. The likes of Thiago Alcantara and Isco still offer a bright future for the deposed World Champions.

Italy's problems look possibly a little deeper as they exited the World Cup at the group stage for the second successive time. Whilst they reached the final of the last Euros, the mantra that 'Italy always find a way' seems to now be yet another stereotype.

For England, the reality is that other than through history, population size and the strength of the Premiership, they are no longer a world football power. Their problems are deep rooted in the youth system and the lack of numbers of top quality coaches at that level.

Their players lack the ability to compete technically at this level nowadays with the likes of Costa Rica looking far more comfortable with the ball at their feet. Throw in basic issues like an inability to defend simple high balls and it is a sorry tale.

It is too easy to simply blame the Premiership (yes it doesn't help) as the reality is that the majority of teenage players that are reaching the professional clubs are already not good enough.

Major changes are required are they to regain their place at the top table. Raheem Sterling was a single bright light but unless the issue of coaching at youth level in the UK is addressed then the status quo will remain.

Whilst we are talking about the negatives it is probably appropriate to mention the biggest individual story, that of Luis Suarez's actions and his subsequent ban.

The media in the UK has deemed his punishment appropriate or even lenient. There is clearly no place for biting in any walk of life and given that he is a serial offender then it is correct to throw the proverbial book at him.

However, having spoken to some South American friends who have a keen interest in football, it is clear that the incident is viewed very differently there and their opinion is not without merit.

In 1994, Mauro Tassotti broke Luis Enrique's nose, causing him to lose a pint of blood with a wildly violent elbow to the face. He was banned for eight games.

Now whilst Suarez as mentioned is a repeat offender, his vampire like actions result in little more than flesh wounds. It is quite simply 'weird' rather than especially violent or likely to result in serious injury.

Roy Keane admitted (in his book) to pre meditatively ending Alf Inge Halaand's career with a horrendous tackle. He received a three match ban for ending the career of a fellow professional.

Now whilst not excusing any crime on the basis that 'somebody else did something worse', it does seem that Suarez has received a punishment inconsistent with other players.

I personally don't like Luis Suarez (fine player that he is) and find his behaviour distasteful but this is a person with clear problems, someone who reverts to a pattern of behaviour during times of stress. Whether it is a childhood trauma that emerges or something else, only a professional could help.

Surely the offer of a reduced ban (possibly two months) in return for him entering some kind of counselling or therapy to modify his behaviour would have been a better and more humane solution.

It's a decision that will polarise opinion. There is clearly no place in football for biting but then surely we should be just as harsh on other acts of violence that do far more to threaten the careers of other players. The debate will rumble on, Suarez will sit things out in Montevideo.

Goals, goals, goals.

Back to the happier stuff and it's been a tournament for goals and some very good ones. Arjen Robben and Van Persie have provided some crackers. Lionel Messi has provided a one man video montage but for me, the best came from Tim Cahill with a sublime volley to reel the Dutch back in temporarily.

Messi's injury time winner against Iran for me encapsulated everything that the World Cup should represent.

A wonderful performance from an underdog against one of the tournament favourites, indeed for much of the second half, Iran looked the better team.

And then, in injury time, one of the all time great players stands up to be counted cutting inside and bending a winner into the corner, queue wild celebrations from the massed Argentine fans and despair from the Iranian contingent, it's the kind of drama that only a World Cup can truly provide.

Sitting here in Singapore, one point that should be addressed is the apparent lack of progress from the Asian nations. Both South Korea and Japan had in previous tournaments looked well poised to raise the bar for the Asian associations but their challenges have faltered badly at the first hurdle.

There is much to consider as to the reasons for this and how Asia harnesses the incredible passion and numbers that it possesses for the game.

At the time of writing, we have seen Brazil and Colombia progress and there is little doubt that we are now at the sharp end of the tournament.

The goals and free flowing football may well dry up to an extent from here  but the drama will not as the pressure and tension rises. Brazil and Chile's shoot out last night was almost unbearable and that was for a neutral.

Given that the matches could come down to the finest of margins, one must hope that the likes of Robben, Neymar and Messi can step up and really make this a tournament to remember.

As far as who is my most likely winner, I am probably more confused than I was at the start. Take your pick and sit back and enjoy what has so far been the best World Cup in years - No Nonsense.