20 June 2014

WC Diary 4: Adios España! End of the Line for the Golden Generation?

Raise your hand if you saw that coming! Because I certainly did not! Chile 2 Spain 0 meant that the Spaniards have been dumped out of the World Cup at only the second round of group matches; and now hold the dubious distinction of being the first defending champions to ever lose their first two group matches.

The ridicule and criticism of the Spaniards on social media after their unceremonious exit can be seen as either harsh or deserved, depending on one’s point of view.

On the one hand, it is now three of the last four World Cups when the defending champions have failed to even get out of their qualifying groups: France (2002), Italy (2010) and Spain (2014). This is indicative of two things: first, how formidably strong the field has become; and second, that there is more pressure now than there used to be on the defending champions to retain their titles.

But on the other hand, it can also be said that Spain shot themselves in the foot and, thus, thoroughly deserve the early vacation. In the first quarter of an hour of the match against Chile, the tiki-taka passing was decidedly messy by Spain’s own impeccable standards.


It will be a while before the conveyor line empties; but Vicente del Bosque – if he is not sacked – will have to find a way to ease out some of the deadwood so that the hungry young talent can start to gain experience in time for the European Championships of 2016.
Eduardo Vargas’ opening goal, as a matter of fact, was off a rapid counterattack by the Chileans after the Spaniards had carelessly given the ball away in midfield. Charles Aranguiz’s second and deflating goal, meanwhile, was another for the soon-to-be-produced Iker Casillas compilation of goalkeeping howlers.

How much easier was it to have swatted the freekick to the side and away from danger, as opposed to back to the crowd of players any one of whom could have taken a swing and hoped for the best? Replays show, in fact, that Aranguiz toe-poked the ball in haste when he scored; and whether the trajectory of the ball was intended or not is really not relevant anymore.

Ageing players or not, Spain continue to be a force going forward. Against Chile, it was the casualness of the defending that led to their downfall. A few of my former players, in discussions of the opening game rout against the Dutch, pointed at the loss of Puyol as the singular reason for why the Spanish defence has been at sixes and sevens.

I was not prepared to argue the point, much as I disliked Puyol’s long out-of-fashion mop of hair. However, I think Spain’s defensive problems go deeper than the mere loss of one ageing player.

The tiki-taka is a Spanish modification of the Dutch pressing football of the seventies; and for the Spaniards to be able to tiki and taka, they have to get the ball back quickly when possession is lost.

How the Chileans chased and harried the Spaniards was exactly how the Spaniards themselves asphyxiated their opponents on the way to retaining their European title in 2012; and the Chileans are not even anywhere near the class of the Spaniards in terms of keeping the ball when possession is regained. Two years later and the Spaniards have looked tired; lazy even.

A lot is being said about the coming and going of Spain’s supposed golden generation. I do not really think that there is a going just yet. European youth national team coaches are well aware of how the Spaniards have dominated continental youth tournaments in the last few years. Not to mention figured prominently in world youth competitions as well.

It will be a while before the conveyor line empties; but Vicente del Bosque – if he is not sacked – will have to find a way to ease out some of the deadwood so that the hungry young talent can start to gain experience in time for the European Championships of 2016.

Best Goals

There are goals; and there are also goals that you will remember for the rest of your life. The only match that I have failed to watch of this World Cup so far was the Group C first round encounter between the Colombians and the Greeks, which the former convincingly won by 3-nil.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the pace at which most matches have been played; and a few of the goals were wonderful to behold. Robin van Persie’s diving header to equalise against Spain will doubtless be many people’s choice as goal of the tournament so far; and to be fair, the effort was quite a spectacle.

My personal favourite, however, will just have to be Tim Cahill’s volleyed missile against the Dutch in the second round of matches. Arjen Robben had just put the Dutch ahead somewhat against the run of play in the 20th minute, but Cahill replied inside a minute with a goal that I will probably remember for the rest of my life.

A long diagonal ball was delivered from the right which Cahill, who was running inside the box just outside of the far post, met with a full-blooded left-footed volley that rocketed into the roof of the net. The Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillesen never saw it coming!

I was instantly reminded of the famous goal that Marco van Basten scored for the Netherlands in the final of the 1988 European Championships against the Soviet Union. Cahill’s was the opposite flank and van Basten’s had a slightly more acute angle.

That said, it was every bit as well struck and just as tantalising to watch, definitely one for the compilation videos. Anybody who has never touched a football will never know how difficult the volley is to perfect, let alone when the ball is crossed from distance and when one is closely being attended to by an opposing defender.

Speaking of the Dutch, I thought they were extremely lucky to have come away with a high-score win over the Spaniards; and frankly, I thought the 5-1 scoreline flattered them. The Socceroos, who rolled over for all intents and purposes in their opening game against Chile, surprisingly made the Dutch look very ordinary indeed when the two sides met in Porto Alegre.

I felt that if Australia had a bit more conviction in front of goal – they missed one or two sitting ducks – the Dutch would been at the receiving end of an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the rank outsiders from Down Undah.

The Stupids

We all know that football is an emotional game; but we can all still be forgiven for thinking that highly-paid professionals, who play week in and week out, would have all learned not to let their brains be overruled by their hearts when on the pitch.

But apparently not; and although this World Cup has provided unbelievable entertainment, it has also supplied instances of abject and utterly unforgivable stupidity.

I thought Pepe’s head-butting of Germany’s Thomas Müller in Portugal’s 0-4 defeat by the Germans would be pretty hard to dislodge from the top of the stupids list; but Cameroon’s Alex Song – who plays for Barcelona – apparently wanted the dishonour for himself and made plans to dislodge Pepe.

This was during Cameroon’s encounter with Croatia, which they were losing, when Song committed the foul and got his marching orders. Song wins top spot because a) it was an off-the-ball incident which totally had no relevance to the match; b) the Portuguese referee was just a few yards away and had full view of the incident; and c) he was attempting to plant an elbow on Mario Mandžukić’s back and apparently did not even make solid contact.

Perhaps just as stupid but probably more bizarre was another incident that happened in the same match. Benoit Assou-Ekotto squared up to Benjamin Moukandjo in anger and even appeared to slightly head-butt the latter. The problem? The two are both Cameroonians.

But this was beyond merely bizarre and stupid – it was disgraceful! I can understand the frustration especially as Cameroon were losing at that stage of the match; but seriously boys, could you not have taken it inside?

Oh England!

They are already promising to be this World Cup’s real hard-luck story. The English, I mean. Twice, they played well enough to have won; and twice they did not. Against both Italy and Uruguay, the English conceded at a time when they were playing reasonably well; fought back to equalise; then conceded a second goal to eventually lose.

Against Uruguay, Wayne Rooney alone could have single-handedly won the game for England; but that has been the story of England’s World Cup campaign. A healthy dose of bad luck, poor finishing, individual errors and jittery defending. To think that this World Cup is the one occasion when I am actually starting to like Rooney because he has been combining well with the Liverpool lads. I cannot say the same for Danny Welbeck; and I do not even know why he gets chosen.

The English, of all teams, ought to know how dangerous Luis Suarez can be; and it goes without saying that the English also ought to know how to deal with him because he plays in the Premier League. They do not, apparently; and two Suarez goals sent the English to the brink of being eliminated. In all fairness, some say it is impossible to defend against Suarez.

However, the Mathematics of Group G is really quite curious to consider. Although the English have yet to win a game, they actually still have an actual if outside chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. Costa Rica arguably outdid themselves in upsetting Uruguay; and assuming that the Italians defeat them tonight, then the situation really becomes interesting.

It will leave Italy with full points; Uruguay and Costa Rica both with three; and England with none. If the Italians defeat Uruguay in the last round of group matches, and if England can score a bagful of goals against Costa Rica, strange as it may sound but the English will qualify.

Goal difference, needless to say, will be decisive. At the moment, Costa Rica has +2 although they still have to play their second group game. Uruguay has -1 while England are only at -2. As an England fan, I have learned over the years never to expect miracles. That said, I am not about to throw in the towel just yet.

Of course, by the time most of you will read this, the Italy-Costa Rica game is over and you will all know that everything I wrote here has been nothing but wishful thinking.

Just a bit of trivia about the England-Uruguay game, there was a total of eight Liverpool players involved. Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Glen Johnson all started for England; while Suarez started for Uruguay. Rickie Lambert came on as substitute for England; while Sebastian Coates did the same for Uruguay.

Of Shirts and Shoes

The tight baktong shirts – and do not tell me that you do not know what baktong means – has made the 2014 World Cup the tournament of macho men, if the bulging chests and the six-packs mean anything at all. Strange as it may now seem, but such well-moulded physiques were not always looked upon as necessary or even beneficial.

Sports medicine and better understanding of how the body works eventually showed it at something of a folly, but in the old days, it was – erroneously – believed that upper body musculature was detrimental to flexibility. Then, flexibility was deemed more beneficial than upper body strength; and so weight training drills, if at all, were more for the lower limbs.

Take the sensational Dutch team of the 1974 World Cup with their imaginative brand of pressing football. With their flowing locks – as was the fashion of the era – when the Dutch took off their shirts at the end of the match, they looked less like athletes and more like men who had been snorting some really strong stuff.

When Diego Maradona was first becoming known in the football world, he was becoming notable for his stocky built as much as for his footballing skills; and indeed, he did not appear at all like the archetypal leggy and graceful football player. In fact, physically, he was the direct antithesis of Johan Cruyff, the player who before Maradona was generally believed to be the best in the world.

In the 1986 World Cup, West Germany also had this muscular player named Hans Peter Briegel, who at least was tall unlike Maradona. His musculature was such that most commentators felt that they had to comment on it since it was just not normal for the era. Of course, in the 2014 World Cup, the type of musculature that Maradona and Briegel had has become the norm; and even the leaner players are not skinny at all.

While we are on the matter of nostalgia, I so pine for the sensible black football boots of yore! Have you all seen the latest Puma boots that some players are wearing in the World Cup? I am not even sure that you can call the boots a ‘pair’ since one is blue and the other is pink. Pink!!!

Yellow boots! Orange boots! Chequered boots! I used to dislike white boots, too; but at least white – like black – is a neutral colour and can blend well with any other colour. And that is my issue with the other multi-coloured boots because they do not always blend well with the colours of the uniforms!

But pink!!!??? Pink!!!

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