22 June 2014

WC Diary 5: Choosing Potential Champions

The Synergy of Los Ticos

Synergy. The whole is greater than the sum of all the parts. To my mind, no other word can accurately capture Costa Rica’s sensational run in the 2014 World Cup. I will be honest and admit that I thought their 3-1 opening game victory over Uruguay was a one-off, a flash in the pan that they would not be able to replicate against the wily Italians.

Bryan Ruiz’s late first half goal ensured that the fairytale run continues; and in a group that contains three former world champions, the unfancied rank outsiders are the first to qualify for the Round of 16.

Perhaps the eccentric Mario Balotelli could have done so much better than his Dios-ko-‘day lob earlier in the first half, a chance that my cat would have effortlessly scored. And I do not even own a cat.

But that is what football is all about. It is about what you do with the chances that come your way, pretty much like what happens in life. Did I not say before that football is a microcosm of life itself?


Finally to Group G, where the Germans and the Americans both have 4 points and face each other on the last round of matches. A draw sends both teams through; and the situation reminds me of that shameful 1982 World Cup encounter when the Germans connived with the Austrians to keep out the Algerians. I hope not.
Excepting Joel Campbell – who is already in the books of Arsenal but loaned out to Olympiakos last season – none of Costa Rica’s players will be high in the wish list of the world’s biggest clubs. That is just the euphemistic way of saying that they are not among this World Cup’s most skilful players.

But the way with which they approach their matches has been the World Cup’s breath of fresh air. A tad naïve, perhaps, at times; but filled with so much collective desire, industry, fervour and passion.

I do not think that any other team – with the exception of Mexico and Chile – has worked harder than Los Ticos on the pitch. They play for and with each other, in a way the loudly declares to all and sundry that football is really less for the self and more for the team.

Time and again as Bosnia-Herzegovina chased a losing cause against Nigeria, their players went for glory in goalscoring situations rather than find better placed teammates with intelligent passes. I could not help but wonder what they could have achieved with just a bit of Los Ticos’ work and team ethic.

Now that Costa Rica have captured my imagination, how I wish that they will go far in this tournament. Unfortunately – and I may be wrong – I believe that they will eventually be found out; and if I am being honest, I think that they have outdone themselves already as things stand.

They had to play above themselves to upset both Italy and Uruguay; and there will doubtless be a price to pay for all the gung-ho running that they had to do to pull off these two sensational results. That said, because they have already exceeded even their very own expectations, they do not have to win the Jules Rimet trophy to become the World Cup’s success story.

Choosing Potential Champions

With the possible exception of the 1994 World Cup in the United States, since 1970 the world champions rather tended to be not the teams that played flowing and expansive football but rather those that gave away little at the back. Which makes choosing the potential champions difficult for the World Cup in Brazil because only Mexico and Nigeria have not leaked goals.

The problem with the Nigerians is that they offer little going forward; and while the Mexicans have looked lively at both ends of the pitch, their hard-pressing approach makes one suspect that – like Chile and Costa Rica – they will burn themselves out as the tournament progresses.

On current form, the French look, as Robert Palmer once sang, simply irresistible. The two late goals conceded to the Swiss notwithstanding, they have really looked compact at the back. More importantly, they counterattack not only with fizz but also with style. It has to be said, though, that the French have also enjoyed the advantage of a relatively light group.

Argentina have been among the tournament’s bore team, but they have still got to be among the tournament favourites. Not only are all champion teams built around at least one charismatic player – and in Lionel Messi they have one of the modern game’s most inspirational – but they have not gotten out of first gear and still qualified for the next round, albeit unconvincingly.

In contrast, most of the other big teams have been pacing themselves but with moderate or little success. Italy tried to walk Los Ticos into a stupor and for their efforts ended up with an embarrassing defeat. The Germans looked sharp against Portugal; but looked slow and vulnerable in the 2-all draw against Ghana.

You will have to be stark raving mad not to consider the hosts Brazil as potential champions; and while not wholly convincing, they have not been a dud either. My concern about Brazil is that they are not enjoying this World Cup at all.

Look at the faces of the players when the cameras zoom in. They have the look almost of fear. The weight of an entire nation’s expectations must be heavy on the shoulders. If the Brazilians can start to enjoy themselves, maybe they can finally rectify that horror of losing out to Uruguay in 1950.

Split Personalities

This World Cup has shown us how much a team can change from one game to the other. The Socceroos looked bewildered and overawed in their opening day loss to Chile, but made the Dutch look ordinary in the next game. Were they a bit more clinical in front of goal, the Dutch would have really been embarrassed.

Honduras were extremely negative against the French in their opening game, preferring to play in a manner more fitting for a mixed martial arts competition. Against Ecuador, they showed that they could actually play.

Despite taking the lead against Côte d’Ivoire in their opening game, the Japanese also lacked a sense of adventure and stayed back for most of the match. Against Greece in their second match, they showed that they could play attractive football. Unfortunately, they could not break down the resolute Greeks, who were reduced to ten men.

Finally to the hard luck Americans, who were through to the next round until Varela equalised for Portugal with what was virtually the last touch of the game. I did not think, based on their opening day win over Ghana, that they had it in them to even trouble the Portuguese.

But the Americans played controlled football and were excellent in both ends of the field, in contrast to their opening game when they were often devoid of ambition despite eventually winning. They would have been good value for a win; but Varela’s party spoiler brought back to mind the late Brian Clough’s wise old words about it only taking one second to score a goal.

As It Stands

Cameroon are the only nation out of contention in Group A, so everything is to play for on the last day of group matches between Brazil and Mexico – who both have 4 points – and Croatia – who have 3. Croatia v Mexico is huge!

Both the Netherlands and Chile have qualified from Group B, so their final encounter decides who finishes top of the group. The group winner meets the runners-up of Group A in the Round of 16; while the runners-up square up against the top team of the same group.

Colombia have already qualified from Group C; so the remaining slot is to be contested by Côte d’Ivoire, Japan and Greece. Japan will hope that Colombia will be generous since they have already qualified, but Côte d’Ivoire probably have enough to overcome the Greeks, anyway.

In Group D, Los Ticos have already qualified and the English have already booked their tickets for the flight back home. This leaves Uruguay and Italy to contest the group’s second slot in a game that is difficult to call because the two teams are well-matched. A draw benefits the Italians, who have the slightly better goal difference.

France have already qualified from Group E, so the second slot is a toss up between Ecuador and Switzerland. The Swiss have the slightly easier final match against the Hondurans. On the other hand, the French may take their feet from off the gas pedal; and this can benefit the Ecuadorians.

In Group F, Argentina are through while Nigeria are well-placed to follow them with 4 points. Iran have a mathematical chance of sneaking through if Argentina defeat Nigeria and they score a bagful of goals against Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Finally to Group G, where the Germans and the Americans both have 4 points and face each other on the last round of matches. A draw sends both teams through; and the situation reminds me of that shameful 1982 World Cup encounter when the Germans connived with the Austrians to keep out the Algerians. I hope not.


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RELATED STORIES:
WC Diary 4: Adios España! End of the Line for the Golden Generation?
WC Diary 3: The Climate, the Asians, the Germans, the Americans and the Thugs

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