Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup Thoughts


South America Shows Off

Well, the first round is over after 48 games in 15 days. It was a fascinating ride with the world watching. Both Korea and Japan advanced which puts Asian soccer firmly above that in Africa for the time being, especially given the tournament's location. But the big winners are the South American squads, who went a combined 10-1-4 and had all 5 participants advance to the knockout stage.

Europe saw only 6 of their 13 nations go through with a combined record of 10-9-10 against other confederations. I wonder if the higher altitudes had anything to do with that. South American teams have the natural advantage of playing at higher altitudes, so their bodies are used to the reduced oxygen levels. Other teams spent their training periods in higher altitude locations (Japan used an alpine training camp in Switzerland for example) but it still takes time to become fully acclimated. As time passes, the other teams should get used to the conditions, but the advantage is still there.

Both Asian teams play South American sides in the round of 16. Paraguay and Japan will play in Pretoria which is 1200 metres above sea level so there may be some advantage for Paraguay there. In the case of Korea vs Uruguay, the game is at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium which is near sea level, so the potential Uruguayan advantage is negated.

Goal Scoring

The first 16 games saw only 25 goals scored and pundits decried the defensive game. But the World Cup usually starts slowly as teams need time to get a feeling for themselves. The second and third rounds were superb with 76 goals in the 32 games. Slovakia's seeing off of Italy in a 3-2 thriller and Japan using two phenomenal free kicks to advance past Denmark were the highlights for me. The biggest disappointment was Brazil and Portugal playing to a stale 0-0 draw that sees both through.

Overall, there were 6 scoreless draws in the first round and another 13 1-0 games. But out of the 96 teams that were fielded (2 per game), 61 scored at least a goal, which is not a bad showing.

Problems

Some say the biggest problem with the games so far has been the officiating. It's true that yellow cards were handed out with abandon and there were several controversial calls that led to widespread complaints. This is nothing new; FIFA has a policy to use referees from each confederation and the standards are obviously inconsistent. I think the main reason that the refs have seen such bad press is that the US were victims of a phantom foul call that cost them a goal and a win against Slovenia (in reality, giving up 2 first-half markers denied the Yanks the win). But the American sportswriters vented against the easy target of the ref and poor decisions became the storyline. But after 48 games, I think the number of horrible calls wasn't that large and overall the refereeing wasn't that bad (think back to the Italy Korea game in 2002).

Rather, I think the largest concern here is the playacting by the athletes, who when touched lightly by an opponent, fall dramatically to the ground and writhe as if they have been shot. The ref is often guilted into giving a card despite having not seen the infraction (how could he when there wasn't one?!). The shamelessness of such behaviour should be challenged by FIFA and players who are found to be guilty after the fact should be punished. It really brings soccer down a few notches when players behave like little children.

The vuvuzelas also have received some bad reviews. Yeah, they are annoying, but banning them is not an option. It's part of the game there and it would smack of colonial attitudes to hold the tournament there and then tell the fans to keep their horns at home.

The Knockout Stage

Now we have 8 games in 4 days before a breather. According to the FIFA Rankings we can expect the US and Brazil in one semi-final and Germany against Spain in the other. But these rankings are pretty useless, as 45th-ranked Japan beat #19 Cameroon and #36 Denmark among other "upsets".

Looking at the draw and sticking with the South American superiority theme, Argentina and Brazil look good as the finalists. But if defense wins championships, look for Uruguay and Portugal, neither of whom conceded a goal in the first round.

But a more detailed analysis that includes the altitude of the stadiums shows that the Netherlands has a good chance as their first 3 matches (should they continue to win) would be at sea level. In fact, out of the 16 matches, 7 will take place at these low-altitude venues, so much of the advantage will be lost.

What do I think? I like Argentina's enthusiasm and their crazy coach Maradona in one half. In the other I'll pick against Brazil after their poor showing last night and say the Netherlands will take it given the above. I am usually quite wrong on these, but it's fun to guess.

I won't be making any updates in the next four days as I'll be watching soccer or sleeping, but check back on Wednesday for thoughts on the round of 16.

Hope you all are enjoying the tournament!

Best,

Sean

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