Connect to share and comment
The backdrop of South Africa promises to be colorful, but the footwork on the field may leave a bit to be desired.
BOSTON — With the last six spots in World Cup 2010 up for grabs on Wednesday, organizers can return to worrying about all the daunting challenges that remain in South Africa.
Can they keep the unions happy and on the job for eight months? Will all the stadiums be finished in time? Can South Africa provide adequate security in what is essentially a 10-ring, moving circus? Will tourists be deterred by the sour economy and high crime rates? Can the transportation network meet unprecedented demand? And can the host nation find a diplomatic solution to those nails-on-a-blackboard vuvuzela horns that threatened to mar the worldwide TV feeds?
But along with all those concerns, there remains one quadrennial problem that haunts most every World Cup and that, in the minds of fans, is paramount. And it is one that both South Africa and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, appear helpless to combat: bad soccer.
If we needed a reminder that the World Cup too often proves a disappointment, at least in terms of the artistry of the games, we got several this past weekend. A dozen top national teams — meeting in two-game playoffs for World Cup berths — managed to score a grand total of seven goals between them. Other than Russia’s 2-1 victory over Slovenia in Moscow, there were four 1-0 games and one 0-0 slog.
The latter was in Athens, where Greece appears more than happy to play 210 minutes of stultifying, defensive soccer against Ukraine in order to take their chances in the penalty shootout. And why shouldn’t it? Ugly, fan-unfriendly, all-defense-all-the-time tactics has proved to be an effective way for less gifted teams to compete and, in fact, took Greece all the way to a stunning European crown as recently as 2004.
Even teams with reputations for offensive creativity, like Portugal and France, appeared delighted to walk off with 1-0 victory matches. Contrast these World Cup qualifying results with recent Champions League games featuring the best club teams in Europe. In 32 Champions game over the past month, the teams have averaged three goals a game or just about exactly three times the scoring that was mustered over the weekend.
Club teams have the advantage of playing and practicing together more frequently and, thus, are often able to showcase more cohesive attacks. Still, this World Cup scoring drought is not about practice time. Rather it is about coaches whose pusillanimous approaches reflect all their fears and insecurities. (Admittedly not without justification, given the fragile hold national team coaches have on their jobs.)
As a result, they opt for the conservative course, which means trying, above all, to avoid mistakes. Attacking football is a fan-pleaser and can be a game-winner, but its inevitable byproduct is risk — that the weaker team will score against the run of play. The bigger the stakes, the more constricted the play. Fans' aesthetic grievances are easily dismissed in victory.