If this last week or so has been the first time that you've paid any real attention to soccer, I'm sorry. This isn't the way I would've wanted to introduce you. This last week has been underwhelming even by World Cup group stage standards. First let me explain that last part. A lot of people think that the World Cup is the best soccer in the world. It's not. The World Cup is, without a doubt, the best tournament in the world, because of the patriotism and cultural significance as well as the fact that it only happens every four years. It's like the Olympics but without all the sports that don't matter and the countries that stink. However, it's not the best example of soccer that you can see. Many of these teams that you're watching right now only get to play together a handful of times per year. Many of them were also in flux until about 3 weeks ago, when international coaches had to announce their final rosters for the tournament. They simply don't have the time to gain the chemistry that professional teams have with each other.
I'll make an American sports analogy, but it'll be an imperfect one. The Los Angeles Laker s just won the NBA championship, right? Just nod. Ok, so we assume that they are a pretty good team. They've spent countless hours running the triangle offense, figuring the tendencies of each other inside and out, and just generally gelling together as a team. Please set aside you arguments about Kobe's selfishness for a second, because whatever problems they might have, we can all agree that they know how to play together. Ok, now look at the U.S. national basketball team. We've all seen the problems they've had in the past. They won gold in Beijing, but in years previous there have been serious issues with chemistry and self-interest. They just don't play together enough (plus they're a bunch of superstars that are doing this basically as charity, in their opinion). Now, here's the wrinkle with soccer. The reason that the American basketball team would still beat the Los Angeles Lakers (let's just assume Kobe is playing on both teams) is that the American basketball team still has probably all of the top 10 NBA players on it. There are a couple of foreigners (Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili) that would be up near the top, but the American team would have a distinct advantage. Now, compare that to the top professional teams in Europe, who have great players from all over the world on their roster. Because of the international character of soccer it's almost impossible for any one national team, even Spain or Brazil or Argentina, to have more than one or two of the top 10 or 15 players in the world. So, now you're talking about a club team with the experience and chemistry of playing together year round as well as an equal, if not greater level, of talent as the best international teams.
Now that that's out of the way, I can talk about the reason why this last week was particularly bad and why you shouldn't give up hope. The group stage, particularly the first round of it, at a World Cup is always notoriously bad. Teams are terrified of losing their first game, which can, at times, effectively knock them out of the running right away. There's also the stage fright of playing for your country with the whole world watching (particularly with teams that have players not used to that kind of environment) and playing in an unfamiliar country in unfamiliar stadiums. It's like every single team (except South Africa) is the road team. All of that combines to make the early games somewhat boring, usually. It's often more of a feeling out than anything.
I want to emphasize again that the World Cup is still the best tournament in the world. It's the ultimate stage for great players to define their legacies. Despite the quality of the Champions League, the World Cup has greater passion, especially from the fans. Plus, due to the same circumstances that can sometimes lead to boring games early on, things tend to get a little crazy as the tournament progresses. There's simply no other sporting event like it.
However, this World Cup, in terms of offense, has been particularly stagnant thus far. Through the first round of games, this was the lowest-scoring World Cup in history. Why? Well, there's a lot of debate about this. Some have pointed to those annoying vuvuzelas, which are hindering communication, but you would think that would also affect the defenses. Some have pointed to the altitude, which has tended to slow down games as players tire more easily. That probably holds some merit, but at the same time, we've also watched a lot of games that have seemed to pick up near the end. It's possible players are holding back a little in the first halves of games in order to make sure they have something left for the end.
There have also been those that have pointed to the ball. This ball, as every World Cup ball has been for years, has been heavily scrutinized in the run-up to the tournament. However, most of the complaints came from goalies, who claimed that it tended to swerve and move in the air, making it difficult to catch and parry. On the contrary, it seems to be befuddling offensive players much worse than defensive players. In particular, I've noticed two problems with. First, it does appear to be very light, as many claimed going into the tournament, which has led to a lot of shots fired over the goal. When struck right, it can definitely build up a lot of speed quickly, but players seem to be struggling with staying on top of the ball. This has led to a lot of skied shots. Secondly, it also appears to play very quickly on the grass. I'm not sure whether, it's the fields or the grass, but the ball picks up an awful lot of speed on through balls and ground passes. I've lost track of how many times I've been watching a game and seen what looked like an easy pass gather velocity and skip out of bound ahead of its intended target. This has favored defenders, because it's made it difficult for midfielders and strikers to slip well-weighted passes through the tight spaces in the defense.
A lack of goals, though, shouldn't necessarily lead to bad play overall, right? After all, a game isn't good or bad based solely on the score. I've watched some fabulous games that have ended 0-0 or 1-0. Soccer isn't like football or basketball, where a fast-paced, aggressive game is inevitably going to lead to points. However, early goals do often open games up a bit. They force one team to attack in order to try to even the score, which, in turn, leaves them vulnerable to being scored on again. In group stage play, in which teams are very satisfied to play for a draw, a scoreless first half can appear very dull and lead to an equally dull second half. I don't want those who don't usually watch soccer, sitting at home going, "this is what everyone was so excited about?". Trust me, soccer enthusiasts haven't been particularly impressed either.
The good news is that things are bound to improve. As the group stage progresses, we will reach more games where one team goes into it knowing they have to win, and they'll play more aggressively. Also, offensive players will gain chemistry with teammates and play will improve, and their adjustments to the altitude will also improve. And, of course, once we get to the knockout stage, there are no more draws, so teams can't play for a tie. Plus, we get the penalty kick shootout, which is always exciting.
So buck up, things are bound to get better. Just since we began the second round of group games, we've already seen at least five quality, exciting games (Argentina-South Korea, Germany-Serbia, USA-Slovenia, Ghana-Australia, and Cameroon-Denmark at least for stretches). In the first round we saw only one or two (Germany-Australia and Chile-Honduras as well as some patches of other games). Sure, we still got some snoozers, like England-Algeria, but that was bound to happen (plus the English are just naturally bland, have you tasted the food over there?), but with much less frequency.
As for today's games, it was another tough day for the Africa squads, while the Netherlands managed another tight win.
In the early game, Netherlands defeated Japan with a second half goal from Wesley Sneijder. Despite another lackluster start and a dangerous-looking Japanese attack, the Dutch defense held tight, and they got just enough offensively to get the three points. Sneijder's goal came in the 53rd minute on a strike from the top of the 18. It was well-hit, but Japanese keeper Eiji Washima must certainly be feeling that he could've done better with a shot hit almost directly at him. Netherlands now sits alone atop Group E.
In the second Group E match, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon (my personal favorite non-USA team) saw their World Cup dreams dashed in a 2-1 loss to Denmark. Despite Cameroon taking an early lead on a 10th minute goal from Samuel Eto'o, the Danish continued to battle back and were rewarded with a tying goal in the 33rd minute and the game winner in the 61st. Cameroon put on a clinic in how not to finish your chances and also showed a bit of selfishness in the final third by often taking shots too early instead of looking to make the final pass. Cameroon was eliminated by their second straight loss. Japan and Denmark are knotted up with 3 pts. apiece, and Netherlands is already guaranteed a place in the next round.
For the second straight match, Australia was forced to play much of the game down a man after Harry Kewell was sent off. Australia took the lead early in the 11th minute when Ghana's keeper Richard Kingson fumbled a free kick that allowed Brett Holman to score. However, Kewell was penalized in the 25th minute for using his arm to block Jonathan Mensa's shot that was destined for the left corner of the net. It was a double blow for the Socceroos as Kewell was shown the red for stopping the goal, and then Ghana tied the score after Asamoah Gyan buried the resulting penalty kick. However, the perpetually-shorthanded Australians must be feeling some sense of pride after holding off a surging Ghanaian side for the entire second half and holding on for the 1-1 draw. For their part, Ghana will also have mixed emotions, since the tie, combined with Germany's loss to Serbia yesterday, gave Ghana the lead in Group D. However, they must be disappointed not to have taken advantage of their man advantage to get all three points. All four teams are still alive in Group D. Ghana has six points, Germany and Serbia have three, and Australia has one.