Saturday, June 24, 2006

World Cup: a recap and a look ahead

The group stage of the World Cup is over so it's time for some analysis. Before the Cup, here were my predictions.

WINNER: I predicted Argentina (alternatives: Brazil and Germany). Argentina looked fantastic against Serbia & Montenegro, embarassing the Balkan side 6-0. They also won the match of the tournament, best Ivory Coast 1-0. But they looked flat and uninterested in a dull 0-0 draw with Holland. Brazil has looked uninspiring, except for the 2nd half of their 4-1 thrashing of Japan. The Selaçao look overreliant on individual flair, in contrast to the excellent cohesion of their great South American rivals. Germany are one of the shocks of the tournament. Not for the results, which were expected, but because they are playing exciting, attacking soccer for the first time in anyone's memory. Verdict: Argentina and Germany are still good bets to win but they would face each other in the quarterfinal. Brazil look uninspiring but of all the teams that have looked good so far, only Spain is in Brazil's half of the draw. I'll go out on a limb and predict a Germany-Spain final.

SURPRISE: I predicted Costa Rica (alternatives: Angola or Ivory Coast). Costa Rica flattered to deceive in picking apart the Germany defense in the opener. Ivory Coast played far and away the best soccer of any team that was eliminated in the first round, but a brutal group against two of the best teams in the world killed them. Verdict: The obvious surprise of the tournament is Ghana. Everyone thought that Italy and the Czechs, or possibly one of those two and the US, would get through the group. But Ghana's thrashing of #2 in the world Czech Republic and their controversial win over an uninspired US side saw them advance to the next round. They will have a hard time getting beyond the Round of 16, where they'll play Brazil... especially with their top player suspended. But Ghana deserves serious props for the way they played. Australia's Socceroos have also earned itself many fans.

DISAPPOINTMENT: I predicted Brazil (alternatives: England and Mexico). I've already commented on Brazil. England and Mexico have looked extremely uninspiring. England boss Sven Goran Eriksson has made some of the most bizarre decisions this side of Bruce Arena. But both sides have gotten the necessary results. Verdict: Aside from the US, the biggest disappointments have to be the Czech Republic and France.

STRANGEST MATCH FOR WHAT'S HAPPENING OFF THE PITCH: I predicted Serbia & Montenegro vs Ivory Coast. This also turned out to be one of the strangest matches on the pitch as well. Some really bizarre refereeing decisions, a boatload of yellow and red cards. Also, Ivory Coast became the first team in 36 years to win a World Cup game after being down 0-2.

SLIPPERY SLOPE: I wonder what's going on with the field surfaces. It seems every game you see lots of players slipping. Far more than you're used to seeing in big time matches. It's happened to every team in every stadium.

THE ETERNAL REFEREE CONTROVERSY: The officiating has been bizarre. The US was certainly on the wrong end of controversial decisions in their last two matches (though it's worth noting the US benefited from a couple of controversial decisions during their 2002 quarterfinal run and that the US didn't play well enough to mourn its departure anyway). But it goes well beyond a few calls against one team.

You had Graham Poll, one of the best referees in the world, fail to send off a Croatia player who received two yellow cards. The player wasn't expelled until he received a third card, thus becoming the first player in World Cup history to receive a trio of cautions in one game. You also had a Uruguyan referee who was suspended by his domestic federation for "corruption" but was somehow deemed worthy enough to officiate the world's top soccer tournament.

EUROPEAN GROUP WINNERS STRUGGLE: Many have concluded from this tournament, that the US is hurt by playing almost all of its competitive matches in a relatively weak CONCACAF. That is certainly true. Though there is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in there. Because CONCACAF is viewed as weak, CONCACAF teams get tougher draws than European teams. Because they get tougher matches, they do less well. (Incidentally, why did Mexico get a seeding for the Cup and a much easier draw even though they were behind the US by any objective measure you could use?).

But what about European teams?

Ukraine won their qualifying group but somehow managed to get annhiliated 4-0 by Spain at the World Cup (though they advanced thanks to an undeserved 1-0 win vs Tunisia). I'm sorry but any team that loses 4-0 at the World Cup doesn't deserve to advance.

Serbia and Montenegro won their European qualifying group, going undefeated as well. They allowed only 1 goal in 10 qualifiers. But at the World Cup, they conceded 6 to Argentina and 3 to Ivory Coast. I'm sorry but any team that loses 6-0 at the World Cup didn't deserve to be there in the first place. Even if they come from Europe!

No CONCACAF team lost as badly as either of these European group winners.

Croatia was another European group winner to go home without winning a game.

Trinidad and Tobago, who actually played worse throughout most of CONCACAF final round qualifying than the two teams who didn't make it to Germany, actually got a result... something that undefeated European group winners Serbia and Montenegro can't say. And T&T never lost 0-6.

Even Australia, from the even more maligned Oceania region, acquitted itself better than almost half the European qualifying group winners.

I'd like to see Croatia try to get a result in Costa Rica's Saprissa Stadium or Mexico City's Azteca. I bet it's a bit harder than Reykjavik or Valetta or any other team in their qualifying group, for that matter. In CONCACAF final round qualifying, there are no world beaters, but there are no guaranteed results either.

YELLOW CARDS FOR SNEEZING: The worst part of this World Cup has been the referees giving cards out like a clown handing out candy. While this hasn't been a particularly violent World Cup, almost 69 percent of games (33 of 48) have seen at least five cards issued. 8 or more cards have been shown in an astonishing 9 games, almost 1 match out of every 5. A trio of games have seen multiple red cards. The result is that countless players have been or will be suspended for a game for yellow card accumulation, including such 'goons' as Zinedine Zidane (otherwise known as the best and most graceful player of the last 15 years).

I'm all in favor of cracking down on malicious and unnecessarily violent conduct. Unlike the English, I enjoy watching skill more than brute force. I don't agree with those who think that referees should not blow their whistle lest they 'ruin the game'; those players who treat soccer like rugby are the real ones who ruin the game. But this is getting ridiculous. Referees are treating almost every single foul as a bookable offense.

Except shirt pulling of course.

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