2006 World Cup recap: analysisThe 2006 World Cup ended in fantastic fashion with the Italians lifting their fourth world championship. I would've given anything to have watched the match in Rome or Naples or even in Montreal's Little Italy, where I'd hoped to be.
But the match was fantastic only if you're an Italian fan, like myself. If you're a neutral, then it was a fairly disappointing match. Since I started watching World Cups in 1990, I haven't seen a single final match that was good. Yesterday's fairly disappointing game was far better than any of the other four I've seen; at least both teams scored... something which hadn't happened in a final in 20 years.
The final was marred by two events. One was the penalty shootout, which decided the champion. As an Italian fan, I was thrilled the Azzurri won... especially since I suffered with them through penalty heartbreak in three successive World Cups ('90, '94 and '98). But winning by penalty shootout is a little bit anti-climatic. Surprisingly, I was more joyous after Italy's late pair of goals won the semifinal. I've always said that the penalty shootout should be eliminated. Play golden goal (sudden death overtime) until someone scores. End of story. A penalty shootout is no way to determine a world champion.
The main event that stole headlines in the final was the red card handed to French legend Zinedine Zidane, who was appearing in his last professional soccer match. He inexplicably headbutted Italian Marco Materazzi in the chest. It has been reported that Materazzi provoked Zidane by allegedly* calling him 'a dirty terrorist.' Zidane is Muslim and of Algerian descent.
As I've written before, racism is a serious problem in too many soccer grounds in continental Europe, particularly southern and eastern. The plague has been effectively tackled by soccer authorities in England, which proves that the problem can be dealt with if the will is there. Assuing the accusations against the Italian are true, hopefully the shared shame of the Zidane-Materazzi incident will provoke European authorities to crack down on xenophobia on and off the pitch. I won't hold my breath.
Yet the fairly disappointing final was an appropriate end to a fairly disappointing tournament. The Azzurri were clearly the most consistent team in a Cup where most of the heavyweights were very erratic. Besides Italy, only Germany regularly played anything close to world class soccer.
This World Cup seems to continue a trend. The last World Cup held in Europe, France '98, was fairly disappointing. The previous one in Europe, Italy '90, was so negative that it prompted the international soccer federation (FIFA) to change the rules! By constrast, the last three World Cups held outside Europe (Korea/Japan '02, USA '94 and Mexico '86) featured lots of goals and some breathtaking soccer, especially in the latter two. Thank goodness FIFA will start rotating World Cups among the six soccer-playing continents so half of the tournaments aren't European snoozefests.
The tournament was dominated by two big stories, both negative: officiating and diving.
I wrote earlier about the flood of red and yellow cards. According to the laws of the game, players should only be shown yellow cards if they are 'guilty of unsporting behavior' or of a handful of other specific actions. However, during this tournament, it seemed like nearly every foul was considered 'unsporting conduct.' The yellow card's deterrent effect was devalued by its frequency. And too many players missed games because of suspensions induced by dubious yellow cards.
What's most interesting is that the semifinals and final were very well officiated. Cards were reserved for more serious play, as they should be. The games were decided by the teams, not the man in the middle. Also as they should be.
Yet the flood of cards did not prevent the tournament's other biggest talking point: diving. But that's a topic for my next entry.
Some have argued that the quality of World Cup matches is not what they used to be. These are usually Europeans and they typically attribute this to the expansion of the tournament from 24 to 32 teams which allowed in several more smaller (read: non-European) soccer nations. I disagree. After all, with the notably exceptions of Argentina and Germany, even the 'superpowers' of soccer were produced mostly uninspiring stuff. Brazil was a motley collection of talented individuals. Italy, though more attacking than usual, was its typical efficient self. Portugal did too but that was marred by diving and incessant whining. Spain had potential but choked as usual.
I'm sorry but 'minnows' like Ivory Coast and Ghana produced more consistently compelling soccer than anything offered by 'big' teams like England and France. But neither of the 'minnows' made it past the second round, while drab Ukraine and dirtycheatingportugal (TM) both made it further. This demonstrates how the modern game doesn't reward positive soccer.
I think the quality of the World Cup appears to be going down for two reasons. One is the interminable demands on top players. Most of the top players have been playing competitive matches almost non-stop for eleven months. Longer if you count last summer's pre-season training. Top clubs typically play at least 50 competitive matches in a season, plus pre- and in-season friendlies (exhibitions) plus the long foreign tours they all seem to take. As soon as the club season was over in mid-May, players went immediately into training camps with their national teams. Players are humans, not machines.
The other reason the quality of the World Cup appears to be going down is down to perception. In the past, the World Cup was essentially the showpiece of the best players in the world. But now, the best players in the world tend to be concentrated in top European clubs. And while clubs train together for ten months out of the year or more, national teams are only together for a few weeks before the World Cup. Is it any surprise that national teams don't mesh nearly as well as club teams, despite the presence of top players on both? Let's face it, FC Barcelona was better than any national team at this tournament. The showpiece to watch if you want to see the best soccer is no longer the World Cup, but the European Champions League.
And since the Champions League gets huge television exposure as well, the World Cup seems to pale in comparison, at least in terms of the quality of the soccer. The sport isn't stagnant at all levels. The malaise is mainly at the international level.
For this, I propose pushing back the World Cup a month. So that the Cup is primarily in the month of July, instead of June. Make it so that the World Cup is at the BEGINNING of the European season (where most of the top players play) not at the end. This would give players a few weeks of rest before WC training camp and hopefully we'd see fresher legs and minds.
A game without mistakes is pretty boring to watch. People remember the 'golden era' of soccer. And when they do, it's not bone crunching defenders they remember, it's the brilliance of Pele, the brashness of Maradona, the grace of Beckenbauer. There have to be ways to reward risk taking soccer. Knockout round games must be played until someone scores (unlimited golden goal). The present system (30 automatic minute of extra time and then a penalty shootout) encourages tired teams to sit back and play for penalties. 6 games this tournament went to extra time; in only two of them did someone score. With extra time until someone scores, teams are forced to attack at some point.
As good as this would be, such a change would only affect a handful of games. There have to be other ways to encourage attacking soccer. I'm not talking about gimmicks like expanding the size of the goals. People don't need to see 6-5 games to enjoy soccer. But they do want to see a good scoring chance more than once every 20 minutes. Some have treating a 0-0 game the same as a loss for both teams; the premise being you are not rewarded in the standings if you don't score. Others have suggested awarding four points for a win, instead of the current three. I'm not endorsing or rejecting either of these ideas, but they're worth considering. If anyone has any ideas on how to encourage attacking soccer within the fundamental context of the game, please share them.
Tommorrow: The diving epidemic and how to deal with it. It's not exactly what you think!
*-Update: It looks like the 'dirty terrorist' reports were erroneous. Zidane claims that Materazzi insulted his mother and sister.