Tuesday, 13 July 2010

World Cup 2010 - it had the fans, the passion, and the enthusiasm, but where was the football?

The 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa twenty years since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, has been a huge success for both the country and the continent alike. It has put South Africa on the map, and demonstrated the nation's capability to rise to the challenge of hosting such a prestigious sporting event. The South African organisers deserve huge credit for putting on this World Cup in such an impeccable manner. Whilst I don't agree with the manner in which FIFA has gone about this tournament, by depriving the local community of the opportunities they both expected and deserved from the World Cup, the organisation has been excellent. There have been very few incidents of violence, fans have mixed with each other, and despite a number of issues concerning price and availability of accommodation, that are commonplace at many tournaments, there are very few problems one can lay at the door of the South African organisers. More importantly however, the World Cup has brought South Africans together, and will surely be a positive driving force in helping to further and continue to process of this country, which not long ago was so divided. The passion exhibited by the South African fans at this tournament has been infectious, and to a certain extent rekindles my belief that the World Cup has done something good for the Rainbow Nation. To see fans coming together in support of Bafana Bafana, putting past differences and present disparities to one side, really shows football's potential as a unifying force. Although South Africa were unable to progress any further than the Group Stages, their 2-1 victory over France will live long in the memory, whilst the tournament's opening goal, a wonderful strike by Shabalala, is still enough to put a smile on the face of fans everywhere, be they cheering for Bafana Bafana, England, Uruguay or even Spain.

There have been many great stories at this World Cup, but the one which stands out is that of Ghana. Forced to shoulder the burden of being the only African side remaining in the competition by the Round of 16, they quickly emerged as the 'second-team' of many supporters, including myself. Although they were defeated by eventual semi-finalists Uruguay, Ghana's determination, never-say-die attitude and passion won them many admirers, whilst South Africa and England exiting the tournament gave them a significant following across South Africa. Uruguay, despite the hugely controversial circumstances in which they knocked-out the Black Stars, Luis Suarez' deliberately handling a goalbound header to give away a penalty, which was subsequently missed by Ghanaian hero Asamoah Gyan, still deserve praise for their contribution to this tournament. Despite the sickening claims by Suarez that his disgusting act of cheating was "the real hand of God", the rest of the Uruguay side acquitted themselves extremely well, and were only a goal away from reaching the final for the first time since 1950. It was also refreshing to witness a German side committed to explosive, incisive counter-attacking football reach the latter stages, before eventually finishing as the third-placed team. Witnessing talents such as Golden Boot winner Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Manchester City new boy Jerome Boateng, and Sami Khedira was a pleasure. Whilst 2010 proved to be slightly too early for them, it surely will not be too long before players such as Ozil and Muller take the place of Andres Iniesta and David Villa as World Cup or European Championship winners. Argentina were as usual excellent and a shining example of a side committed to attractive, attacking football, showcasing some of the best players in Europe at the height of their respective careers. Whilst Lionel Messi failed to score, it was still a pleasure to witness the Barcelona man destroying defences, laying on goals for his team-mates left, right and centre, and not being afforded the praise he deserved for doing so by short-sighted English commentators and pundits.

However even with these excellent moments, uplifting and inspiring stories and surprise latter-stage contenders, one cannot avoid the fact that this World Cup was, in terms of the quality of the football, quality and quantity of goals scored, as well as entertainment value, unfortunately rather poor. Whilst the Group Stages weren't entirely predictable, and did feature a number of upsets, including Serbia 1-0 Germany, Switzerland 1-0 Spain and Algeria 0-0 England amongst others, by and large the games weren't particularly enjoyable and featured very few goals. The fact that most people will remember this tournament for the 'love it or hate it' vuvuzela rather than any specific games or the quality of football really does say it all. Having witnessed the vast majority of the matches played at this World Cup, only a few stand out for me. Slovenia's dramatic 3-2 victory over Italy was an excellent game, as was Spain's 1-0 win against Germany, along with Germany's 4-1 defeat of Argentina and narrow 3-2 triumph over Uruguay in the Third Place play-off were all worth tuning in for, but sadly few others come to mind. Perhaps the tournament's relatively stuttering start, and the fact that many people were still asking after the first round of games, "when's the football going to start?" contributed to the poor quality of the competition. For whilst Italy and France failing to progress further than the group stages gave us hope, their replacements were unable to spark the tournament into life. Arguably by the final on Sunday many fans were simply watching because of what the game meant, and the significance of it, rather than because they expected a great match.

The Jabulani has taken a fair slice of criticism throughout the competition, with many blaming the controversial official World Cup ball for the lack of goals scored in the tournament, and the wayward shooting of many star players who we are used to seeing hit the net on a regular basis in their domestic league. However I feel it is unfair to blame a football for the inadequacies and dreadful goalscoring records of Wayne Rooney and other 'World Cup flops'. Yet it seems this tournament will be remembered as one in which off-field, but still footballing errors, decided events on the pitch. Frank Lampard's 'ghost goal' against Germany, which was clearly over the line, wasn't given by the officials, leading to calls for goal-line technology, forcing the much-maligned FIFA President Sepp Blatter to reverse his former policy of outright refusal to even discuss such measures, at least in public. A goal scored by Carlos Tevez, who was in a blatantly off-side position against Mexico also acted to re-open the debate about referees and clear injustices spoiling the experience for fans, also distracted attention from the main attraction. The huge criticism levelled at Howard Webb, referee for perhaps one of the dirtiest and most difficult-to-handle World Cup finals in history, also proves that in the absence of decent football to discuss, fans, pundits, players and other interested spectators chose to focus on other, not unimportant, but secondary topics.

With beautiful football returning to its spritual home in Brazil in four years time, although it could be argued it never arrived in South Africa, hopes are already high for an improved showing at the next World Cup finals. However is this the way football is going now? Are defensive solidity, aggression, fitness and tactical rigidity taking precedence over free-flowing attacking football, and is the World Cup set to be played out in the media through the discussion of contentious decisions, rather than on the pitch? Spain's victory is certainly a triumph for attractive passing football played by technically-gifted, attack-minded players, and one can only hope that another team playing football in the right way wins in four years time. However this may not be enough to keep fans watching in 2014, especially if their team suffers an early exit. Whilst many of us will watch games regardless of the quality of football on display, there are those for whom this is not the case. I am not in a position to say whether or not the Jabulani played its part in the poor footballing spectacle the 2010 World Cup was, but all I know is that more of the same in 2014 cannot be good for the future of the game. No disrespect to the following sides, but few kids become football fans beccause of defensively-minded, rugged, visually-displeasing sides such as Stoke City. They fall in love with beautiful football, just as we all did, and unless things change in four years time, the next generation of fans may just find another interest to devote their time to. With the Premier League increasingly pricing youngsters and adults alike out of the game, and other divisions in this country and abroad following suit, the World Cup is the primary means of providing eye-catching, exhilirating, attractive, accessible football featuring the best players in international football for the masses. Unless of course it has disappeared forever, as the football continues to drastically change from the sport it was even twenty years ago.

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