After the Netherlands plodded to a 1-0 victory over World Cup minnows Japan in their first-round match, an altercation broke out at the post-match press conference. Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk lost his cool after being bombarded by journalists about how boring the Dutch were on the field.
“Why do we focus on good football instead of winning?” Van Marwijk retorted. “We came here to win, and if we can win with beautiful football then fine, but I said when I took this job that we would also have to learn how to win ugly games.”
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Statistics show that Netherlands had almost two-thirds possession, but opted to keep the ball safely with them rather than orchestrate attacks—a far cry from the flowing offensive play typical of “Total Football”, which the Dutch pioneered in the 1970s. The flair is gone, so is the sense of adventure, and the urgency of scoring. Dutch winger Wesley Sneijder offered a more blunt appraisal, “We played the ball around without really taking any risks, and we didn’t create many opportunities.”
Blame it on Real Madrid coach José Mourinho, but the 2010 World Cup has been an exhibition of defensive discipline and counter-attacking strategies so far, with little originality on offer from the 32 teams that have come from across the globe to play the tournament.
No way through: Teams have concentrated on defence and organization over style. Even Brazil (in yellow) managed only a 2-1 win over minnows North Korea in their Round 1 match. AFP
“This blurring of distinct styles is the impact of globalization,” says football historian and commentator Novy Kapadia. “During Pele’s time, it would have been difficult to find a Brazilian player playing outside his country. Now Brazil’s entire first team plays in Europe. This mobilization has levelled out a country’s trademark style.”
Even Brazil has dropped joga bonito (beautiful play) for a pragmatic approach.
“Everyone has to be efficient during the World Cup,” Brazil’s coach Dunga said in a post-match press conference after their game with North Korea, infuriating Brazil fans across the world.
This reliance on military-drill-like discipline, packed defences and counter-attacks across the board also means that there isn’t much to choose between the stronger and weaker teams. Brazil had to struggle hard for a 2-1 win against rank outsiders North Korea in the first round. “That’s football today,” Brazilian defender Juan summed it up at the post-match press conference. “A national team without any sort of tradition at the top level, but who mark well and just worry about defending.”
A bit ironic, considering Brazil have opted for similar tactics despite the heavy burden of their “tradition”.
Total Defence: The Dutch team have given up ‘Total Football’ for a conservative counter-attacking approach. Only Wesley Sneijder (in orange) has shown sparks of individual genius. AP
“Technology has a role to play in this too,” says Kapadia. “Everyone now relies on video inputs to understand their opponents’ game. So every team knows how the other plays, and how to counter it. The result is cautious and cagey football.”
Numbers back that statement. The most telling figure after the first round of games is that an average of 1.56 goals was scored per match. That compares poorly with previous World Cups—the ratio was 2.44 in 2006 during the same stage, and in 2002 it was 2.88.
England striker Wayne Rooney put it simply. “To be honest, all the games I’ve watched haven’t been exciting. I hope it gets a little bit more exciting,” he told reporters after the first round of matches.
Fifa’s statistics show that the number of shots on goal have also gone down by 10% from 2006. England, Italy, Brazil, Spain, France—every single big name in football has struggled to find the back of the net.
“Unless you have a maverick coach like (Diego) Maradona, blessed with a squad like Argentina, coaches are opting to play it safe,” says Kapadia.
South Africa’s coach Carlos Alberto Perreira, who has been involved as a coach in six World Cups, points out that it’s still early days at the tournament. “I have never seen a World Cup start at the top in the first round,” he told reporters in Johannesburg. “For every team there is a lot of tension—the big ones, the small ones, the middle ones. The World Cup really starts in the round of 16.”
Already teams have tried to break the shackles—Portugal pumped in seven goals against a hapless North Korea; Spain and Paraguay have piled on the attacking pressure in their last few matches; and Brazil showed flashes of “samba” football in their 3-1 win against Cote D’Ivoire.
Romantics who love their football with a dollop of flair have their fingers crossed, and maybe even their toes.