After four weeks, 64 matches and a final that produced enough cards to rival Hallmark, the end-of-term report is: Great tournament, shame about the football.
There’s no question that South Africa were perfect hosts, belying almost every concern relating to transport, security, infrastructure, empty seats and public involvement. Sepp Blatter, for once, isn’t exaggerating in giving it full marks.
Things were different on the field—the tournament began and ended poorly, with only the no-stakes third-place game (between Germany and Uruguay) having pretensions of attacking, open football. For all their passing, Spain were not the side that won Euro 2008; that they are deemed worthy winners despite scoring all of eight goals says much about the competition. Germany scored as many in two knockout games and, along with Ghana and Mexico, offered the promise of 2014.
By then, the Dutch will have jettisoned Van Bommel and hopefully, have picked up the confidence to play their other, more attractive game; Argentina would have built a team to complement Lionel Messi, who would have learnt to veer to the right as well as the left; and Brazil would have added a bit more flair to their forcefulness.
By then, perhaps, centre-forwards would have reclaimed their job of scoring goals, a task in which they fared pretty badly this year. None of the four top goalscorers at the World Cup was an out-and-out striker: Wesley Sneijder plays in the hole, Thomas Müller behind Miroslav Klose, while Diego Forlán was pulling the strings for Luis Suarez. Even David Villa, who scored his goals playing off Fernando Torres, went goal-less in the semis and final when he played alone up front.
By then, too, let us hope this era of the “wait for the mistake” final would have ended. The last few World Cup finals have been less than thrilling contests, the drama coming not so much from the quality of the football as from backstories and events surrounding the play. The stakes are so high, the teams so well-matched that the difference will usually come from an error—either a player’s mistake, such as Oliver Kahn’s spill that allowed Brazil’s first goal in 2002 and Zinedine Zidane’s red moment in 2006, or an error of tactic or planning, such as the decision to play Ronaldo in 1998 and the Dutch decision to play a risky physical game on Sunday.
This isn’t football’s prerogative. Rugby has had its share of dire World Cup finals, though Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-kick in 2003 was some compensation. Cricket, too, has had some fairly miserable matches; the last three 50-over World Cup finals have been one-sided or farcical and even the last Twenty20 final ended as a contest once Tilakaratne Dilshan was out early in Sri Lanka’s chase. Only tennis over the past few years has consistently provided gripping contests when the stakes are highest, though it needed the maturing of Rafael Nadal to have the measure of Roger Federer.
Let us hope that by 2014 football finds a way to deal with the sort of cynical, dirty tactics deployed by the Dutch. Perhaps Howard Webb let things slip a bit but what could he do when only one team—to borrow a cricketing quote—was playing football. He could have shown red earlier but referees use it as a last resort, aware that it would change considerably the balance of the game. Perhaps the “sin bin” seen in other sports could be introduced—yellow means 10 minutes off the field, forcing the player’s team into a one-man disadvantage for that time. Technology is up for discussion, perhaps there will be some positive and satisfactory outcome by then.
Finally, and on a slightly different note, let us hope India’s sports bosses learn from the show in South Africa. The most important lesson, for me, is the value of having top professionals running a high-profile tournament. People in South Africa still marvel at how the Indian Premier League (IPL) was brought there at three weeks’ notice last year, a feat possible only because of IMG’s expertise. Ask any Indian cricketer who plays the IPL and the domestic circuit and they’ll tell you the difference. To be taken seriously, we need to take our sport—in the fullest sense, from athletes to arenas to administration—seriously.
Paid professionals may cost the earth but they can deliver the moon.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo and covered the World Cup for their sister website Soccernet.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org