Gabriele Marcotti, who predicted the poor displays of France and Argentina in WSC two months ago, attempts to sort World Cup fact from fiction
For a competition that lasts 31 days – and one in which half the teams play just three matches – it’s quite remarkable that the World Cup is held in such high esteem as a barometer of footballing trends and relative strength. Especially a competition such as this one, where poor refereeing and bizarre episodes saw the World Cup lose a host of juggernauts (or potential juggernauts) before the quarter-finals, as fans of Portugal, Nigeria, Argentina, Italy and France will confirm. Still, this was not a 64-match exercise in futility. Once the hype subsides and the pundits go back to spouting the obvious about players whose names they can actually pronounce, we’ll be left with a neat set of memories we can stow in the back of our consciousness.
As usual, there will be myths and truths, trends that never materialise and seminal changes in the sport we love. I have neither a crystal ball nor a Ouija board but here’s my stab at differentiating between gloss and substance after Korea/Japan 2002.
MYTH: There is a New World Order. Eleven of the 15 European sides and four of the five South American sides failed to reach the quarter-finals. The world has become a smaller place, the old hierarchies are dead. Wrong. Football’s old world is alive and well. European countries lost nine of 31 matches (excluding Spain’s defeat by South Korea on penalties) to countries from football’s “Third World”. South America fared even better – Ecuador’s defeat against Mexico was Conmebol’s only head-to-head loss against teams from Asia, Africa and Concacaf in six encounters.
True, South Korea, Senegal and the United States did very well. But all this means, for now, is that they have become Irelands, Swedens and Romanias, nations capable of exploits in individual tournaments (thanks to a “golden generation” of players or a bit of luck or, usually, both) but incapable of becoming permanent members of the sport’s aristocracy.
TRUTH: Ronaldo is the greatest player in the world. Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Michael Owen, Rivaldo... you guys might all want to consider returning the awards you won in his absence. Being named European Footballer of the Year or World Player of the Year does not mean much when the sheriff’s out of town. Enjoy your baubles, because that’s exactly what they are: you didn’t earn them against the best in the world.
MYTH: Italy were knocked out because they sat on a 1-0 lead rather than going for the kill and being positive. Let’s all celebrate: catenaccio is dead! Wrong. Italy created plenty of chances, it’s just that Christian Vieri and Francesco Totti weren’t able to finish them. Had Italy pushed forward more it would have exposed a defence already without Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta to the speedy Korean strikers. Better to hit on the break with quick, direct passes. Better still, get a real referee with real assistants next time around. Not to mention the fact that Germany and England used the exact same tactic and it didn’t seem to affect their progress too much, did it?
TRUTH: The refereeing standard was abysmal. FIFA needs to review how the officials are selected for the tournament and assigned to each match. First of all, a wake-up call to those who refuse to believe that a “fix” is impossible and laugh at conspiracy theorists: if you don’t believe referees or officials were influenced, fine. Just don’t accuse others of whinging and don’t state as fact that it could never happen. Just because Italy and Spain may have deserved to be knocked out by South Korea does not mean that poor officiating is acceptable.
FIFA likes to pick officials along geopolitical lines and, to some degree, that’s OK. There is a fair argument to be made that all confederations deserve to be represented. But FIFA’s selection process left a lot to be desired on two counts. First, linesmen from Antigua and Vanuatu, nations which don’t even have professional football (much less a competitive league) should not be placed in charge of World Cup matches. Neither should teams be subjected to referees from Guatemala or Benin. Officials such as these will, at best, handle ten or 12 competitive matches a year and that’s simply not good enough. Apologies to Concacaf boss Jack Warner if it means he won’t get to see his Trinidadian linesmen at the World Cup; it just means he’ll have to get some other form of patronage from Sepp Blatter.
Second, once FIFA has decided to take a referee from a certain country, it should take the top official from that country. For example, Argentina’s Angel Sanchez is, according to FIFA’s own ratings, only the third best referee in his country. Why weren’t the top guys called? The conspiracy theorists will think they know why (it was Sanchez who sent off two Portuguese players against South Korea) and perhaps they’re wrong, but decisions like these only cast more doubt on the inner workings of FIFA.
Whether it’s a case of FIFA influencing officials directly to favour certain nations or FIFA simply selecting referees and assistants who are more amenable to being influenced by outside agents, there is, of course, no hard proof of wrongdoing. But there is plenty of circumstantial evidence and it’s a mess which FIFA could have avoided with a little less pandering and a little more common sense.
MYTH: African football is dead and buried. Senegal apart, every African team at the World Cup was disappointing. Wrong. There is no question that African sides underachieved, but, again, let’s keep things in perspective. Cameroon threw away a match against Ireland and fell victim to the most card-happy referee in the history of the World Cup against Germany. South Africa failed to make the second round because they scored one goal fewer than Paraguay. Tunisia were denied legitimate penalties against Belgium and Japan. As for Nigeria, they drew the toughest group (which didn’t help) and then let themselves get side-tracked by the usual cocktail of infighting and egos.
Look past the results and you’ll see that the top-to-bottom technical ability of the African sides is as good as any confederation’s. Ultimately, this counts more than spirit, tactics, fitness and all that other good stuff. These aspects can be learned or added, but if you can’t play the game, you’re in serious trouble.
TRUTH: Argentina and France can blame their coaches, Marcelo Bielsa and Roger Lemerre, for their spectacular humiliation in the World Cup. Sure, it’s a group effort, but these two got just about everything wrong. Bielsa made the most basic mistake a coach can make, thinking his tactical schemes, and not his players, would win matches. He forced a team with only one natural winger (Kily Gonzalez) to play a 3-3-1-3 formation, exiling Ariel Ortega to the right wing and leaving Hernan Crespo on the bench. Good managers tailor their tactics to suit the players at their disposal, while arrogant egomaniacs force players to play in positions that don’t suit them. Guess which category Bielsa falls into?
As for Lemerre, the list of his faults is endless (also including not adjusting the system to suit the players he picked), but he committed an even greater crime against common sense: he did not choose the best personnel available, instead preferring to stay loyal to men who were clearly past it. The sight of Frank Leboeuf, Youri Djorkaeff and Christophe Dugarry on the pitch, coupled with the knowledge that William Gallas, Vincent Candela, Stéphane Dalmat, Olivier Dacourt, Eric Carrière and Laurent Robert were either stuck on the bench or hadn’t even been included in the squad, was not just painful, but an insult.
From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month