Thursday, July 15, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Highs and Lows


1. Paul the psychic octopus

Boasting the prolificacy of David Villa, the accuracy of a Gio van Bronckhorst 40-yarder and the sheer star quality of Diego Maradona, there is no doubt that Sea Life Oberhausen's Paul has captured the imagination over the past four weeks with his spookily accurate World Cup predictions. Born in Weymouth, Paul rivals Howard Webb as England's most successful (and undoubtedly most popular) participant at the finals having correctly predicted the result of all of Germany's games including the third-place play-off - a probability of 1 in 128.

But what is the key to his success in deciding which Perspex box to delve into for a tasty mussel? Stefan Porwoll, the Sea Life Aquarium manager, explains: "Paul is such a professional oracle he doesn't even care that hundreds of journalists are watching and commenting on every move he makes." With that kind of coolness under pressure and his highly-perceptive mind, it is no surprise that Paul is already being labelled the most famous water-dwelling being since Jaws.

2. The rise of the underdogs

France's dramatic implosion, Italy's ineffectual performances and England's rank ineptitude ensured this was not a World Cup for the historic European powers. In their stead we saw Ghana's romantic ride to the quarter-finals, Uruguay reaching the last four - through means foul or fair - and Slovakia sneaking out of the group stage. Even the South American royalty of Brazil and Argentina failed to reach the semi-finals, helping ensure that a new name will be etched onto the World Cup trophy on Sunday.

North Korea's 7-0 rout at the hands of Portugal aside, the less fancied countries also acquitted themselves creditably, perhaps most notably when the aforementioned Chollima performed valiantly in a 2-1 defeat to Brazil - a display that should have required no censorship on the part of state TV in Pyongyang. Japan and South Korea both reached the second round for the first time on foreign soil and special mention should go to New Zealand who, if Netherlands are defeated on Sunday, will be the only team to end the tournament unbeaten. The kings are dead, long live the kings?

3. Diego Maradona

El Diego came into the World Cup having incurred a FIFA ban for instructing journalists to, erm, pleasure him, and with a reputation for being a train wreck of a coach, ready to explode at any minute. But the Argentinean nation's faith was, for four glorious games, vindicated. The Albiceleste performed with real panache and hopes were raised that the man, the deity, who almost died in 2007 due to problems related to obesity and a lifestyle of excess would instead follow in the footsteps of Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer in becoming the third man to win the World Cup as both player and coach.

Those dreams would disintegrate the first time Maradona was pitched against a decent team with a tactically-proficient coach, Joachim Low's Germany side winning 4-0 in the quarter-finals, but with his emotional outbursts on the touchlines, his unconventional training methods and oversubscribed press conferences, Maradona was the story of the tournament while Argentina remained in South Africa. Telling Pele to "go back to the museum" and warning opponents that to beat his "23 wild cats" they would have to "put all their beef on the grill" certainly helped.

4. Siphiwe Tshabalala's goal

In the build-up to the first World Cup to be held on African soil, it was feared that a poor South Africa side would embarrass the nation with some mediocre performances in Group A. But although Bafana Bafana did eventually become the first host nation to fail to reach the second round, a thunderbolt of a strike from Siphiwe Tshabalala in the opening game against Mexico set their supporters, and the tournament, alight.

Just like Philipp Lahm four years before him, and following an opening ceremony that featured a particularly memorable dung beetle, Tshabalala galvanised the home country with a wonderful effort as he struck the Jabulani firmly across goal and into the far corner. South Africa went on to draw 1-1 and then beat France, so although their tournament ended prematurely, Bafana Bafana still had fond memories to draw upon. Chief amongst them was the searing effort from the midfielder. "It was my first World Cup, the first in Africa (and) I scored the first goal," Tshabalala said. "This is the highlight of my career so far."

5. Unfounded fears

Reading some reports prior to the start of the tournament, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Sepp Blatter and FIFA had gifted the World Cup to a country in collapse, an active war zone. Such fear mongering was misguided. Though there have of course been isolated incidents of crime and disorganisation, despite Paris Hilton's best efforts the World Cup has largely steered clear of controversy and demonstrated that a country like South Africa does have the ability to host such a sporting spectacle.

Months and months of relentless cynicism from certain sections of the European press led FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke to exclaim in March: "Don't kill the World Cup before it starts. It's unfair and it's really sad." Four months on, and it is clear that the tournament has breathed life into Africa's standing on the global stage. FIFA must consider this a real success.


1. The scourge of simulation

The World Cup is supposed to be the four-yearly event in which football enchants the world, demonstrating just why it is beloved of billions across the globe. Sadly, certain events in South Africa threatened to provide ammunition to those who maintain footballers are nothing but a bunch of preening prima donnas. Perhaps the most notable, and most infuriating, was the reaction of Ivory Coast's Kader Keita as he threw himself to the floor after walking into Kaka, earning the Brazil playmaker a ridiculous red card. While Brazil were incensed, the mind immediately wandered back to 2002 in Ulsan and Rivaldo's deception to get Hakan Unsal sent off.

In 2010, Keita was far from the only offender. Swathes of players were sent sprawling to the turf, tenderly clutching their faces, as replays revealed the merest of brushes from an opponent's shoulder. Time and again, games witnessed more theatrical spills than Oliver Reed on a particularly unsteady night out. Let's name and shame a few: the Italy defence against New Zealand, Arturo Vidal getting Valon Behrami sent off and Switzerland's Steve von Bergen embarrassing himself in the same game were all notable examples of behaviour that must be eradictated.

2. FIFA's Black Sunday

As staunch opponents to the introduction of technology, FIFA's bigwigs must have been shifting uncomfortably in their executive seats, prawn sandwiches left uneaten, when two glaring mistakes from match officials left a black spot on the competition on June 27. Firstly, and most notably, Frank Lampard's shot clearly crossed the line against Germany, only for Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda to wave play on, sparking confusion in pubs across England. Replays confirmed the horrible truth, and surely moved the game a step closer to welcoming technology, rather than fearing it. However the suspicion remains that Sepp Blatter will continue to be the John Connor to Hawk-Eye's Skynet.

In the evening kick-off, Carlos Tevez then scored a blatantly offside goal as Argentina defeated Mexico 3-1. Somehow, the replay was broadcast live to the Soccer City crowd so referee Roberto Rosetti immediately knew his assistant had made a horrendous call. Aware of the grievous mistake but bound by the rules to ignore the evidence in front of his eyes, the Italian had no option but to ignore Mexico's pleas to disallow the goal. Not a great day for the governing body.

3. Vuvuzelas

We understand the argument that the vuvuzelas are part of South Africa culture and a legitimate way to express delight at a sporting occasion, but they are, in a word, annoying. Drowning out chants and songs from supporters inside the crowd, the constant drone from the dreaded horns came to infuriate television spectators as well. They were especially irritating when played in unison to create a pulsing sound; like having a particularly nasty migrane while sitting in a beehive.

After the opening game, South Africa goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune even had the cheek to complain that the vuvuzelas were not loud enough. Abu Dhabi officials had the right idea when issuing a fatwa against the instruments on Thursday. We now fear a vuvuzela influx in time for the new domestic season.

4. Empty seats

These were a constant source of frustration throughout the tournament. There really should be no excuse for failing to fill a stadium for a World Cup game, and we are talking semi-finals as well as Slovakia v New Zealand here. If there are tickets remaining, FIFA should have given them to local schoolchildren rather than letting them lie fallow.

FIFA will say there are mitigating circumstances, with the global recession playing a part, transport problems highlighted and no-shows in the corporate seats having a significant effect, but the failure to sell out games is a disappointing one. Games between Algeria and Slovenia, and Japan and Cameroon had in excess of 10,000 spare seats going - a fact that reflects badly on the organising committee and indeed the tournament.

5. The Jabulani

The advent of every major tournament sees goalkeepers complain about the state of the official ball, no doubt looking to get their excuses in early when a shot squirms under their body, but this year was different. Goalkeepers, outfield players and coaches all lined up to lambast the Jabulani. Brazil midfielder Felipe Melo described it as "horrible", Iker Casillas said it behaved like a "beach ball" and, perhaps most damning of all, USA 'keeper Marcus Hahnemann simply said: "Scientists came up with the atom bomb, doesn't mean we should have invented it."

And when play got underway, there was something not right about the much-discussed ball. The vast majority of long-range shots were awful, accurate free-kicks were few and far between and even cross-field passes looked a real effort at times. However, Fabio Capello's attempt to blame the Jabulani for Robert Green's inability to grasp Clint Dempsey's shot was fairly laughable.

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