After our first 11 games and the World Cup’s inaugural weekend, we’ve seen some world-class crests and troughs in this initial wave of football.
1. ESPN’s Conspiracy of Oafs.
Is there any greater blight upon the viewing of this World Cup than the smug buffoonery of Alexi Lalas? For all the great pains ESPN has taken to import quality commentators to call the games (without mentioning the cursed auld onion bag), they are sending viewers lurching for the remote when Mike Tirico pretends he’s friends with Lalas back in the studio. Bringing in true soccer giants like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Gilberto Gilberto Silva has potential — and Roberto Martinez is a proven expert of the game — but much of the guests’ footballing nous is impeded by their lack of English fluency. Their modesty then leaves the least qualified person on the set free to bellow his inanities. Despite the haircut and shave, Lalas never looks more than one beer away from giving Tirico a wedgie.
2. Officiating, specifically along the sidelines.
Ah, the deep question of this World Cup: what is offside? And its companion: how do we transmit this information to the sidelines of Brazil? At least three clear goals have incorrectly been ruled out by an atrocious ruling of a phantom offside. Unlucky Mexico was brutalized by two of these calls from the same flag-happy nemesis in their first half against Cameroon. Then Switzerland saw a beautiful dummy nullified by more uninformed guesswork from an assistant referee against Ecuador. The offside call can, of course, be a close one if defender and attacker are even, but none of these three examples was terribly difficult to call. In fact, the Mexico goal from a corner was so clearly good that the referee should have overruled the linesman. Perhaps our officials can adopt a rule of lenity — better 10 questionable goals go in than one good goal be ruled out?
3. ¿Adios Tiki-Taka?
Spain broke all sorts of records for futility in its 5-1 loss to the Netherlands. Not since the Armada ran aground in 1588 have northern Europeans enjoyed such joy of self-inflicted Spanish impotence. But even before their defenders staged a walk-out in the second half, the Spaniards appeared to have abandoned their tiki-taka style. For the most part, this World Cup has been entertaining because teams have embraced a style more like the blitzing by Bayern that demolished Barcelona in the 2013 Champions League. The only tiki-taka I saw this weekend was from the Spurs — of San Antonio, not Tottenham — when their quick-passing stars from France, Argentina, Brazil, and the Virgin Islands ghosted past the Heat.
4. Imperial Decline & Fall
For those of us who enjoy the English Premier League all season long, it’s compelling to follow the players on the English team we know so well. Especially when you’re not actually English. Watching their team is like watching a toddler learn to walk: you’d like to see them do well but you know the falls are coming. Italy, on the other hand, are like the lazy smart kids in high school: they never seem to study anything in the friendly matches but always do well on the actual exam. So for all the talent and promise of England’s Sterling and Sturridge, the Italians still dispatched them without too much bother. Now we can turn to the British tabloids to enjoy their national bedwetting over another slip-up on a banana peel.
5. The Paranoid Style in French Football.
French manager Didier Deschamps has now complained about a drone spying on his team’s World Cup preparations. On top of his lawsuit against Samir Nasri’s girlfriend for hurting his feelings, Deschamps seems to be displaying the thinnest skin at the World Cup. And the Hondurans won’t have eased his fears. The opening ceremony’s capoeira may have been fairly anemic, but Honduras staged a more full-blooded encore with their ambush of France. The World Cups of my childhood were filled with nil-all street battles, usually punctuated by a spectacular Uruguayan red card (Maxi Pereira did his best to make it cool again). But this tournament had been refreshing for the amount of positive play until Honduras tried to kung-fu a result in their first game. Let’s hope the justice of France’s three-nil win will dissuade more Brazilian jujitsu.
1. Goal-Line Technology
The success of this technology on its debut makes one wonder why it’s taken so long to arrive. For Benzema’s goal against Honduras, the technology showed its accuracy in both not awarding a goal when the ball came off the upright (which was correct) and awarding a goal when the ball bounced in off the keeper (which was also correct). And since the keeper pulled the ball out so quickly, it seems very hard to believe that officials would have awarded the goal with the naked eye. Given France’s dominance of the match, and the negative tactics of Honduras, the correct award of the goal was extremely important when it was given.
In the first 11 games, 19 of the 22 teams have scored, amassing a total of 37 goals. That strike rate is happily way ahead of the plodding outings in South Africa. Though some might have feared that the Brazilian heat would create a goalless torpor, it’s possible that the fatigue created by the heat has opened up defenses. Certainly, attack has been rewarded.
Perhaps even more surprising than the number of goals has been the number of games in which a team has come from behind. Brazil came from a goal down to Croatia. The Dutch stormed back with five goals after being behind to Spain. Costa Rica put three past Uruguay after being down one. The Ivory Coast overcame the Japanese lead. And the Swiss snatched a last-gasp winner against Ecuador after being down one.
4. Parity & America
This tournament has boasted impressive success by teams like Costa Rica and Switzerland as well as strong showings by underdogs Australia and Bosnia. In fact, the only true blowout was against what many thought was the best team in the tournament, Spain. (Honduras never looked likely against France but didn’t make it easy; and the Greeks weren’t as bad as their 3-0 loss to Colombia suggests). America’s strength and athleticism could serve them very well — certainly this tournament has rewarded persistence, and U.S. teams rarely capitulate.
5. The Problem of Justice.
Other than the opening gift of a penalty to Brazil, several of the worst officiating errors at this tournament have largely been rectified by the final score line. So Mexico’s deprivation of two goals didn’t affect their result against Cameroon; the dodgy penalty to Spain (in which replays suggested that Diego Costa wasn’t fouled by De Vrij so much as he surfed De Vrij’s ankle for a few feet) was diluted by a waterfall of Dutch goals; and the Swiss also overcame a bad offside ruling to win. But errors perceived as ultimately harmless might be ignored as not being errors at all — which may lead to harmful errors in future. Let’s hope the success of goal line technology will persuade FIFA to consider video review of other game-changing calls. If they are going to allow minutes to while away for every writhing victim of a foul, donating one or two more to confirm scoring decisions would be a sound investment.