- So far, the football’s been rather good
According to most experts, there hasn’t been a decent World Cup in terms of the quality of football since 1986 (in other words in my football-watching lifetime). This is a little unfair, as I think the 1998 tournament was pretty exciting, while 2006, in particular the group stages, had its moments, but it does mean that people of my generation have been deprived of the chance to go misty-eyed over the footballing nirvana that occurred in say 1970 or 1982. With the gradual homogenisation of playing styles, what should be a month long feast of football often turns into a damp picnic where everyone’s only brought crisps and dips.
This year, however, the quality of play has been almost unremittingly excellent. Most teams have attacked with the clear purpose of trying to score, rather than trying to kill a few minutes while the other team chases the ball. The sheer speed and incisiveness of counter-attacks means that some matches have resembled a basketball match in the way play has fluctuated from end to end (in particular the last 10 minutes of both Switzerland v Ecuador and Colombia v Ivory Coast), and, although as any football purist knows a lack of goals doesn’t necessarily equal a lack of entertainment, there have been an average of 2.93 goals per game, which, if such a scoring rate continues, would be the highest average since 1970. Dud games have been very few and far between – Iran v Nigeria, Russia v South Korea, England v Costa Rica – and serve almost as a palate cleanser within some rich Heston Blumenthal taster menu.
- The big name players haven’t disappointed
The pressure to perform well must be greater at the World Cup than at any other stage in a player’s career. The status of the tournament means that a good performance is likely to enhance your reputation in perpetuity (Toto Schillaci is still fondly remembered despite doing nothing of note in his international career outside Italia ’90), while the fact it occurs only every four years means that you only have very few chances to make your mark.
Lionel Messi has, over the last 6 years, been the best footballer in the world. His performances for Barcelona have been ludicrously good – at times it has seemed unfair on the opposition. Yet he was merely adequate in 2010, and some have said he can’t be considered a true all-time great until he shines at a World Cup. This time round he has scored four goals, including a sumptuous last minute curler against Iran and an insouciant free-kick against Nigeria, embarked on a couple of improbable dribbles, and looked like the player we have drooled over at club level.
Arjen Robben has been mesmeric, almost impossible to shake off the ball; Neymar, with the added pressure of being the poster boy for the host nation, has dragged an otherwise mediocre Brazil team to a higher lever; James Rodriguez, Colombia’s main man after Radmael Falcao’s injury, has lit up the tournament with his wand-like left foot; Karim Benzema has led France’s attack beautifully; Luis Suarez (penchant for biting aside) won Uruguay’s match against England with two deadly pieces of finishing. The only two high-profile players who arguably haven’t shone are Cristiano Ronaldo, who is suffering with a knee injury and his teammates’ fear of passing to anyone else but him, and Wayne Rooney, who has been perfectly decent, but now surely cannot be called a world-class player ever again. As exciting as it is to find some hitherto unheard of gem who plays blindingly well before fading into obscurity, there’s nothing like watching the best in the world play to their potential.
- The defending’s been a little bit crap
Having praised the exciting football we’ve seen, it must be said that the standard of defending hasn’t been particularly high. Each of the potential winners has a defensive weakness. Brazil? David Luiz is a blunder-in-waiting, whilst whenever Dani Alves and Marcelo bomb forward from full-back, there is a huge amount of unattended space behind them. Colombia? They looked very vulnerable against the Ivory Coast, and there is alarming lack of pace at centre back, although the 38-year-old Mario Yepes has so far been probably the best defender of the tournament. Holland? Their defence struggled against Australia. Argentina? Both Iran and Nigeria created several clear chances against them, and Marcos Rojo doesn’t instil much confidence. Germany? They don’t have any proper full-backs, and were cumbersome against Ghana. France? They have looked the strongest defensively so far, with Raphael Varane in particular strolling through matches, but neither Mahamadou Sakho nor Laurent Koscielny alongside him are particularly reliable. There just don’t seem to be many calm dominating centre-backs a la Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta or Rio Ferdinand in 2002 around any more.
- The referees have been lenient
At the time of writing (20 minutes from the end of the Portugal v Ghana game) there have been an average 2.59 yellow cards per game, compared with an average of 3.77 per game four years ago. This suggests one of two things – either the players are committing fewer caution-worthy fouls or the referees are being more lenient. I would suggest it is the latter. In previous tournaments there have been several unjust red cards – Zola for Italy v Nigeria in 1994, Lucic for Sweden v Germany in 2006 and Cahill for Australia v Germany (again) in 2010 spring to mind – but other than Claudio Marchisio against Uruguay, none of the 8 red cards shown this time round could be deemed unjust by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, there are several occasions when a player has been rather lucky to escape a sending off, such as Paul Pogba against Honduras or Neymar in the opening game against Croatia.
It’s not as if the players have been any less robust in their tackling – Honduras’ brutal battering of France was hilarious to watch (if not to be on the receiving end of presumably), while Ghana are giving the Portuguese players a bit of a kicking at the time of writing, and the leniency of the referees seems to have led to less diving. Other than Thomas Muller’s playacting that led to Pepe’s red card (although Pepe’s brainless idiocy was a factor), and Luis Suarez, who is a special case, I can’t think of any obvious examples of a player feigning injury to get an opponent into trouble.
- The knockout stages have a lot to live up to
There are many more reasons why this World Cup has been particularly enjoyable – Greece’s last minute penalty winner to qualify for the second round was a moment of high drama, Robin van Persie’s diving header was the high point in Holland’s astonishing and empire-toppling thrashing of Spain, Tim Cahill gave two outstanding performances for Australia, culminating in his crashing volley against Holland, France’s squad contains some of the worst haircuts ever seen this side of Shoreditch (Sakho, Pogba, Griezmann and Sagna being particularly objectionable), Costa Rica have proved that solid teamwork will always beat a collection of seemingly more talented individuals, Mexico and Holland have resuscitated the 5-3-2 formation, and Igor Akinfeev has proved that Fabio Capello is incapable of selecting a goalkeeper that can catch the ball. In the last few tournaments, the high stakes nature of the knockout rounds has meant they have been less enjoyable than the group stages, with far more cagey football being played. Let’s hope that isn’t the case this time.