Thursday, June 26, 2014

Twelve things I've learned from World Cup 2014

The group stage isn't even over yet, but already people are calling this the greatest World Cup ever. They need to calm down I say. Yes the carefree attacking football employed by almost every team present (with the exception of Russia) has been a joy to behold, but being gung-ho in the first round is one thing, doing it in the knock-out stages is quite another. However if things continue in the same vein then this will surely go down as the best tournament of modern times.


Putting debates about the quality of the tournament aside though, what have we learned about this World Cup, and football in general, thus far? Well personally I've learned quite a lot, and much of it has been positive.


1. South American fans are brilliant


It first came to my attention during the Argentina Bosnia-Herzegovina game: large swathes of fans bedecked in light blue, and all of them singing, chanting and being boisterous, what the hell was going on here?! I'd never seen anything like it at an international tournament, even in footballing hotbeds like Germany and England. At major finals we've become accustomed to seeing stadiums full of disinterested corporate consumers while the real fans desperately try and generate an atmosphere behind each goal. But that hasn't happened here, every game involving a South/Central American side has played host to a carnival atmosphere. Thousands upon thousands of Chileans, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentines, Ecuadorans, Hondurans, Uruguayans, and oh yeah, Brazilians, have conspired to make this the noisiest, most passionately supported World Cup in living memory. Long may it continue.


2. The vanishing-foam is here to stay


FIFA don't often come up with good ideas, but when they do they tend to excel themselves. Encroachment at free-kicks has long been a pet-hate of mine. Your star player lines up a shot at goal from the edge of the box, but before he's even struck the ball the opposition players are mere feet away from him. Not anymore. Now referees can draw a proverbial line in the sand, and anyone that steps across it is in trouble. And even though footballers are renowned for their disingenuity not one of them has figured out a way to combat this new measure. They will though. My money's on the one of them shady looking Uruguayan midfielders.


3. International football is far more competitive than we've been led to believe


We all enjoy the odd upset; footballing minnows upstaging the big boys, it's great craic. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty we prefer to see the usual suspects fighting for top honours. Let Costa Rica, Algeria and Ghana have their day in the sun, just so long as we get an Argentina Germany final. This tournament has been different though. Can we even class Costa Rica as a plucky underdog after their exploits? I don't think so. And what of Chile? Many people's dark horses before the competition began they've proven themselves to be far more than that and will provide Brazil with a stern test in the round of sixteen.


But what's been most refreshing is the lack of any real whipping boys. Cameroon aside virtually every team has given a good account of themselves. Australia, the lowest ranked team coming into the finals, pushed the much-lauded Dutch very close. Honduras ruffled a few feathers with their combative style of play, and, at the time of writing, perennial nearly-men Mexico and the USA are on the verge of their best tournaments in years.


4. Brazil have done a great job with the stadiums


Remember all the hullabaloo about Brazil's preparations (or lack thereof) for the finals? We were told they were nowhere near ready and the whole thing was going to be a disaster. Well from where I'm sitting (which admittedly is just on my couch in front of the TV) that disaster has not materialised. The stadiums look great, each has its own unique style and all appear to be perfect footballing ampitheatres. The only shame is that once the finals end some of these arenas will no longer be in use. Unless. Could we? Could we really? It's worth a shot, surely. Who's up for moving to Manaus and setting up our very own team? The Arena Amazonia will just be lying there, no-one will mind if we train on it twice a week and have a game on Sundays. If you're interested get in touch and we'll take it from there.


5. The Premier League is killing England's national team


A lot of Irish people take great delight in seeing England fail at major tournaments, I'm not one of them. I'd stop short at saying I'd like to see them win one but I take no pleasure in seeing them fall at the first hurdle this time around. It does make for great coverage in the media though, and already the inquest into England's failings has begun. Everyone from Maggie Thatcher to Simon Cowell has been blamed for their downfall but there's only one culprit in this instance: the raging behemoth that is the English Premier League.

It's all well and good having a national league which is admired the world over and earns those involved millions of pounds, but the growth of the Premier League has been in direct proportion to the demise of the English national side. Don't believe me? Look at the league's current champions Manchester City; one regular English starter, Joe Hart. And this theme continues as you move through the division with English players heavily outnumbered by their overseas team-mates. Until this state of affairs is rectified the England national team will continue to falter at major finals.



6. Seeing your face on a big screen is cause for celebration regardless of how your team are performing


Picture the scene; your team are trailing in a pivotal World Cup group game, and failure to score will see you eliminated. It's tense, nail-biting, and nerve-shredding, you can hardly bear to watch. We've all been there, it's torturous and anyone unfortunate enough to cross your path during these moments will be the recipient of some carefully chosen words - and then some. But how would you react if, in the dying throes of Ireland's World Cup campaign, you saw your pensive features beamed up on the big screen for all to see? Personally I would respond with an offensive gesture and be labelled a spoilsport by the viewers at home. But that's just me. For most fans at this World Cup the natural reaction is to make a complete and utter fool of yourself regardless of what's happening on the pitch. Your team may be on the way home - bringing to an end months of hard-work and preparation - but hey you just saw your face on the screen so let's have a party baby.


7. Ronaldo isn't fit and shouldn't have travelled


It appears likely that Portugal will join Spain, England and Italy as one of the big names to bow out at the group stage. And Ronaldo, despite all his best efforts, will have been outdone by Lionel Messi yet again. But should he even be at the World Cup? His injury problems this season have been extensive and varied, and from the early stages of Portugal's opening game against Germany he didn't look right. Reports suggest he has tendonitis in his knee, the same condition that forced Owen Hargreaves into premature retirement. So why play? Why risk it all for one World Cup campaign? Because this is Ronaldo we're talking about, can you imagine the strop if he was forced to stay at home while the greatest show on earth took place in football's spiritual home without him? He had to be here, there was no other option. I just hope for his sake he doesn't live to regret it.



8. Belgium are a bit rubbish


Okay so they might have qualified with a game to spare but has anyone been even slightly impressed by the Belgians in their opening two matches? No, me neither. All the hype, all the whisperings about them being genuine contenders, we've been listening to it for the past two years. Then we finally got to see the famous Red Devils in action, and it was all a bit meh. The fact they had to call on Marouane Fellaini to rescue them says all you need to know about this Belgian side. They do have some talented players, Eden Hazard is rightly regarded as one of the most talented players in the world, and Vincent Kompany is arguably the best centre-half in the game, but we already knew about them. We'd been led to believe that those two were just the tip of the iceberg, instead of, y'know, the entire iceberg.


They may yet have an impact on this tournament. Romelu Lukaku may at some point put his boots on the right feet and start scoring. Adnan Januzaj might get summoned from the bench and wow the world with his talents. Kevin Mirallas might join him. But the gloss has gone. They're just another team now, just another 'golden generation' - and we all know what happens to them.


9. Louis Van Gaal is making Manchester United fans very giddy


He may not have even set foot inside Old Trafford yet but already Louis Van Gaal is being proclaimed as the answer to all Man United's problems. Before the tournament many United fans would have been happy to see the Dutch crash out in the first round so that their new manager could get started early. But all that was forgotten about in the wake of Holland's five-one win over reigning champions Spain. Twitter came alive; "We're back", "Watch out Premier League", "United are gonna win the league next season", "LVG will sort it all out", you get the idea. The hysteria only intensified when the Dutch won their next two games, from being at their lowest ebb in years United were now suddenly back in their rightful place at the helm of English football - without even playing a game.


In truth it is quite an exciting time to be a United fan. But Van Gaal hasn't even started yet, and when he does he'll only have a few weeks to organise his squad before embarking on his first season in English football. In contrast he's had two years with this Dutch team and the evidence of that is there to see every time they step on to the pitch. So I would advise caution, don't get carried away yet lads. At least not until Ashley Young is sold.


10. Allowing referees to use their common sense makes for more entertaining games


Before every World Cup FIFA try to implement a new directive, a new measure which will give referees more control and ultimately enhance the quality of the football. Officials are told to crack down on the tackle from behind, penalise play-acting or just be an overly fussy twat, depending on what Blatter and his cronies come up with in the weeks leading up to the finals. And the result? Mayhem. Yellow cards, red cards, tears, suspensions, jail sentences and general outcry. By the time the knockout stages begin the refs have been told to ignore this new directive and revert to type. Normality is restored but it's too late to save the tournament.


But this year something remarkable has happened. In the lead up to the finals there was no talk of new mandates or mystifying, impenetrable rule changes. It was all very quiet, too quiet I thought. And then the tournament began. And the tackles flew in. And, astonishingly, the referees just admonished the culprits and told them to get on with it. No yellow cards, no hasty sendings off, just a referee using his own common-sense. Yes there has still been glaring errors made by the officials, offsides that weren't and penalties that were, but on the whole the officials at this tournament have been brilliant. And the reason they've been so good is because they've been allowed to ref the games without interference from above. Wonders will never cease.



11. RTÉ need to get a studio by the beach


There was once a general rule of thumb when it came to watching tournament football; you watch the game itself on BBC/ITV, and then switch over to RTÉ for the analysis. I, and many others, adhered strictly to this doctrine for many a year. And it worked great. As soon as you heard Peter Collins' voice you quickly changed to the Beeb and the more dulcet tones of John Motson, and then at half-time you zipped back to our national broadcaster to see what Eamon and the lads had to say. But this year I've found myself staying with our British cousins, once half-time comes I no longer feel the need to listen to Brady and Giles bicker. So what's changed?


Well for a start ITV and the BBC have their studios beside the Copacabana, it immediately feels more intimate and beats RTÉ's set with ease. And then there's their pundits. Clarence Seedorf, Fabio Cannavaro, Rio Ferdinand, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira; proper legends of the game who have either only just quit or are still playing. Listening to these lads talk about the game is a lesson within itself, don't get me wrong I still enjoy the views of RTÉ's grizzled veterans but Seedorf et al offer a new view, a different insight, something we haven't heard before. In fairness RTÉ have tried their best to jazz things up, but Dietmar Hamann and Ossie Ardiles can't compare I'm afraid. When it comes to the crunch I'll probably return to Eamon and the lads, especially now that Clarence and Thierry have gone home, but the writing is on the wall, and not even the prospect of Dunphy in a dress can change my mind.


12. Fabio Capello is a footballing dinosaur


Guess which manager is on the biggest wages at this World Cup? No not Phil Scolari, he's only earning a paltry €2.5 million per annum. And no not even Roy Hodgson, the usually profligate FA are only lining his pockets to the tune of €3.5 million on a yearly basis. It's the manager of Russia, who have been the dullest, most uninspiring team at this tournament. Fabio Capello is currently earning €7 million per year in his role as head coach of the Russian national team. And what a job he is doing. For much of their opening game against South Korea the Russians were content to knock the ball around their back-four, sending to sleep those stupid enough to stay up to watch the game and even dampening the celebratory mood of the Brazilian crowd. Then South Korea scored. So Russia decided to attack. And they equalised. At which point they returned to knocking the ball around their back-four.


The game against Belgium was a slight improvement but this time they came away with nothing. Their task now is to beat Algeria in their final game and hope to scrape through as group runners-up, but I sincerely hope they don't. Capello's brand of football belongs to a different age, 2010 perhaps. That was when it was last seen on a global stage as England stunk out the tournament like they'd never done before. And for England 2010 read Russia 2014. Come in Mr. Capello your time is up, it's time to call it a day and join that other famous Italian managerial dinosaur, our old friend Giovanni Trappatoni.



So there you have it, I've learned twelve things, not quite one for every day of the tournament, but close enough. And who knows what else I'll learn as this World Cup progresses; I might find out why Phil Neville can only speak. In sentences. That last. A couple of words. While commentating. On football matches. Or I might find out why Martin Keown's face looks like it was put together by the team of surgeons who constructed Michael Jackson's nose. The possibilities are endless. But what have you learned? Leave your thoughts and ruminations in the comments section below. Oh and don't forget, if you want to be a part of Manaus FC, just get in touch.


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