5 Things We Learned From the World CupPosted: August 9, 2014
This summer soccer fans were treated to the biggest spectacle in sport….the World Cup. Practically every country in the world fields a national soccer team in hopes of making it to the final tournament where 32 teams, representing the various regions of the planet, play to determine the best national side in the world. This year the tournament was exciting, surprising, somewhat controversial and was worthy of the massive amount of attention afforded it around the world.
In following a popular format among sports columnists, this post is dedicated to 5 major learnings that the Soccer Yoda came away with from the competition.
1) Year in and year out the best national team program is Germany- no doubt
This conclusion probably comes under the “no duh!” category. Germany won the title; scored 18 goals in 7 games, gave up only 4 goals and on occasion looked like they were in another universe compared to their competition. But the real learning concerning the quality of national teams coming out of the Cup is the German’s amazing consistency from one tournament to the next – from one generation to the next. They have made it to the semifinal round for 4 consecutive tournaments. That’s 16 years. There are other nations with strong performances during the last 20 years but no one matches up to the Germans. The results are not the only thing that is impressive about Germany. They manage to consistently play quality soccer with an impressive balance in their players and their style. They play a possession game, but not to the detriment of their ability to counter-attack, nor to the excitement of watching them. They play outstanding defense, but because they don’t pack their defensive half of the field with players and because they can score plenty of goals when given the opportunity, their defense is largely overlooked. And they do all this, time and again, without a “super” star who carries the team. There is no German Messi or Neymar or Ronaldo. The rest of the world has some catching up to do to match Germany.
2) It’s still a defensive game
Soccer is about ball skill and running and decision making and team tactics. But,more than anything else, it’s about defense. Teams with poor defenders and goal keepers are at a great disadvantage. Even more so, teams without players that have the will to play defense, all 11 of them, are done before they start. Portugal had a decent team, but their desire to play team defense was questionable and when their best defender, Pepe, lost his brain (he didn’t lose his head, he used it!) and then head butted an opponent during their first game, it was over for them. Even Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t make up for a porous defense. Of course, the biggest example was Brazil, who thought they could overwhelm the Germans with offensive players, but forgot that those players needed to get back to help their back line. Despite having arguably the best defender in the world ( Thiago Silva), the Brazilians consistently overcommitted and failed to track overlapping late German runners who took open shots at the Brazilian goal. For all the ball skill of the Brazilians, it was their failure to play defense that doomed Brazil to an embarrassing loss in front of their home fans, with or without Neymar. Meanwhile, Mexico and the USA rode hot goalkeepers and a willingness to play team defense to achieve results above the general talent level of their teams. The US in particular, came but one Chris Wondolowski short volley from moving into the quarter finals strictly because Tim Howard was everywhere and the team was willing to work incredibly hard at defense with the occasional run up the field when the opportunity presented itself. The lesson is that at this level, teams need quality defenders and , even better, the desire to defend, to be successful.
3) Technology is good
Soccer is a game ( on the international level anyway) that is steeped in tradition. FIFA looks at every proposed change like it is changing the course of world history. So it was somewhat surprising that in this World Cup, two major technological innovations were used. Of course, the most discussed change was the use of goal-line technology to decide if goals were scored. It was very reassuring to see that goal line graphic after each close attempt at goal; to know that if a goal was awarded it was truly a goal. The technology was needed more often than one would have imagined. On more than one occasion, first looks seemed to indicate that the ball had crossed the line and we learned that even tv replays can be deceiving when several angles looked like the ball was over that line. But the technology said no, and in each case some angle of the replay showed that the correct decision had been made. Less momentous, but more useful, was the use of the disappearing foam to place the ball and the wall on free kicks. The constant infringement of players with the literal push back from the referees finally came to an end. The ball was placed, the wall formed , and the kick was taken. And the game moved on with a minimum of time wasted by the jockeying for position which has become so common. So what next? To the Soccer Yoda, the failure of Fifa to recognize the existence of the stopwatch is rediculous. Time wasting mars the game, and the added time which is supposed to make up for it never equals the time spent waiting for players to get treatment for their ” injuries” , much less the lolly gagging spent on substitutions. And to think that the game clock is running while players run all over the stadium celebrating goals with teammates , coaches, fans, food vendors … Anybody they can find who will hug them…makes no sense to me. The added time itself is a mystery. Nobody can figure out where the ” 1 minute ” or “5 minutes” comes from! It’s simple….stop the clock on goals, injuries, and substitutions. When it gets to the point that commentators rag on players , as was done to Graham Zusi, for taking so much time coming off the field that a minute was added, therefore giving Portugal the chance to tie the game in the last seconds, Fifa needs to move out of the 19th century in regards to game stoppages.
4) Playing well in the World Cup increases a player’s reputation …and value
A number of players had strong tournaments and their worth has increased because of it. Of course, the soccer world knew that would happen. Many clubs completed transfers before the Cup because they knew that if they waited until after the tournament the price of their desired new member would increase. What is interesting is that the world also knows that some players stand out when playing for their country while others don’t and a player’s overall ability may not be evident in the World Cup. Even superstar Messi would not be so well thought of if his performances for Argentina, prior to this World Cup, were the only consideration. Although Neymar always played well for Santos in Brazil, it was his ability to spark Brazil’s national team, particularly in the 2013 Confederation Cup, that earned him his huge contract at Barcelona. But he has been somewhat of a disappointment there, and the Cup would have been his ” reassurance games” for those who question his ability to help Barca. But between Brazil’s disappointing performance and Neymar’s injury, those doubts remain. So…soccer people know that just because a player does well in the World Cup, that alone is no guarantee of his worth to a club. Didn’t matter- the world went gaga over the tournament stars anyway. It is true that some of the tournament stars were already well thought of. We all knew that Tim Howard was one of the best in the world, so his brick-wall performance against Belgium was not a surprise and Everton congratulated itself on recognizing his talent before the rest of the world. But Guillermo Ochoa was let go by the French team Ajaccio ( and they are no major power , even in France) and had lost his spot as undisputed goalkeeper for Mexico. It was generally felt that his career had peaked. But Brazil fired a multidude of shots at him and he parried them all, then followed that with a strong game against Netherlands. Suddenly Ochoa became a sought-after good.After considering offers from some high caliber squads ( Arsenal, Liverpool) he decided on Spanish side Malaga. Malaga is a mid-table team that shows no sign of challenging for a higher spot in La Liga. But Ochoa got a nice deal and perhaps he feels that the microscope he would be under playing for a top level organization would not be favorable. One thing for sure, 2 excellent performances, coming at the right time, certainly helped him. James Rodriguez (Columbia),Divock Origi (Belgium), Christian Gamboa (Costa Rica), even USA substitute DeAndre Yedlin , all have signed or are close to signing lucrative new contracts as a result of the Cup and there are other players also cashing in on strong performances. But…..history shows these are not “sure-thing” players just because of their play this summer.
5) Soccer is more popular in the USA than any of us imagined
I’m not going to restate the obvious ( any more than I have in previous posts, anyway) but soccer is growing like crazy in this country! The crowds, the excitement, the patriotic fervor……wow! And for those way-behind-the-curve commentators like Ann Coulter, Keith Ablow, Jim Rome, etc. who claimed that once the World Cup was over, our interest would wane away…….well , the other day 109,000 ( yes, that’s correct- it’s a LOT of people) went to see two non-USA teams play a meaningless preseason game here in this country. And not in LA or Miami or some such city that would be expected to have a large crowd due to its ethnic makeup …no, this was in Ann Arbor , Michigan! Anti-soccer commentators only display their ignorance of the sports following in this country with their comments. If they don’t wake up, their own relevance will be questioned far more than they question soccer in this country.