The very first World cup, with a capital W, we could even say “Dubya”, given the excellent performance of the United States’ team, is taking place before our eyes. Football, the great leveller, the truly democratic force between nations, where rich and poor can compete on equal terms, is finally a reality. Welcome to Korea/Japan, 2002.
This World Cup has been excellent, from many points of view, with islands of sadness. While there have been disappointments (the teams of France, Argentina, Portugal and Russia are missed in the later stages), it should be remembered that while Russia and Portugal were returning home on Friday, so were Denmark and Paraguay the following day, although they had reached the next round and should be remembered that if there is to be one winner among 32 nations, there will be 31 losers, the second place, or runner-up, being the first among the last.
But there has also been emotion, football at its best…and its worst. The overpaid, over-indulged and big-headed, spoilt brats of Portugal gave their now customary performance of bad sportsmanship, this time not spitting at or pushing the referee, but worse – punching him in the guts as two were sent off in a game Portugal only had to draw (against Korea). The “Golden Generation” of Portugal will not be missed, because tournaments like this moved beyond the need for bad losers decades ago.
Spain finally found its true mettle on the world stage in an intriguing and exciting battle with Ireland, while a number of supposedly lesser teams appear in the later rounds of the World Cup. For the first time, the quarter finals can be called a World Cup, with representatives from South America (Brazil), North America (the USA), Africa (Senegal), Asia (South Korea) and Europe (England, Germany, Spain, Turkey).
Half of the teams to make the last eight are non-favourites (USA, Turkey, South Korea and Senegal). Here is proof that football at its best is a great leveller. Gone are World Champions France, three-times Champions Italy, two-times Champions Argentina, two-times Champions Uruguay. Of the seven nations which have won the world cup, only three are left (Brazil, 4 times, Germany, 3, and England, 1).
And for the first time, the winner could be from any of the world’s continents (except Australasia, whose reduced number of countries put this continent at a disadvantage, for the time being).
This is proof that in today’s football, there are no easy teams. As training methods and skills are passed around the planet as a natural consequence of globalisation, so are many of the players at the World Cup opponents on the field at this competition but close friends and club team-mates on other pitches in national championships. To note is the large, almost exclusive, number of Irish, Danish and Swedish players in the English premiership, many of the other players being present in the German Bundesliga and the Italian and Spanish First Divisions, as the Senegalese team all play in France.
Tactics are discussed in books, in symposiums and on the Internet. Players are scooped up by scouts when they are in their teens and are whisked off to special training camps, sometimes in other countries, since they are being observed in a number of youth tournaments from an early age. It is therefore no surprise to find Senegal with a serious chance of reaching the semi-final stage, at least.
It is also no surprise to see these “lesser” teams competing with the “big boys” when their football is analysed. The USA is a good example. The players pass well, they move into position off the ball, constantly, they tackle hard and fairly, they take their chances when they arrive, scoring goals when they are in a position to do so, hitting the back of the net and not the second row of the crowd behind the goal, and often off to the right on the touchline, like so many European teams. The US team, along with Turkey, Senegal and South Korea, have learnt their football from scratch.
They play an exemplary game, running hard, pressing the opponent, playing as a team and not a motley collection of super-rich brats, like the Portuguese, for example, who reportedly tried to apply pressure on the Portuguese Football Federation shortly before the game with South Korea, requesting that their bonus be paid tax-free. They lost the game and returned to Lisbon, to receive a hail of abuse from hundreds of irate fans.
The teams from the USA, Turkey, South Korea and Senegal do not spend minutes arguing with the referee, they do not feign dives inside the area and they do not elbow opponents in the face. They do not spit at linesmen or punch referees in the stomach, they do not swear at referees or bellow in their faces, their own features twisted into gargoyle-like expressions, with bulging eyes and teeth flashing, fists clenched in rage and frothing at the mouth in hatred.
They play football. They create alternatives, they run into position and pass the ball when they have it and fight hard to get it back when they lose it. They play positively, fighting until the last second of the game, the last breath, as South Korea showed against an Italian side which had forgotten how to manage the remaining ten minutes of a game when winning 1-0.
Good luck to them and congratulations to Japan and South Korea for an exemplary organisation of the World Cup. It does not matter what happens next. The last eight speak volumes about this wonderful competition and the state of the world’s football today. It is an honour to have witnessed the resounding success which is the 2002 World Cup.
May the best team win!
Timothy BANCROFT-HINCHEY PRAVDA.Ru