World Cup diary #3: the beginning of the end

Posted on June 28, 2010

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A busy travel schedule has allowed me to see most of the matches so far, to keep up on the press and bloggers, yet not to comment much myself. But now the real tournament has begun, in the second round. I’ll be blogging regularly from here on in.

It’s hard to give a comparative assessment of this World Cup over others so far (this is my eighth as a serious fan). Our memories of past championships lean heavily on the titanic battles between world soccer heavyweights, which generally begin in the round of 16 and the quarters. And just as the summers seemed like they were a lot sunnier when we were kids, we tend to remember seeing mostly great games in the past (apart from the stinker that was Italia 1990), and forget that there are always plenty of lame encounters, especially in the first round. Most teams are overly cautious in their first match of the group stage; the inferior teams always play for a nil-nil draw against the favored teams; and by the third and final match, several teams have already either qualified or been eliminated.

That said, I would say it has been a just-OK World Cup so far. I’m not especially concerned that goals were down in the first round. There were several games with one goal or less that showed positive attacking by both sides. Americans are familiar with the excitement of a low-scoring pitching duel in baseball, and this is the best analogy for many exciting-but-goal-deficient matches. Our disappointments are less about what happened that what didn’t. In particular, it is discouraging that the African nations have still failed to make the breakthrough we’ve been expecting for two decades. There’s a decent general explanation for that in the Simon Kuper’s and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics, chapter 13 “The Curse of Poverty”. And a more specific explanation involving corruption and political interference by football guru Jonathan Wilson for Sports Illustrated.

What we seem to be learning once again is that for all the promising, rising stars among national soccer teams, there remains a fairly big gap between the talent level and consistency of the top 6 or 8 sides, on the one hand, and the rest of the top 20 or so, on the other. And although one or two of those top 8 can have an embarrassing tournament (Italy and France, this time), the pre-tournament favorites are similar from one World Cup to the next, and are generally meeting in the knock-out rounds. This year, as always, we are seeing some match-ups in the round of 16 that we might not have minded in the finals. And Brazil-Netherlands in the quarters could well be the match of the year.

If you’re following the World Cup with enough enthusiasm to pursue analyses on the blogosphere, then you are surely most interested in getting some breakdown of what’s actually happening on the pitch. Well you won’t get much of that at This Sporting Life. Again, you can do no better than checking in daily at Zonal Marking.

In the meantime, I will begin pursuing some of the familiar themes on this blog, but in a World-Cup or soccer context, including:

  • concerns about the officiating and whether there should be rule changes or changes in use of technology to make more accurate calls;
  • concerns about sportsmanship — in particular, about how bothered we should be with diving and what, if anything, soccer authorities should do about it;
  • questions about the role of nationalism in World Cup fandom, and the role of World-Cup success or failure for national self-images;
  • pleas for deaf ears about how soccer should be broadcast (or at least, why the way it has been broadcast throughout my lifetime is an utter travesty);
  • reflections on what is great and not-so-great about soccer as a spectator sport, and how it ranks vis-a-vis other sports.

That should keep me busy, especially as games become fewer and farther between. I’m open to other topics about, roughly, “what soccer teaches us about life” if you have any suggestions.

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