That’s what I’m talking about

I know it is risky to write an article on World Cup talking points ahead of the final, particularly considering Zinedine Zidane’s moment of madness four years ago.

However, in a vain hope that the final will be remembered for footballing reasons alone, I feel now is the time to run through three of the key issues to have arisen over the last month in South Africa.

I just want to add one rider to this article – I shall not be mentioning Vuvuzelas. The debate has been done to death, and I have no reason to bore you any further on the matter. So, without further ado, here are three talking points which have been doing the rounds during the 2010 World Cup.

1. The Jabulani

Don’t get me wrong, I realise in advance of every World Cup we get the inevitable debate about the ball.

Normally we see goalkeepers from all countries getting their excuses in, joined by the occasional manager being disproportionately critical, using hyperbole to express mild dissatisfaction.

But this year I think people may have been within their rights to complain.

I’m not talking about the swerve on the ball, which has become part and parcel of the modern game, particularly now with the regular exploits of players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Keisuke Honda.

Few have tamed the Jabulani as well as Honda

A bigger issue this year has been the overhit passes which have plagued the tournament. It seems as though the shape of the Jabulani is causing it to skid across the turf much quicker than players are accustomed to, taking the sliderule through-ball – often an important weapon – out of many sides’ arsenals.

This has contributed to altogether scrappier play, and has allowed well-organised defenced (such as Algeria’s against England and Switzerland’s against Spain) to flourish.

At the same time, pacy strikers, whose game revolves around such through balls, have struggled to carve out chances. You need look no further than the disappointing campaigns from Torres, Anelka and co for evidence of this.

2. The French débâcle

One of the more embarrassing stories of this World Cup surrounds the very public falling-out between players and staff in the France squad.

Perhaps the whole spectacle was used as a tool to draw attention away from a dismal campaign, beginning with a draw against 10-man Uruguay in arguably the worst game of the tournament (and it had a decent amount of competition) and going downhill from there.

We all know what came next – Nicolas Anelka left the squad in a Keane-esque display of dissatisfaction, while captain Patrice Evra betrayed his calm image by getting into a fight with fitness coach Robert Duverne.

While there is obviously no excusing the behaviour of senior French players, particularly given the example they were expected to set to the millions of fans watching at home, there is a feeling all of this might have been avoided had the French FA parted company with Raymond Domenech sooner.

Many French fans will be happy to see the back of manager Raymond Domenech

Just as Rafa Benitez dined on his 2005 Champions League victory while at Liverpool, Domenech has remained in a job longer than many feel he deserved to, simply on the basis of his country’s performance in the 2006 World Cup.

Even then he was living something of a charmed life, with a strong French side struggling to escape a weak group, before Zidane essentially carried the team through the knockout phases.

Now, I won’t get into the debate over whether Domenech – whose only previous top-flight managerial experience ended in 1993 – is qualified for the job.

Rather I will raise the point that the man once in charge of the France under-21 squad (from which many of his current charges graduated) has been unable to gain the support of his players for the most part. If a team containing Ribery, Evra, Anelka, Malouda and others can go two major competitions without winning a game, it doesn’t take a psychic octopus to work out that something is wrong.

French fans will now hope the appointment of Laurent Blanc as Domenech’s successor marks the beginning of a new, less controversial era. If Blanc can get the best out of the likes of Yoann Gourcuff – as he did when manager at Bordeaux – a French footballing renaissance should not be far away.

3. The new ‘Hand of God’

In the 120th minute of Ghana’s quarter-final against Uruguay, Luis Suarez stuck out a hand to block Dominic Adiyiah’s goalbound effort.

As I’m sure you know, Suarez was sent off, Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty, and Uruguay went through to the semi-finals after a penalty shootout (incidentally, Adiyiah missed the decisive kick).

The furore surrounding Suarez’s actions was immense and well-publicised, yet when Harry Kewell was guilty of the same offence in Ghana’s group game against Australia, not a single word of ill-will was uttered. Could it be that the only reason for the differing reactions is that Gyan scored one of the penalties and missed the other?

The short answer is no.

The long answer? While some will argue Suarez’s actions were no less instinctive than those of Kewell, it is the response of the Ajax striker to which many have taken exception.

Suarez's name will surely go down forever in World Cup folklore

Not only did he irk Ghanaian supporters (not to mention those in other countries) with talk of the hand of God, but he then had the temerity to hound referee Benito Archundia in the third/fourth-place play-off after his free-kick was blocked by a German hand.

It is at least partly a matter of grace, although don’t try telling that to Adiyiah. Had Suarez the humility to admit his act was borne out of instinct, and then show remorse, he would surely have been looked upon with a little more respect. After all, he was punished for the offence, and it is not his fault that Gyan missed from the spot (or that Uruguay won the shootout).

However by revelling in the handball – essentially admitting to cheating to gain an advantage – Suarez has ensured his World Cup will be remembered not for his three goals, but for his one less-than-honourable decision.

Hopefully all gamesmanship will be put to one side tonight, when Holland and Spain run out at the Soccer City stadium. With the world watching, everyone will be hoping the two teams let their football do the talking.

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3 Comments

  1. 1 – The Jabulani – I’m undecided on the issue. The general paucity of cracking strikes and ‘eye of the needle’ passes makes me think that there may be something up with the ball. I’m not buying into the ‘Keeper’s Union view that it has been the root cause of their mistakes. Take Rob Green’s gaffe for instance – that’s a lack of concentration. Nothing to do with the ball in these instances.

    All this said, players like Tevez, Forlan and Suarez have hit some cracking efforts. Even Ronaldo, despite his poor tournament, hit a couple of absolute rockets onto the woodwork. Also, re Anelka and Torres – the former was part of a basket case team and Torres’ lack of form, in my opinion, stems from the injury/surgery he had in the run up to the tournament.

    2 – France – karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?

    3 – Suarez and the Hand of God/Devil – I’ve been quite vocal in stating that the negative reaction against Suarez and Uruguay was the result of this act taking place against an African side. No professional player in their right mind, under those circumstances, would have done anything different. When each fan thinks about it, if they’re being honest, they’d want one of their players to do exactly the same thing.

    Spain for the win tonight. Comfortably.

    Nice article, bw.

  2. Some interesting points there Bobby. Tempted to agree with you re. Torres, particularly now having watched the final, although it remains the case that no pacy strikers (in the Torres mould) really flourished.

    Re. Suarez, no doubt the fact that it was against an African side played a part. Compare it to the flagrant rule-bending displayed by South Korea in 2002 – the attitude of the neutral observer (and in this country more than in others, it seems) tends to lean towards the host/underdog to the point that people tend to overlook the context or even the nature of some incidents. As you suggest, had that been John Terry coming in with one of his trademark basketball moves in the last minute against Slovenia, I expect some English fans would be using the adjective ‘heroic’ rather than ‘despicable’.

  3. There’s no doubt about it: we tend to overlook the indiscretions of the underdog team and come down like a tonne of bricks on the opposing side. The funny thing is, with a population of just 3m people, Uruguay are classic underdogs themselves. Their achievements really have been impressive. Once England went out, a lot of people (rather condescendingly, in my eyes) started to get behind the Ghana cause in a big way. I also think the sudden death nature of the penalty made it even more galling for the neutrals. Had it happened on say the 60th minute, then I don’t think the reaction would have been as vociferous. Amongst my friends, there was a real negative reaction towards Suarez. It is all about the context when that sort of incident occurs: if it’s your own player, then he’s a hero. But make no mistake, I’d probably be advocating the death penalty if it happened against my side!

    As an interesting aside, re Torres:

    He only scored two at Euro 2008 – I think his quiet tournament that year was masked by the fact that he scored the winner in the final. But it shouldn’t be a major surprise that he has underwhelmed again in this tournament. His international record is surprisingly ordinary: just 24 in 80 games.

    I don’t want to seem to be being reactionary, but at 26 years of age, and with a litany of troublesome muscular injuries, I think Liverpool would be well advised to sell him if someone put £50m on the table. Terrific footballer, but I see some eerie parallels with the career trajectory of Michael Owen here.


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