The Cup Running Over

June 15, 2010 1:12 PM

Why World Cup Games Have Been So Boring -- And Are Likely To Remain That Way

Before the Cup started, we warned that the quality of play in this World Cup was unlikely to be terribly high and would frequently be unexciting.
Unfortunately we were right.
There are several reasons for this. National teams have far less time to practice together than club teams. Because of the way the top European clubs are now able to assemble what are, in effect, all-star teams, their players are also better. Barcelona could probably beat any national team in South Africa, often handily.
Moreover, with the huge salaries now paid to the top performers by their clubs, we may be entering an era when a player's highest allegiance must be, of necessity, to the teams that pay those salaries. If so, that means the World Cup may well be on its way to becoming something like baseball's All-Star Game - a wonderful and memorable occasion but not a place where legends are made anymore.
There were two iconic moments from the 2006 World Cup (other than the celebrated Zinedine Zidane head butting incident, of course). First, English striker Michael Owen got himself injured in a game against Sweden after his team had already qualified for the next round, damaging his career for years. The reaction among insiders was rather like the reaction to the celebrated incident in the 1970 baseball All-Star Game when Pete Rose slid hard into catcher Ray Fosse and injured him. The response wasn't "look at how hard Rose plays!" but rather "look at that idiot, doing that in a meaningless contest." The World Cup may be slowly heading toward that status, especially now that large clubs such as Arsenal have threatened legal action when their players are hurt on international duty.
Then there was the scene in the waning moments of Portugal's victory over Holland in 2006 when the camera panned to show Barcelona teammates Giovanni van Bronckhorst (of Holland) and Deco (of Portugal) seated together, amicably chatting it up after having been thrown out of the game. The Dutch fans may have been in tears but the players seemed to take it all a lot less seriously.
What's more, at the World Cup, there are a lot of mediocre teams. Their best chance to win, or at least avoid humiliation, is to put 10 men behind the ball, play defensively, and hope for a miracle. This contributes to a Cup where the early games may be surprisingly close but are often boring and low-scoring. It's undeniable that as the World Cup final tournament has expanded from 16 teams (as recently as 1978), to 24 in 1982, and 32 in 1998, there's been a significant drop in quality in the early rounds. Outside of Europe - where the quality of soccer has gotten better and the number of countries has increased, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union - the extra teams getting in can't compete.
Add to all this the natural hesitancy that creeps in when a player knows that any mistake could make him a goat for a lifetime (a la Robert Green) and the style of play tends toward the ultra-conservative.       
Put it this way: When was the last time both teams scored from open play in a championship game? That would be 1986 - with five Cups held since then.
Or take the stats first mentioned by Chris at In 13 playoff games in November in Europe, Latin America, and Oceania/Asia, there were only 15 goals scored total.
Even Ivory Coast has looked boring at the World Cup so far.

The play of teams such as Barcelona and Spain notwithstanding, top-flight international soccer has also become a more conservative, defensive game. The 2006 Cup tourney produced fewer goals than the previous two - in part because many teams are shifting to playing only one forward up front, with five players in midfield taking up a more defensive role, tackling and fouling to slow up counter-attacks. That is likely to continue. Moreover, with globalization, teams play more alike than before and they're certainly better prepared. No one can be surprised by anything - as used to happen when, say, Cameroon burst on the scene and shocked everyone at the 1990 World Cup.
Add to all this the factors of fatigue and altitude in locales such as Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. This is likely contributing to a style of play where the teams often look like they're moving in slow motion or have weights attached to their legs.
To be sure, there are teams that play an attacking style - Brazil, Spain, or Ivory Coast. And the deadening effects of altitude may also produce games where players make uncharacteristic mistakes, which leads to more goals.
But great soccer? We're beginning to discover that in South Africa, that is likely to be few and far between.
Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of the recently published World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, from which this post is adapted. They are analyzing the World Cup for RealClearSports

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