The Cup Running Over

July 9, 2010 9:14 AM

Reviewing the World Cup: What Happened and Why Did It Happen?

1. This is the first time a European team has won the World Cup outside of Europe. Why?

Teams playing on their home continent have a decided advantage so it's no surprise that a European team hasn't won in Latin America since even in Mexico, a South American team is going to have a clear cultural advantage. (Similarly, a non-European team has only won the Cup in Europe once.) The other two times the Cup has been held outside Europe -- in 1994 in the U.S. and in 2002 in Asia -- Brazil won. This time, Brazil collapsed. (See Question 4). And there were some key differences between this Cup and the 2002 and 1994 versions. It was far cooler since it was winter in South Africa and that helped European sides. The time zone was the same for most European countries.

Most important, soccer has become Europeanized, thanks to changes in the team game. Virtually the whole squads of Brazil and Argentina play in Europe. That seems to have had the effect of diminishing continental differences that once existed.

2. We're also going to have a winner this time who has never won before. This is the first time this has happened for a non-hosting country since 1958 with Brazil. Isn't that a huge surprise?

Not really. Going in, the general consensus was that one side of the draw would produce a team from among Argentina, Germany, and Spain. Those teams all got to the quarters and Spain prevailed. On the other side of the draw, it was commonly thought that the winner of the Brazil-Holland game would go to the finals. And that's what happened.

So the question is what made this Cup different for Spain and Holland -- two perennial under-performers.

3. What made this Cup different for Spain and Holland -- two perennial under-performers?

Spain's traditional problem is a lack of unity and cohesion on the national squad, which is a reflection of the nation's traditional lack of unity and strong regionalism. The Catalans distrust the people of Madrid, who distrust the Basques, who have problems with the Andalusians, and so on. This Spanish squad, however, is fundamentally Catalan -- with seven players starting the last game who either played for Barcelona or came up through its youth system. That cured the unity problem.

We think too much is being made of the Dutch appearance in the final. This is, after all, their third appearance in a final so it's hardly unprecedented. They're here essentially because the Brazilians collapsed and handed the game to them. And we don't think they'll win the final.

4. OK, why did Brazil collapse -- and for the second Cup in a row?

The Europeanization of soccer seems to be taking a toll on this team and probably Argentina. Throughout South America, there have been heated debates about how Brazilian or Argentinean these teams are. When Pele played, he spent his entire competitive career in Brazil. Now, however, all the stars head to Europe to play. Lionel Messi, for example, hasn't lived in Argentina since he was a young teen. It looks like countries which field teams that play in the home country -- or nearby -- are gaining an advantage and that the attributes that once made these South American sides distinctive are diminishing.

Dunga, the Brazilian coach, was also criticized for his tactical approach. But that wasn't the real problem: It was the age of his squad. At this Cup, younger squads tended to over-perform -- Chile, Ghana, Germany, even Spain (5th youngest) -- and some older squads to under-perform -- Italy or England. That's probably because the older players were more tired after a long season. Brazil had the second-oldest squad in South Africa. Dunga should have left some of the veterans at home and brought players like Sandro and Alexandre Pato.

Having said all that, Brazil collapsed essentially because of one player -- Felipe Melo -- the man who ran into the keeper to allow the first own goal; lost his man on the corner that scored the second, and then got himself thrown out on a red card several minutes later. There may be no single player who has done more to change a key game at the Cup than Melo. If he hadn't been playing (and remember he was only there because Michael Bastos was hurt and Ramires was suspended), we'd be looking at a Brazil-Spain final.

41946_news.jpgThis was a tournament dominated by teams with good holding midfielders, such as Holland's Nigel de Jong. (Courtesy

5. Why didn't African teams benefit from home continent advantage?

Because it's a huge, culturally diverse continent. When Italy plays in France or Germany, it only has to go a few hundred miles if that. The distance from Cameroon or Nigeria to South Africa is thousands of miles and as much of a cultural jump -- if not more -- than teams had to make from other continents.

6. What was the tactical story of the tournament?

As some pundits have begun to notice, teams that were successful at this Cup tended to play with two holding midfielders -- usually excellent ones. The Netherlands had Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel -- the backbone of the team. Spain relied on Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. This allowed both these teams to feature tight defenses and control possession -- in Spain's case dominantly. Germany did the same with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, as Uruguay did with Walter Gargano and Argedio Arevalo.

Ironically, Dunga was skewered by many Brazilians for doing the same. But again, it wasn't his tactics that got the team into trouble; it was the age of the team -- and Melo.

The success of this tactical approach is something new, even though the formation isn't. As the estimable Jonathan Wilson has written, the World Cup has tended to be won over the last few tournaments by the team with the best wide defenders, who often attack. Not this time around.

7. How big a surprise was Uruguay?

Not nearly as much as the pundits said. Because of the vagaries of the draw, one semifinalist was always going to be a team that was not one of the traditional superpowers. We thought going in that it would be Ghana -- and we think it would have been had its star player, Michael Essien, not been hurt. Once Ghana was weakened, the winner of Group A -- Uruguay's group -- had a nice path cleared to head to the semis.

8. Assess the performance of the US and Mexico.

Both teams did exactly what was expected -- no more or less. The US was expected to get out of its group and lose the next game and did. Ditto for Mexico. The only twist on that is that the US made close games out of contests with rather weak teams in the first round and gained an audience in the process as it continually pulled "miracles" out of its hat. But they were only miracles because the US had played sloppily before.

Looking ahead, Mexico is in better shape than the US. As we noted, the World Cup puts a premium on young talent. Mexico has the Dos Santos brothers, Carlos Vela, and Javier Hernandez in the pipeline. The heart of the US team will all be in its early 30's by the next Cup -- old in soccer terms -- and there doesn't seem to be any serviceable young talent, with the exception of Jozy Altidore and maybe Michael Bradley if he continues to improve. That's a problem.

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