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Built to last?

June 17, 2010

Diego Forlan is a gladiator, a truly outstanding forward. A tireless, explosive yet unselfish player who’d improve most squads at the very highest level, even at 31. Forget the lazily trotted-out disbelief that this is the player who struggled, particularly early on, at Manchester United – he’s the real deal and has been for five years. He celebrates his goals just as he plays the game – with an intensity that takes nothing for granted. Seeing him do so twice in Pretoria bred very mixed feelings: regret for Bafana Bafana, on whom you can only say Uruguay ‘did a job’, blended with relief that a player of top quality had come to the fore in a high-pressure situation. Forlan’s double-clenched fists, mane trailing in his wake, were comfortingly familiar – and perhaps we needed that after five days short of genuine waymarkers.

Two defensive midfielders, attacking with only three players, a lack of goals from forwards (the latter predicted by this writer ahead of the tournament, but it’s early days) – three discernible trends thus far that all merit much discussion as they unfold and remove many an observer from his comfort zone, but there’s nothing empirical to tell us that This Is A Bad World Cup. No first round of group games produces a sound scientific sample, and too many precious breaths have been devoted to What Is Wrong. It’s like saying the house itself looks dreadful when you’ve only seen the foundations, but that should be an obvious point.

The past two days have provided a reasonable seam of the stock narratives you’d wish for: the rank outsider’s last-minute equaliser; the other rank outsider’s high wire act with the favourites; the other favourites’ shock defeat; the agonies of the host nation. It’s enough for us to get the teeth into now – the World Cup stories that mix the on-field and analytical with the human and emotional. That’s the essence of the tournament, and if it’s taken a couple of days longer than usual to be drawn out then it’s no drama.

Switzerland v Spain and South Africa v Uruguay were two matches that genuinely ‘felt’ like football matches, occasions, events of tension and consequence. Events where, no matter how many your holding midfielders, rhyme and reason don’t appear guaranteed to rule the day – even if they ultimately do. The frenetic aspect has ratcheted up just a notch, as has the willingness of the onlooker to buy into the emerging storyline – and with the cagey first round of matches having only done a few sides big favours, it’s not going to stop there. I’m not sure perceptions of the tournament were helped by the fact that both favourites and both rank outsiders joined the party so late – we needed to experience these extremes, because most of the sides in the middle can be separated by the thinnest of wafers.

I didn’t feel sorry for Spain. Fielding both Alonso and Busquets (who still invites disgust for his cheating of Thiago Motta) was not necessary against the understandably negative Swiss, even though it’s been Del Bosque’s favoured setup for a while. Brazil experienced similar problems against North Korea in the first half, but we know not to expect Dunga to dispense of Gilberto or Melo and we do – even through gritted teeth – understand the reasoning. Spain’s test is now as psychological as it is physical or tactical – they’ll beat the Hondurans, who are neither quite imposing nor technical enough to trouble anybody, but if Chile and Switzerland were to play out an entirely plausible draw then all manner of age-old ghosts become very real once more.

It’s game on, then, all round. Hell, even Greece v Nigeria might produce something – sending, as it is likely to, somebody tumbling out of the tournament just 144 hours into its existence. While we know how teams will react when they’re afraid to lose, how will they respond when they know that’s not enough? I think we owe it to the World Cup to, at the very least, view that side of the coin before deciding things really aren’t to our liking.

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