No more cruise control
“The problem,” mused a middle-aged Afrikaaner, clad in orange from head to toe, as we waited to pay for parking after the Cameroon v Netherlands game, “is that they’re all just so bloody tired”.
As he then launched into a – not unusual, as I’ve mentioned before – diatribe on why Bafana Bafana are “a century, more perhaps, behind everyone else”, it’s wise to heed with caution. We can’t say for sure that European football is in need of some extensive navel-gazing, because all conclusions (such as ‘worst World Cup ever’, eh?) are best drawn at the end of this month’s jamboree. But the early exits of Italy and France, along with the relative toils of England and Spain so far, sound a warning bell or two that may grow yet louder over the next couple of weeks.
Similarly to 2002, this has become a World Cup for the little guy. It’s a good situation on the whole and probably one that European club football has created for itself. The margins between professional football players are, to my mind, very fine and often based in the head. When young players from emerging football nations are being taken by European clubs at earlier ages than ever – and even if this does not happen, when methods of coaching and nurturing are shared, professionalised and homogenised pretty much across the world – those margins are going to slim further. Get the right stuff into a guy’s head early on and you’ve won half the battle. It becomes more and more difficult to speak of ‘inferior players’ when good footballers are all learning similar things. It’s probably had the effect of exposing complacency in some perceivedly major nations’ setups – even if their way is ‘best’, they’re not the only ones that can practise it.
This said, it’s a little early to speak of a ‘rise of the east’ and all that. I’m yet to see Japan’s apparently fine performance of last night, although I’ll endeavour to catch one of the endless re-runs shown in TV here. They’d shown against England that they’d been quietly developing while heads were turned elsewhere, but I’d caution against setting too much stock in victories against a demoralised Cameroon and a workaday Danish side. Likewise, the Koreans beat an awful Greece before being picked off by Argentina and participating in a basketball match against an equally brittle Nigeria. These two countries may have overcome a couple of big psychological hurdles in entering the knock-out stages, but their real challenges come now.
They may not be the most glamourous sounding last-16 ties, but Uruguay v South Korea and Paraguay v Japan (I’ll be at the latter) both fascinate in their similarity, their apparent clashes of styles and their evident encapsulation of this World Cup’s narrative to date. It’s been South America’s tournament so far, without question. All five sides will probably progress, all five have (before Chile v Spain and Brazil v Portugal) conceded just four goals between them and all look reasonably clinical in attack, however rare their sorties. It’s a balance no other group of countries, perhaps no other country bar the Netherlands, has managed. You’d fancy both Uruguay and Paraguay to close out their opponents pretty effectively and show that there remains a hierarchy among the mid-ranking nations – and if they do that, then we’re probably in for a last eight that is 50 per cent South American. That, alone, is a fascinating situation given the problems faced by at least two of these sides during qualifying – and might hint that the wildly fluctuating results in that region are a product of genuinely intense competition ahead of a lack of quality.
For today, we eagerly await Spain v Chile – albeit wishing that the excellent Fernandez was available for the latter. Alexis Sanchez has been one of the most enthralling players of the tournament so far, as expected. It will be good for the competition if both of these superbly fluent, if flawed, sides progress, because you’d expect some very tight tactical battles in the knock-out matches that we know and can confidently chart. As ‘smaller’ nations move through the competition, they’re likely to keep things very close to their chests.
Me, I’m off to enjoy my final day in what is a foggy Cape Town – although I’ll definitely be back for a couple of days after the final, because it’s not been possible to do justice to this place yet. Nor was it for the Garden Route. An hour-long stop at Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma National Park was enough to make us all wish that England v Slovenia wasn’t happening five hours later. A friend of James, our Ipswich-born resident of Cape Town, told me last night that the hope of many South Africans was that this tournament would provide a showreel to visiting fans of just what a beautiful country this is, and that they’d then return for a ‘proper’ holiday. Mission accomplished, it’s easy to say.