Sunday, June 04, 2006

WORLD CUP COVERAGE

Preview - Finally Australia dine at the football fiesta full of fun and surprises

The Round Ball Analyst delves into the trends, teams and tactics likely to be providing the memories at Germany ’06.

WHEN 736 players, thousands of media representatives and hundreds of thousands of fans from all parts of the globe descend on Germany over the next month or so, they’ll all be part of the greatest show on earth, a month long football fiesta played out in front a global audience of billions.

And for the first time in 32 years, the lucky country is lucky enough to be a part of it, great news for Australian football lovers that have grown up marveling at the likes of Brazil, France, Holland, England and Argentina. Finally, a generation or so, sick of adopting someone else’s nation for the month long carnival, have a team of their own to get up close and personal with. And isn’t that sweet!

Over the years we’ve been awe-struck by the likes of Lineker, the Laudrup’s, Scifo, Hagi, Maradona, Schillaci, Stoichkov, Zidane, Baggio, Okocha and Ronaldo, we’ve encouraged the underdogs, the likes of the Roger Milla inspired Cameroon of Italia ’90 and Saudi Arabia’s Sayed al Owairan, who he cut a swathe through Belgium on his way to one of the goals of USA ’94 as SBS commentator Martin Tyler provided yet another of his trademark moments behind the microphone; “Can he score? He can, he can indeed.”

We laughed at the antics of Swedish keeper Thomas Ravelli , we poked fun at the Wolf-like looks of Bulgaria tough man Trifon Ivanov at USA ’94, yet appreciated his defending and will to win, we warmed to the ‘out-there’ approach of US defender Alexi Lalas, complete with his guitar and goatee beard and we wondered when South Korea’s elegant sweeper Hong Myung Bo would ever hang up the boots after seeing him at four World Cups - Italy, USA, France and finally at home in 2002 (believe it or not he’s back in Germany, this time as one of Dick Advocaat’s assistants).

That’s the beauty of a World Cup, it provides moments that survive time, players and goals that become the talk of the world. Just as you are dipping into lunchtime conversation about how Senegal outplayed France or how lethal Oleg Salenko was against Cameroon, you can be sure that same conversation is being had in thousands of kitchens, bars and football gatherings around the world.

Fast forward to this version, and sure enough there will be players, moments, tactics and trends that define Germany ’06, the beauty being our beloved Socceroos will be among the ones providing the memories.

For once kids across the country will be able to open a World Cup guide and read about their own heroes - Viduka, Bresciano, Grella, Culina and Kewell. For once, thousands of Australia’s traveling to the tournament, this correspondent among them, will be there on equal terms, as a participant.

So just what can we expect from the 18th edition of amazing tournament which has yielded only seven winners since Uruguay lifted the first version of the trophy in 1930?

That statistic would have us believe that it will be one of the established guard that is holding the trophy on July 9 in Berlin, the likes of Brazil, Italy or Germany, 11 times the winners between them.

There is little doubt it takes a certain pedigree to be a world champions, history proves that.

Yet a closer look at modern football, particularly the four years since Brazil lifted its fifth trophy in 2002, shows there has been a real leveling out in playing standards across the world, fuelling the potential for a new addition to the list. So often you hear it being said that it’s become clichéd, but there are very few easy games these days.

Globalisation and tools such at the internet and video/DVD analysis have resulted in everyone knowing so much more about each other. These days there a few secrets in football. What you don’t know about the opposition, you can find out relatively easy.

Modern football is much more even because these days professional players are as much athletes as they are footballers. Physicality has taken significant ground off artistry. Watch any older footage and what strikes you is the amount of space afforded in midfield, allowing the likes of Pele, Puskas, Di Steffano and Eusebio time to turn and weave their stuff.

These days the midfields are congested, made up of ‘buzzers’, sharp and nibble athletes, some sublimely gifted on the ball, others just there to do a job, breaking up opposition attacks before they’re launched. Space is denied as managers focus on the result. Style is a secondary consideration.

It means that teams can make up for technical deficiencies and remain competitive, and ensures that an underdog like Greece, who defended their way to Euro 2004, can make such a breakthrough and win a major championship.

Cynical some would argue, but in an increasingly results orientated world, it should hardly be surprising. Results or performance? The debate rages, and probably will do so for as long as the great game is played.

I recently had an email exchange with a Dutch friend now residing in the UK. When I asked him about the upcoming tournament and what I believe are Holland’s good chances of finally lifting the cup, his answer was symbolic; “As long as we play well, I’ll be happy.”

If you asked someone over the border, in the host nation, you’d probably get an answer along these lines; “As long as we win, who cares how we play.”

It was a point picked up by German legend Pierre Littbarski in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald; “In 1986 we made the final with a very poor team. We had a lot of injuries…..and the team was just one game from the World Championship on the back of power. In 2002 it was very similar and the team made the final.”

Conversely, you have the likes of Brazilian legends like Socrates and Falcao, who, in a recent article in The Times, spoke of their desire to see the quartet of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo and Adriano restore romance to the game. Says Socrates; “This is the first team that we believe can play similarly to the 1982 team [eliminated by a 3-2 loss to Italy in the second group phase after being universally praised for charming the world]. Football today is more a physical battle than anything else. This team can bring beauty back to the game and charm the world again.”

“That Brazilian team represented fantasy, idealism, an idyll. Italy represented efficiency, effectiveness. But at least we lost fighting for our ideals. And you can compare that to society today. We have lost touch with humanity, people are driven by results. They used to go to football to see a spectacle. Now, with very few exceptions, they go to watch a war and what matters is who wins.”

For all that, there is compelling evidence that the two can be combined, brains and beauty with brains and brawn.

Take Barcelona for example, who matched artistry from the likes of Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Deco with a more hardnosed defensive game led by Puyol, Marquez and Edmilson to walk away with this year’s Champions League. Success these days is often achieved by those who best balance the need to defend with the need to be efficient and decisive in the front third.

Even the Brazilian team that won in Japan essentially relied on a solid back four, screened by a defensive mined pair in Gilberto Silva and Kleberson. In attack they relied on the three R’s - Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – and the motto ‘that if one of us doesn’t get you, then other will’. It is the same approach they will take this time, Emerson and Ze Roberto responsible for ensuring the abovementioned quartet have license to roam.

Delve back to France ’98 and a host nation that relied on the best defence in the competition, knowing that if they kept clean sheets, they had, in Zinedine Zidane, the creative genius that could control games and break down the opponent.

The lesson to take from all this is that this year’s winner will, first and foremost, be able to stop goals. Defences often dominate in the major championships, particularly towards the business end. Little wonder than that Guus Hiddink has worked so hard at rectifying Australia’s defensive frailty, while Germany manager Jurgen Klinsmann drafted in veteran Jens Nowtony at the 11th hour to organise a leaky back-line.

Managers everywhere are refining the detail in their team, working on such things as shape, organisation and personnel, knowing that the finest detail can provide the edge, something that is becoming harder to find to an increasingly competitive environment.

Witness the exploits of the likes of Monaco, Porto, PSV, Liverpool, Benfica and Arsenal in recent Champions league campaigns, all rank outsiders at the start of their respective seasons. The one common denominator? They were all well coached. Notice how perennial Africa representatives like Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon have been replaced by the likes of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Angola, all first time participants. Analyse the European qualifiers and you realise that teams of the calibre of Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Russia missed out. World no. 2 Czech Republic had to rely on a play-off.

Two of the world’s biggest improvers over the past decade have been Central America’s USA and Mexico, both top 10 teams. It has been no fluke either. By regularly playing in the major tournaments and doing well, they have made a telling mark, witnessed by Mexico making the last 16 and America reaching the last eight four years ago. Had the States not been drawn in a such a tough group with the Czechs, Italy and Ghana, they had every chance of being one of the surprise packets, a team that packs pace. Who knows, they might still be.

Mexico, as a seeded team and after another impressive display at last year’s Confed Cup, is no longer a surprise, but how will they handle the expectation? In a game that is becoming increasingly physical, they remain true to their technical passing game, yet, in order to compete physically, rely heavily on a couple of robust figures in defender Rafael Marquez and striker Jared Borgetti.

There has been talk for some time now of an Africa nation winning the World Cup, fuelled by the performances from the likes of Cameroon (’90), Nigeria (’94) and Senegal (’02) and the fact that so many African players now work in Europe. It seems unlikely this time around, particularly as the two strongest, Ivory Coast and Ghana, are in incredible tough groups, the former facing Holland, Argentina and Serbia/Montenegro, the latter Italy, the Czechs and the US. Funnily enough, Africa’s best bet of getting out of the group stages might by Tunisia, a big improver under Frenchman Roger Lemerre, although he has a tough task in trying to get past either Spain or the Ukraine. In any case, it should be fun seeing Francileudo dos Santos again, the sublimely gifted playmaker that terrorised the Socceroos at last year’s Confed Cup.

Lemerre is a classic example of the movement of managers across borders, ensuring teams the world over can compensate for technical deficiencies by using tactical acumen. These days the Socceroos are guided by a Dutchman, the Japanese by Brazilian Zico, ditto Portugal who have Luiz Felipe Scolari, the English by a Swede, the normally free-spirited Trinidad and Tobago by tough disciplinarian Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, Iran by a Croat, Ghana by a Serb and so on.

More and more the style of football teams play is being harmonised. We can expect to see a lot of congesting of the midfield, teams using various versions of a 4-5-1 formation (sometime disguised as a 4-3-3, a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1), relying on a fitter, faster midfield to break forward in support of a solitary striker. Two wide men are expected to provide an outlet going forward, but are equally entrusted with the responsibility of getting behind the ball and denying space.

As sure as these ‘stifling’ tactics - four man defences, crowding of the midfield – are being worked on, the clever managers are looking for ways to unlock them.

That is why pace and width, these days such major features of club football, will continue to emerge as big threats on the international scene. Teams that lack pace defensively will struggle. But teams are looking to add speed not only in personnel, but also in the pace of their games, upping the tempo throughout matches, pressing teams higher up the pitch. Fitter, faster athletes can do this. Teams that traditionally play a slower build up game, like Brazil, will be forced to up their speed of ball movement by teams placing more pressure on their playmakers.

Speed. It’s why Klinsmann added Borussia Dortmund’s David Odonkor as a last minute surprise ahead of Kevin Kuranyi, why Eriksson went for Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon instead of Jermaine Defoe or Darren Bent, why Hiddink likes Archie Thompson, all because they can provide that extra spark in attack that forces defenders to make decisions, and they can be introduced as unknown factors late in games.

Bluff, subterfuge, keeping the opposition guessing, whatever you want to call it, it’s all part of the managers make-up, and you will see it on display at this World Cup. No-one is better at the mind games than Hiddink, keeping not only the opposition and media guessing, but his own squad on their toes.

As for width, you will notice this most when you look at teams like Holland, who use a 4-3-3 system (an adaptation on the 4-5-1), with the likes of Arjen Robben and Robert Van Persie on the flanks, both explosive players, but blessed with wonderful technique. Their tasks will be to get wide and try and expose right and left backs, providing service to the likes of Ruud Van Nistolrooy and Dirk Kuijt and creating scoring opportunities for themselves.

Manager Marco Van Basten has rebuilt the side throughout the qualifiers, and while the defence is inexperienced at this level, they have the potency and pace up front to create some real chances.

Another who has reworked his team impressively in the qualifiers has been Italy’s Marcelo Lippi, introducing the likes of Roma’s driving midfielder Daniele de Rossi and Fiorentina’s lethal Luca Toni, two players who have set Serie A alight this season and will hopefully get their chance to make an impact here. Boy does the Azzuri need a hero. Not since Schillaci in ’90 and then Baggio in ‘94 have they had a player dominate a world cup.

Like the Dutch, another potential first time winner is Portugal, who also rely heavily on width and pace, as well as a sublimely gifted midfield. With the option of any two from Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Simao on the flanks, and a central midfield trio chosen from Petit, Maniche, Deco, Costinha and Thiago, Scolari is spoilt for choice. With Carvalho and Ferreira in defence and Scolari pulling the strings, Portugal could give this tournament a shake, but their key man is Pauleta. If he can continue scoring at the rate he did in the qualifiers, this team could go one step further than at Euro 2004.

Without the major burden of expectation, all three have the potential to surprise and go all the way. Other European dark-horses include both the Ukraine and Serbia and Montenegro, both extremely impressive in qualifying where they relied on a tight rearguard, and efficiency in front of goal. There’s that recipe again.

Spain, one of the underachievers, also has the cattle to do the job, but do they have the manager and more importantly, the unity required? The jury is still out on Luis Aragones, but if he plays some of the blokes that have been setting Europe on fire – David Villa, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas – then why not? Indeed, a central midfield trio of Alonso and any two from Fabregas, Xavi or Iniesta wets the appetite, but it doesn’t appear Aragones will go that way, instead sticking with reputation over form. After all, he left out Alaves’ exciting right sided flyer Jesus Navas, who should really be pushing Joaquin for a start but doesn’t even get into the 23.

That’s the thing with the World Cup, it’s not only about having the star players. Sure it helps, but tactics and strategy play an even bigger role.

Which is why the Socceroos are in such a healthy position heading in. If anyone is going to get Australia through an incredibly tough first phase, it’s Hiddink. Without him there is little doubt the Socceroos would be happy to just be a part of it, but Hiddink, with his incredible ability to read and tinker with a match, find the right formula, offers hope the Socceroos can indeed be one of the surprise packets of a tournament sure to be chock-full of them.

Over the next month or so, do pop back into The Round Ball Analyst. I’ll be on hand in Germany, not only to cheer on the Socceroos, but to provide a first hand account of the players, games and tactics making a mark. Over the next week, do visit for a comprehensive preview of each group, followed by match analysis throughout the tournament. Any questions or thoughts? Post a comment.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Pinuts Pethia said...

As kit manager I have organised all the pen, paper and crayons you require TT.

Disappointing that some of the commercial networks are just sending anyone to report from Germany. Your services are highly appreciated by the true loving soccer fans.

Any chance of listing your predicted starting line-up for our first match against Japan?

Mon. Jun. 05, 10:57:00 am AEST  

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