Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"I want it all - the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles...!"

The dizzying highs have been obvious – the swashbuckling, eye-popping, almost physics-defying skills of the Argentinians, the freshness and fervour of the German hosts, the attacking instincts of Spain, Ivory Coast and Holland, and all those glorious goals flying in from here, there and everywhere.

And, of course, the lows have been no less noticeable: every time England have taken the pitch, for example.

Then, after the second set of first-round matches ended, we’ve come to settle, it seems, in more of the creamy middles: climactic matches reduced to half-hearted battles for first and second place, meaningless walkabouts between two sides already packed and ready to go home, or all-too-easily yellow-carded stars being obliged by their bosses to sit out 90 minutes for the greater, risk-averse good.

And so, onto the second round – the time to start weighing up in more considered, bigger-picture-here-folks terms whether this really will go down, as this copy of Sport-Bild rather prematurely decrees, as ‘Die beste Weltermeisterschaft aller Zeiten’.

Well, now the second round is indeed done and dusted and, well, it seems those creamy middles might just have begun to curdle.

The Germany-Sweden opener, while uplifting for the hosts, was virtually over as a spectacle within 12 minutes and Podolski’s two goals, and certainly so after Lucic’s red card after barely half an hour had been played.

Ignoring hypocritically all I may have previously posted about the England game, the less now said about that Ecuador game the better – likewise last night’s Ukraine-Switzerland snoreathon and, indeed, while it was a superbly tight defensive display by the Italians yesterday, their narrow win over Australia was more entertaining in the stands and the streets outside than on the pitch.

Brazil’s cakewalk against Ghana today required little of them other than riding their opponents’ reckless challenges effectively enough to avoid major injury, while giving the viewer less the impression they were watching Brazil, more that it was rather like watching Barnsley.

Then tonight’s Spain-France game, so full of enthralling potential, thus so sure to disappoint – but as both teams hesitantly circled, squared up and eventually sparred together, there was interest if little excitement.

That, then, leaves the two genuinely good games out of eight: the good good, and the bad good.

The first being, obviously, the Argentina-Mexico game, one of the finest of the tournament so far and a credit to both sides – Mexico for refusing to be intimidated by the supposedly all-conquering Argies and combining tireless efforts with intelligent probing and admirable passing. And Argentina, for withstanding the first up-and-at-‘em assault to look like troubling them so far, for patiently, very patiently working out how to somehow win Juan Riquelme a little more space and time than the very little the Mexicans were allowing him – and finally, for that stunningly-executed winning goal by unlikely star-in-the-making Maxi Rodriguez.

Then, there was the bad bad, of course, the deplorable yet also compellingly enjoyable royal rumble between Holland and Portugal, of which more below.

So what went wrong? Well, apart from the ever-present dangers of too-much-too-soon hype and hoopla.

There must be that fear of losing, when the stakes have suddenly raised that significantly higher. When the permutations and careful strategies of the first round have proved successful enough so far, now needing tactics and timing and fitness and flair to be recalibrated for different, one-off conditions.

When going all out for goals, laying down a marker or flying high a standard, is no longer so important as simply getting through, and making sure the other guys don’t.

Until tonight’s game, only the exceptional (in more senses than one) Mexico-Argentina game featured a goal from both sides. In the other cases, the teams that took the lead found themselves able to sit back, hold on for the win in variously easy or difficult circumstances.

Also disappointing has been the constant brandishing of cards which have made this World Cup’s signature colour yellow, even more than the outfits of Brazil, Togo, Ecuador, Sweden, Australia and Ukraine and their followers.

A booking all too often now seems the inevitable accompaniment to a transgression – brief burst of dissent, a petulant but petty kicking-away of the ball, a mistimed but not dangerous tackle. And already, then, you’re half way to being banished from the pitch for the rest of the game – not a trivial punishment, a minor inconvenience to give someone a signal the ref has got a little bit fed up with them. While dangerous, goal-denying or career-threatening behaviour must be both punished and deterred, it’s ridiculous to see otherwise-innocuous games end without a full quota of players on the pitch at the end because of a few minor faults have been over-punished.

And once the yellow cards stack up, further match-wrecking tensions and tournament-undermining suspensions surely follow and follow apace. The referee in the Portugal-Holland match got the red cards about right, managed to somehow miss despatching a few more – but perhaps should take some of the blame for how the game turned so nasty, by waving around so many yellow cards in the very earliest moments of the game.

Maybe he meant them to settle things down from the start, act as a warning to the players to behave. That backfired. Instead the oft-appearing yellow card acted as a red rag, inspiring the aggrieved players to dive, play-act, lash out as much as, even more than before.

Leaving a sour taste in the mouth, in what was shaping up to be a month-long celebration of Champagne football at its finest.

Hopefully the next two days’ breather will provide the refreshment required.

Then again, after enjoying so much of this non-stop football for the past fortnight-and-a-bit – even when it’s been ‘never mind the quality, feel the quantity’ – even two days seems like too much…

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