10 takeaways from the World Cup
OK, so it isn't over yet, but before the final vuvuzela blows Sunday, here's what we can take away from this tournament in which favorites went home early (and in bulletproof cars), superstars discovered love children, and an octopus was hailed as a genius.
1. Spain showed us how to counter the counterattack
Jogi Low's lucky periwinkle sweater didn't stand a chance. In a game of "now you see it, now you don't," Spain whistled the ball around the park at a hypnotic pace -- forward, sideways, backward, forward, sideways, backward, you are getting sleepy -- and waited for the inevitable opening to come. The players would still be out there pinging it about in their "passing carousel," as Sir Alex Ferguson refers to Barcelona's one-touch triangles, if Carles Puyol hadn't grown impatient and catapulted himself into the air to spear a ferocious header into the net. (By the way, Carles, Gene Simmons called. He wants his hair back.)
Then, after all that metronomic passing, the goal comes from the most elemental of soccer plays: a set piece. It's this kind of dual threat that will give the Dutch nightmares. Spain not only dismantled the confident, high-octane Germans but it did so in a style that could be best described as "possessed." The Spaniards held on to the ball as if it were the Rimet trophy itself, with Xavi and Andres Iniesta finding spaces that are not readily apparent to the human eye. And they did it while using their third or fourth different formation of the tournament.
Spain could even afford to leave struggling starlet Fernando Torres on the bench, using sprightly Barca forward Pedro on the right side of midfield. La Furia Roja's versatility and industry took awhile to emerge from their chrysalides after that shocking opening defeat to the Swiss (the Swiss!). Now the Spanish are playing at their highest gear and Low is right to call them "the best team in the world." Although the Netherlands might have a thing or two to say about that.
2. The Dutch don't need to play Total Football to total you
The Netherlands has, so far, looked like a prosaic shadow of its former swashbuckling self, yet it's one very important win from changing the national psyche. With two lost finals ('74 and '78) and one flameout ('98 semis), the label of "Big Game Choke Artists" could finally be laid to rest. The Total Football glory days of Cruyff-inspired magic are as far removed from this Dutch side as is the requisite pregame frolicking in hot tubs with female fans.
The Oranje don't even have the panache of the Euro-winning Van Basten/Gullit/Rijkaard juggernaut of 1988 or the kind of Dennis Bergkamp genius that lit up their '98 World Cup run. But maybe the soccer gods have decided to reward the Netherlands for its life-affirming body of work because how else do you explain Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, a couple of talented munchkins by modern-day standards, scoring goals with their gleaming heads and why 35-year-old goal-shy defender Giovanni Van Bronckhorst is launching surface-to-air missiles from somewhere near the Cape of Good Hope.
Even with the Netherlands' affinity for theatrics, hissy fits and the flying leg whips of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, there's a feeling of destiny with this team. It's as if the Dutch realize that it's their responsibility to finally shuck off the weight of being the Best Team Never to Win the Cup and are prepared to do what it takes -- even if that means abandoning their legacy.
3. If you want to win the World Cup, don't play in the EPL
Heading into the semifinals, there were just seven card-carrying English Premier League players left from the staggering total of 117 that began the World Cup. I don't buy the excuse that the brutal EPL/Champions League/Europa League schedule left the players too jaded. Just look at the Bundesliga, where the entire electrifying German squad plies its trade. The German season is just as long as England's and Bayern Munich went all the way to the Champions League final with four of its stars -- Robben, Van Bommel, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger -- displaying no apparent signs of fatigue in the World Cup.
Inter Milan, the team that beat Bayern in the Champions League final, sent almost its entire starting lineup to the World Cup, including Dutch firebrand Sneijder, who has led the Netherlands into the final for the first time since 1978. And is there a better World Cup feeder club than Barcelona, with seven of its players making up the core of the Spanish side? Arguably the biggest flops of the Cup have been Wayne Rooney and Nicolas Anelka. Remind me: Where do they play their club ball?
If anything, the EPL is just a tougher, more physical league, but hurly-burly doesn't necessarily translate into quality -- or World Cup success.
4. The U.S. isn't a superpower -- yet
Once again, the World Cup proved that Americans are catching up to the rest of the world when it comes to maniacal fans, near-homicidal outrage over blown calls and creating "remote offices" in local pubs around the nation.
That said, the U.S. won only one game. Against Algeria. In the 94th minute. It lost to a Ghana team ranked about 20 places lower in the world rankings. That might have been enough for a lovefest from David Letterman and Jon Stewart, but perhaps the U.S. can aim a little higher next time and lure Oprah out of retirement in four years -- or at least Larry King.
Making the knockout rounds no longer should be cause for celebration in the U.S. but rather should be an opportunity to explore why the team didn't get further. After all, if the Germans could rebuild a program that won three World Cups from the ground up, maybe it's time for Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, to pull on his lederhosen and find a new mountain for the U.S. to climb. We need a national team structure that fosters technical development (rather than trophy accumulation) at the youth level, coherent scouting (i.e., integrating Hispanic talent into the pool), and a well-organized feeder system that allows for top U.S. players to hone their games overseas.
Until the U.S. does what every soccer-playing nation does at some point -- import coaching talent with World Cup pedigree -- it's forever destined to play in the margins, and we'll have to be content with the occasional shocking result, such as beating Spain in the Confederations Cup or taking a point from England in the group stage. The U.S. should be capable of ratchetting up the level in 2014 and beyond. But it's not going to happen by just going on late-night talk shows.
5. The Jabulani is just a soccer ball with dimples
As much as Robert Green and Julio Cesar would like to blame adidas' scientists for their career implosions, it's not the ball but shoddy technique that turned them into flailing jokes. Just another case of poor workmen blaming their tools; anyone who claimed that the reason there were so few long-range goals in this World Cup was thanks to the dipsy-doodle swerves of the Jabu should be sentenced to a lifetime of watching the YouTube video of van Bronckhorst's 41-yard unmanned drone that screamed on a straight line into the intersection of the post and upper 90. Or Japan's free-kick wizardry against Denmark. And if the ball is so difficult to strike accurately from distance, how did Diego Forlan, who curled in a trifecta of free kicks, become the first player in 20 years to score three goals from outside the box?
6. "Goal-line technology" needs to be more than an annoying catchphrase
Referees blew all sorts of calls this summer, their screwups more irritating than anything involving Heidi and Spencer. These flashpoints serve as an ode to the broken-hearted: Argentina's egregious opening goal against Mexico, Spanish players encroaching the penalty area on Paraguay's spot kick, Frank Lampard's not-so-phantom "goal" against Germany, and, of course, Maurice Edu's "offside."
Sepp Blatter, FIFA president and king of looking the other way, softened his hard-line stance on computer-aided refereeing in the sport, though you get the feeling he's only pandering to the media. The U.S. will win back-to-back World Cups before FIFA acknowledges a flaw in its grand design.
7. However, we don't need instant replay
Call me a sadist, but on a personal level, the drama and emotion of Edu's disallowed goal against Slovenia proved why the game should stand as it is currently laid out. Camera angles don't necessarily tell the whole story -- Seen the Zapruder footage recently? -- although the technology would surely get abused by fear-struck refs who would second-guess their decision-making thanks to the eye in the sky.
In the modern, tactics-dominated game where, thanks to massed defenses, goals are so precious -- there's been an average of only 2.24 per game in this tournament -- it's important that we count all the legitimate ones. But although it's one thing to have technology to determine whether the ball crossed the plane, that's where we have to draw the line, so to speak. In other words, no instant replay for offside calls, thank you very much.
The outrage I felt at the end of the Slovenia game reminded me why I love soccer so much over the stutter-start NFL or America's pastime, which takes longer to watch than the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Getting every decision correct is boring (just ask Congress). I'd much rather feel burning anger or righteous indignation during a World Cup than nothing at all.
8. You can't be both a cheat and a hero
Luis Suarez had a reputation-enhancing World Cup until he stuck out his hand and became the spawn of Satan for denying Ghana, the darling of the tournament, its rightful place in the semifinals. Even though Suarez did what just about any soccer player in his position would have, he made the mistake of not showing any remorse when Asamoah Gyan's penalty kick clanged off the crossbar and Uruguay went on to win the game. Instead, he acted as if he had just scored the winning goal of the World Cup final, allowing his teammates to parade him around the field on their shoulders. Although karma caught up to Los Charruas in their defeat by the Netherlands, Suarez's postgame bravado turned a simple act of gamesmanship into a morality play. He now gets a starting spot on the All-Hands Team lineup, joining Diego Maradona, Thierry Henry and Paul the oracle octopus.
9. Well, you can be if you're Diego Maradona
The Argentina manager's transformation from porcine, drug-addled cheat to lovable, dapper guardian of Joga Bonito has been nothing short of remarkable. We remember the qualifying campaign, full of trademark Diego volatility: running over a photographer's foot with his car, vile tirades at journalists and the pretournament whimsy of demanding state-of-the-art bidets in his hotel suite. Those of us expecting men chasing after him with a big butterfly net in South Africa were dead wrong. Maradona was all sweetness and light, coaching the Albicestes in his own freewheeling, attack-happy image until it all unraveled against Germany and he went back to looking like a man whose tactical acumen seemed to consist of wearing the same suit and grasping the same rosary beads.
Sure, his game plans were naive, but his passion for the job was infectious. Every player got a hug and a kiss postgame regardless of the result, and the media embraced him in a similar way, forgiving his career transgressions and scraggly facial hair. Perhaps it's because Maradona had been usurped in the shame department by Suarez, or maybe he's no longer the same maniac we once knew and secretly loved. Now, the Argentine players, including Lionel Messi, with whom he has endured a difficult relationship, want him to stay. No one expects to see Maradona coaching in 2014, but we can surely hope.
10. Countries should hold national inquiries into their soccer teams before the World Cup
Although France and Nigeria provided plenty of entertainment off the field, they'd have been better served on it by leaving their farcical talents at baggage check. Newly elected Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan went so far as to withdraw the Super Eagles from international competition for two years after the team flamed out -- only to have the bad luck of receiving a FIFA threat to wipe them off the face of the soccer map. Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded that outgoing clownish manager Raymond Domenech testify before a closed-door meeting of the National Congress to explain why Les Bleus brought dishonor to their country. He even rescheduled policy meetings to rendezvous with Thierry Henry, one of the leaders behind the team mutiny. After a long and mostly glorious career in Europe, Henry is expected to retire -- sorry, I mean play -- for the Red Bulls, and Sarkozy's last words to him were reportedly, "Here's your chapeau, what's your hurry?"
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."