The faces of the defeated are infinitely more interesting than the faces of the victorious. I’ve thought that for a long time and this morning’s defeat of Holland by the patient Spaniards was no different. You could see it on Robben’s face when his second half shot was saved by the toes of Spanish keeper Casillas and you could see it on the faces of the Dutch defenders during that briefest of moments between realising that they’d all missed Ramos at the far post and him heading over the bar.
And it was thanks to the superb high-definition coverage of the World Cup that we got to see that emotional drama played out so clearly. In the past we might have had to wait for the 35mm movie film (narrated by Sean Connery) to see that much detail. HD is now a must for any sports fan and has made this the most enjoyable World Cup for me since 1986. That, and my recent transition to freelancing which has allowed me to watch more games than I managed in the last three World Cups put together, along with this Public Address gig which gave me a great excuse to do exactly that.
What else have we learnt during the last month? That pundits pontificating about the death of football in Europe and the forthcoming domination of Latin America should probably wait until the end of the tournament before voicing their conclusions. That a great team full of great players (Spain, for example) would beat an average team full of great players (Argentina, for the sake of argument), who will also have their arses handed to them by a great team full of average-to-above-average players (Germany, who are yet to reach their best).
And then there’s the disaster of England, who turned out to be neither a great team or a bunch of great players - or even particularly nice people.
I liked Richard Williams’ assessment in The Guardian last week:
As we saw in this year’s European Cup, and are now seeing in the World Cup, football is going through a phase in which the science of coaching has the upper hand over the technical skill of individual players. That emphasis gives an advantage to the rich European clubs, and by extension to their national teams, who benefit most immediately from the rising levels of tactical sophistication.
Both this year's finalists have found ways, albeit rather different ones, of integrating talented individuals into carefully planned formations and patterns of play. Although Dunga and Diego Maradona may not agree, teaching your players where to go and what to do when the opponent has the ball is not necessarily the enemy of entertainment.
It may not have been true this morning (if it was your first ever game of football, it might well turn out to be your last), but Williams is right to emphasise the importance of defence in a World Cup challenge. After all, when you gather the best players in the world a few of them are going to be at the back of the field mopping up and some of the most arresting play was the result of great defenders reading the game superbly and timing tackles exquisitely. Players like Mertesacker and Lahm, John Mensah (or am I thinking of Jonathan Mensah?), Mexico’s Salcido and Marquez, Van Bronckhorst, Chile’s Caceres, Uruguay’s Caceres (and Fucile) and, of course, the rocks of the Spanish defence: Puyol, Pique, Capdevila and Ramos. But then I’m a former right back so I love to see defenders doing their jobs well.
Which leads me to New Zealand and the best example of a well-drilled, superbly led, defence in the tournament. I’ve never been a big fan of Ryan Nelsen, as he’s been playing in a pretty ugly Blackburn outfit for his day job, but he led and organised the All Whites superbly, in a three-maybe-five at the back formation that would have been unfamiliar to most of the players at the start of the campaign. ESPN just named him in their XI of the tournament alongside Puyol.
And what of Ricki Herbert, only undefeated coach of the tournament? There’ll be a press conference this afternoon at which (the runes suggest) Herbert will announce his continued presence at the helm of both the Phoenix and the All Whites. I can’t tell you how important it is that he sticks around for a few years.
I liken his situation to that of Peter Jackson after Brain Dead. He could have gone to Hollywood to make a packet of money but stayed to build an industry. We don’t have the coaching depth in this country to be able to repeat (or build on) the ‘Nix achievements of last season without Herbert, and fickle fans will soon desert a failing club side. As former Australian coach Frank Farina said in this weekend’s papers, “... at the moment there's only certain death in terms of progression or moving forward.” At least I think I understood what he meant.
Right now, I can’t wait for the Premiership season to start. I love clean slates and West Ham have one right now. The Phoenix have a game against star-studded Boca Juniors from Argentina the weekend after next and the serious season kicks off against Gold Coast (now minus Smeltz) in exactly a month. Bring it on, please.