BOSTON — With the last six spots in World Cup 2010 up for grabs on Wednesday, organizers can return to worrying about all the daunting challenges that remain in South Africa.
Can they keep the unions happy and on the job for eight months? Will all the stadiums be finished in time? Can South Africa provide adequate security in what is essentially a 10-ring, moving circus? Will tourists be deterred by the sour economy and high crime rates? Can the transportation network meet unprecedented demand? And can the host nation find a diplomatic solution to those nails-on-a-blackboard vuvuzela horns that threatened to mar the worldwide TV feeds?
But along with all those concerns, there remains one quadrennial problem that haunts most every World Cup and that, in the minds of fans, is paramount. And it is one that both South Africa and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, appear helpless to combat: bad soccer.
If we needed a reminder that the World Cup too often proves a disappointment, at least in terms of the artistry of the games, we got several this past weekend. A dozen top national teams — meeting in two-game playoffs for World Cup berths — managed to score a grand total of seven goals between them. Other than Russia’s 2-1 victory over Slovenia in Moscow, there were four 1-0 games and one 0-0 slog.
The latter was in Athens, where Greece appears more than happy to play 210 minutes of stultifying, defensive soccer against Ukraine in order to take their chances in the penalty shootout. And why shouldn’t it? Ugly, fan-unfriendly, all-defense-all-the-time tactics has proved to be an effective way for less gifted teams to compete and, in fact, took Greece all the way to a stunning European crown as recently as 2004.
Even teams with reputations for offensive creativity, like Portugal and France, appeared delighted to walk off with 1-0 victory matches. Contrast these World Cup qualifying results with recent Champions League games featuring the best club teams in Europe. In 32 Champions game over the past month, the teams have averaged three goals a game or just about exactly three times the scoring that was mustered over the weekend.
Club teams have the advantage of playing and practicing together more frequently and, thus, are often able to showcase more cohesive attacks. Still, this World Cup scoring drought is not about practice time. Rather it is about coaches whose pusillanimous approaches reflect all their fears and insecurities. (Admittedly not without justification, given the fragile hold national team coaches have on their jobs.)
As a result, they opt for the conservative course, which means trying, above all, to avoid mistakes. Attacking football is a fan-pleaser and can be a game-winner, but its inevitable byproduct is risk — that the weaker team will score against the run of play. The bigger the stakes, the more constricted the play. Fans' aesthetic grievances are easily dismissed in victory.
Russian coach Guus Hiddink can afford to be an exception. No only does his team boast considerable firepower, but he is one coach — after World Cup successes with Netherlands, South Korea and Australia as well as a great run at Euro 2008 with Russia — who doesn’t have to fear the unemployment line, or at least not for long. Still, by allowing a goal at home Russia will be out of the World Cup — and Hiddink second-guessed for four years — if it loses in Celje, Slovenia by that familiar 1-0 score. (Away goals are the tiebreaker.)
It is only fair to point out that there was some offensive-minded soccer displayed in World Cup qualification over the weekend in Africa. Africa concluded its round-robin play with two of its perennial powers punching their World Cup tickets: Cameroon over Morocco 2-0; and Nigeria coming from behind to beat Kenya 3-2.
African soccer remains a bit of a conundrum. While there is considerable talent and African youth teams have performed very well on the international stage, there has not been major World Cup success. In 1990, Cameroon became the first African team to reach the quarterfinals, it was supposed to be the breakthrough. Since then, no African team has advanced further and only Senegal, in 2004, has gone as far.
The conventional wisdom is that African teams lack discipline, a result of inadequate funding for training programs and top-flight coaching. Lack of discipline tends to suggest a more single-minded approach. African teams play to win and sometimes fail to adapt their style to circumstances. Playing to win is not the same thing — and sometimes not as good — as playing to get a result.
African teams are far more likely to remain on the attack after going up 1-0. They are not always schooled in or skilled at the defensive tactics — Italy is the master — which aim to assure that, at that point, the game is effectively over. Nigeria’s 3-2 win Saturday is taken as a signal that the Super Eagles will once again be capable of beating anybody at the World Cup, while unlikely to advance deep into the tournament.
Fans of the game itself would be thrilled with some breathless soccer Wednesday. But no doubt the four European favorites — France, Portugal, Russia and Greece — would all be thrilled with no heavy breathing and somnolent, scoreless ties. And I worry that this may be a harbinger of things to come in South Africa. No matter how colorful the setting, World Cup 2010 could once again prove dreary where it matters most: on the field.