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The figures speak for themselves. Of 13 World Cup matches played up to Friday afternoon by 10 traditional South American and European powers, these teams have won 12 and drawn one, writes David Owen. The clean sweep was prevented only by the tidy Swiss, who held turgid France to a goalless draw on Tuesday in the stultifying heat of Stuttgart.
Furthermore, of eight games prior to Friday night’s Holland-Ivory Coast clash that have pitted a team from Europe or South America against one from elsewhere, the record is seven wins and one draw for world football’s historical power bases, with 17 goals scored and only three conceded.
Why, when the difference in technical ability between the best players from Europe and South America and those from elsewhere is narrower than ever, has Germany 2006 produced a dearth of shocks? Four years ago, the story was very different, with Senegal, South Korea, Japan and the US all claiming notable victories.
Four factors have contributed to the tables turning back in favour of football’s Old World. First, we are back in the European nations’ backyard. The 2002 World Cup was the first to be staged in Asia, a novelty always likely to serve up a comparatively high shock quotient, even if the final was between the two most successful sides in the competition’s history – Brazil and Germany. In four years’ time, we will be back on virgin World Cup territory in South Africa, so the change may not be permanent.
Second, the best African teams – a source of several surprise results in recent tournaments – simply are not here. The significance of this should not, however, be overstated: though Senegal enjoyed a dream World Cup in 2002, the continent’s biggest guns, Cameroon and Nigeria, disappointed.
Third, the megastars such as Luís Figo and Thierry Henry look less jaded than four years ago, beneficiaries of the longer gap between the start of the competition and the end of the European club season. This probably helps the big powers marginally more than the other nations, even though there are plenty of big stars playing for small countries.
Having said that, no player has yet set the tournament alight, although Arsenal’s new Czech signing Tómas Rosicky, Argentina’s Juan Riquelme and a host of Spaniards have started promisingly.
But the most significant explanation for the lack of surprises is the way foreign coaches have drilled teams from all over the world to play pragmatic, European-style football. This is a good way to avoid embarrassment, particularly when many of their players are employed by European clubs – and many defeats for developing football nations have been by narrow margins. But such teams are unlikely to beat the Europeans at their own game – unless they retain the best features of their own playing style and blend them into something distinctive, as Senegal did in Asia.
There was a revealing episode at the end of the South Korea-Togo game when the Koreans (coach: Dutchman Dick Advocaat), leading 2-1, were awarded a free-kick outside the Africans’ penalty area. Rather than shoot for goal, they unforgivably passed the ball backwards to keep possession. That move had European percentage play stamped all over it.
But would it even have occurred to Francesco Totti or David Beckham – let alone Ronaldinho – not to have a pot at goal, given an infinitesimally small chance that the opposition would break up the field and score? Perhaps I am not cynical enough, but I doubt it.