Content advisory 16+ So, at last, the long-awaited World Cup kicks off today. In fact, by the time this post hits the board, the Russia-Saudi Arabia match will be underway. Frankly, under normal circumstances, I wouldn't walk across the street to see an encounter between these two worse-than-mediocre sides, but, hey, it IS the World Cup.
A few observations, based on recent World Cups. Look for the most entertaining football to be played in the first couple of weeks in the Round Robin phase of the tournament. This is when the big boys open up a bit, figuring they can cruise into the next stage, but, even better, it offers a chance for the 'Cinderella' squads -- the Icelands, Costa Ricas, and Nigerias, to show their stuff -- and since they have nothing to lose, they opt for the open, attacking football that fans love and which indeed is how football should be played.
The great Pele called football "the beautiful game", and when it is played in the proper spirit, that's exactly what it is. The problem emerges in precisely what you can bet we will see when the tournament reaches the 'knock out' stage. That's when the big dogs: Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, etc. will start playing with Great Caution -- that is, playing not to LOSE rather than playing to WIN.
The result will be mind-numbing boredom. I guarantee it. Sometimes we will be treated to 120 minutes (regulation 90 minutes plus 30 for extra time) of scoreless football, with both teams more or less going through the motions just to get to the penalty stage.
It is like boxing. If you have two guys who want to fight, especially if they have contrasting styles, you get a great brawl, If they are both pacifists, counter-punchers, southpaws, or a combination of all three, you wind up with a situation producing less violence than a couple of vegetarians practicing yoga.
Modern era football, built as it is around enormous sums of money and relentless pressure to win, has produced an atmosphere where the order of the day is stalemate brought on either by dull tactics or -- as in the case of the Spain-Holland final 8 years ago -- vicious fouling on part of the Dutch designed to stop the flow of play and deny the better side the chance to display its skill.
In that Final in particular, which had seemed so promising based on the great talent of the Spaniards plus the previously open, inventive, exciting football that the Netherlands had shown themselves capable of (especially in their 3-2 win over Brazil), the match was ruined when the Dutch decided that dirty football designed to shut the match down was preferable to actually playing all-out and risking a good hiding at the hands of the superior Spanish. If I had been the ref I would have sent three Holland players off in the first 10 minutes and hoped the final tally would be 12-0.
Holland, in short, destroyed the final as a sporting event and ruined the entertainment factor for a billion fans worldwide. Anyway, they are not there this year, and they won't be missed. But Italy is also among the non-qualifying casualties, and it will seem strange without them. The Americans are a no-show too, but who cares?
American "soccer" as they call it has never seriously progressed, and this despite all the advantages the Yanks have at their disposal. Part of the problem is the still lingering perception that it really isn't a true American sport, but represents rather the infiltration of subversive elements, maybe even communists. Secondly, the really gifted American athletes (mostly black) go in for the big money of football and basketball and baseball. Men's soccer is, therefore, a fertile ground for the upwardly mobile white boys from the richest suburbs because, on the purely physical level, they are better able to compete. (Indeed, it remains one of the great things about 'European' football that ordinary-sized guys can reach the top. The difference is that Europeans and South Americans are talented at the sport, while the USA part of the Americas simply isn't.) So the nice rich kids give it a whirl and go home.
Americans like violent collisions and a lot of scoring. It is, after all, the 'Instant Gratification Society." I came to live in England in the early 1970s and soon began to love the 'real' football. And I have spent more time than you can imagine trying to explain it -- and justify it -- to American sports fans. But try as I might, most of them just won't buy into competition where quite often the final tally is 0-0. The 1998 men's World Cup final was played in the California Rose Bowl in front of over 100,000 spectators. The teams -- Italy and Brazil -- were the biggest names football has to offer. You could just feel the Americans WANTING to embrace this final. The great American women had already done their bit in spectacular fashion. But this was the MEN'S final -- the Main Event.
After 120 minutes, it was still 0-0. (Brazil finally won on penalties). Quite honestly, it bored the LIVING PISS out of millions of American onlookers -- and who could blame them? They wanted SOMEBODY to score a damned goal. Was it too much to ask?? After watching guys like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, yes.....I guess it WAS too much to ask. A single lousy goal to liven things up? Nope -- not a chance.
Brazil and Italy offered just one more example of national teams REFUSING to play. This is why the club tournaments (Champion's League, for example) are so much better. They are home-and-away, except for the final, and there is a big reward for 'away'goals.' I would much rather watch two legs of Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich than anything the nations seem able to produce.
The other thing that is needed (boy do I sound American here) is INSTANT REPLAY, especially in the penalty area. The referees seem to miss half of what is going on because of two reasons: (1) the game is much faster now; and (2) the players are 100% dishonest, constantly diving and faking. It disgusts me. EVERY PENALTY that is given should be subject to review by instant replay. I ask you, does it make sense that in a sport where goals are fiendishly hard to come by, a match should be decided on some phantom penalty that never really happened? It spoils the sport and it is entirely the fault of the players. If they refuse to BE honest, then they need to be KEPT honest. Instant Replay.
So, I could say more, much more, but this is my take. In summary, look for some excitement and great stories in the first two weeks. Then be prepared to watch Russia disappear and the big teams slog it out in penalties. The only other things needed to cap it off will be some typically miserable Moscow weather for the Final.
1-0. You will see that scoreline again and again and again.
Hooligans? Ultras? Forget it. There will not be a single major incident. President Putin has all that completely under control. Trust my word here.
It is all about IMAGE.
Fuck reality. Russia is GREAT and it's high time the rest of the world knew it. Nothing would spoil the image our government wants more than a bunch of aggro or a wild melee in the streets.
My friends don't believe me, but it simply won't happen.
Enjoy the World Cup. Drink a lot of coffee to stay awake when the beer runs out.
===Eric Richard Leroy===