The World Cup Final 2010

It was, in the end, a Final for people who enjoy complex, technical, thinking football. There has been plenty of this throughout the tournament, especially from the three European semi-finalists, and the standard of commentary on television and in the press has struggled to keep up. It struggled in the Final too. In musical terms, this was late Bach and late Beethoven, interpreted on screen by fans of Korngold.

Radio 5 have been a cut apart as ever, but even they have had low moments. Graham Taylor and Mark Pougatch proposing an Argentina-style set-up for England (“a morale-raising figure – an Alan Shearer – with experienced coaches around him to help him out”), for instance, although that idea didn’t survive Argentina’s encounter with Germany. And last night, Alan Green decrying an enthralling and skilful stand-off as “one of the worst finals ever” which is an opinion he’s entitled to of course.

For me, the best part was simply being able to sit back and watch Howard Webb cope with the quite incredible levels of psychological pressure which the two teams deliberately placed upon him. Such is the fear factor at huge games like this that even experienced and capable sides like Spain and Holland can spend them doing more to deflect the blame for defeat than to win the thing. And they asked the question of Howard Webb in the first half: are you going to ruin the game? Because we’ll push and push and push and make it hard for you. Because it’s the World Cup Final, ref. And when you’ve given way, and splashed out the red cards, we’ll relax and play – because whatever happens from then on is your fault, Webb, and not ours.

They couldn’t break him. Time and time again Webb’s calm and good judgement kept the lid on things. By the end, the behaviour of the Dutch in particular had shaded into the embarrassing, and Iniesta’s goal, for which he and Spain had waited with such patience and strength of mind, prevented injustice and fiasco.

Webb made one error over 120 minutes – a minor error, which only overheated minds could see as having any effect on the outcome of the game. And even that error could be put down to the Dutch, who were pulling on Webb’s attention yet again as the shot was tipped over.

I was proud of Howard Webb. And, as I’m declaring that the refereeing was successful, only the football questions are left, and there’s only one of those: what happened to Holland?

In the end, Spain were a step too far for them of course, but nonetheless Holland have played better than that against tough opposition. The patience and clever passing which they displayed against Brazil were absent here. It was as if for all their pre-match talk about their long unbeaten run, and their sense of invulnerability, they went into the Final nonetheless with low expectations. What fragile belief they retained didn’t last out Spain’s scintillating first fifteen minutes. Thereafter, the game plan was to kick and harry, and trust that Arjen Robben’s bullet-proof sense of entitlement would pull them out of trouble.

He had the chance to do it, but even he, a man who has never doubted his own ability nor his own right to win despite the most unencouraging of circumstances, went into that chance with one eye over his shoulder for help from the referee.

At least the Dutch knew that they weren’t quite good enough. I don’t think the commentary teams on UK television or in the UK press have that kind of self-knowledge. Anyone who has read Italian sports newspapers, or seen reports from Dutch youth training camps, or (insert your own alternative) must find themselves wondering at the state of football thinking here. Perhaps the idea that what we have here amounts to a football culture is one of the few remaining hangovers from our invention of the modern game in 1870-1885. I didn’t see a football culture in the UK this World Cup. Yes, the usual recycled footie tropes were there, but these don’t change and the Brits rehearse them like lines from a foreign phrasebook or Proverbs. The UK interacts with football with the same personality-driven, storyline approach that it brings to novels, TV drama and reality television.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It works with George Eliot, or Alexander McCall Smith, or Ashes to Ashes. But I worry that the UK wants this approach to deliver footballing success. And the only things down that road are yet more faux outrage and yet more lingering bitterness, betrayal and disappointment.

9 Replies to “The World Cup Final 2010”

  1. Keep it up, James – good stuff. I thought it awfully sad though to see Spain win while poor Torres was prone and in pain. Is he going to be another Owen – never again in a state where you can trust his health? That would be a much bigger loss to football.

    Anyway, about the media – much Aussie sports commentary is the most stupid and partisan of bullshit, but their sports pros are highly rational and serious-minded folk: such distinctions are worth making. Meantime, I still wonder that Mr Hindsight finds it necessary to commend “pass and move”. In my rugby days I also played a bit of indoor five-a-side football and found that pass and move came naturally to this lumberng back row forward but not, it would seem, to Edinburgh footballers. It’s not just that British footballers are dimmer is it? They actually must take a secret oath to stay dim.

  2. You really mustn’t listen to Alan Green. Even if you do listen to Five Live, just try to block out his words with some mental white noise, or the sound of Evensong in Swaledale sometime in the 1920s. The man’s a rusted weathervane – he tries to spout conventional cliches, but while most of his kind at least usually reach the right conclusions albeit in a profoundly stupid manner, Green sounds stupid and reaches the wrong conclusions. I’ve heard him make similarly wrongheaded pronouncements about other great games (at least one European Cup final, though I don’t remember which one). He’s like the drunk young man at parties who makes controversial statements in a loud voice in order to attract everyone’s attention. You know, the kind who mount an aggressive defence of Maoism, or who declares that God is Dead, or that the Serie A is a good quality league. As in those cases, you just have to block out the noise and start drinking more.

    As for the final, sadly I had to work through the whole darn thing (Yanks don’t seem to appreciate the finer points of world football, at least not once they’re out of the tournament), so I didn’t get to see all that much of it, but it looked like a meeting of equals. Sadly that usually precludes many goals – you need an imbalance, or at least some suicidal defending, for a properly pulsating final. France taking Brazil apart in ’98 is a fond memory, while ’06’s final was a far more even affair, therefore lacking in goals. Older heads than this one will no doubt recall other games that fit either pattern. I only remember ’94 onwards; I saw a number of games in ’90, but not the final.

    As far as the point about British football goes, you may have something there. One doesn’t wish to generalise, but it’s true that an attitude towards the game which is about football, as opposed to “passion”, “grit”, “pride”, “determination”, or any number of other things that don’t appear to have anything much to do with kicking a ball. Not that personality-focused characteristics aren’t important or worthy, but they are inevitable, while football is played by people and not robots. In other words, if you take care of the technical stuff, the characters and the setting and the storyline will take care of themselves. Miss out on the technical development, and the human aspect will simply be tabloid fodder.

    I despair sometimes at the reporting of football in the UK. It’s not just England, although they are serial offenders. The Scots have their own cross to bear, with the media and fans (and even players and management) seemingly unable to countenance the fact that one could win through simply being better than the other side, rather than through the players “grit”, or “steel”, or “brave hearts”. The games against France were cases in point. Both I though were poor games of football, both were the kind of games decided by blind luck and incompetence, and in both Scotland triumphed through a mixture of tough tackling and France’s long and painful fall from grace. Yet the media reported them as triumphs against the odds, of plucky young tykes tweaking the noses of the superstars in some kind of modern retelling of Blind Harry’s ‘The Wallace’. Scotland won because they were tough and determined….

    Does anyone really think that games and tournaments are won and lost simply through these qualities? That Maradona and Cruyff and Pele dominated games through their pluck or will to win, or whatever. They won because they had skill. It was determination that led Maradona and Pele out of the slums to become stars, that led Cruyff to train for years with weights on his feet, that made Stan Matthews kick a ball against a wall for hours by himself or go jogging along beaches when his average contemporary was enjoying pints, fags, and fried breakfasts, possibly all at the same time. But thereafter, it was their skills that gave them success, not the determination that honed the skills. It’s like the British media and public have absorbed some simple mathematical formula, but then forgotten half of it, leading them to always come to the wrong end result. Winning takes luck, focus, willpower, even a bit of passion, but all of those things are useless without the basics. In Scotland and England, those things are all we seem to end up with. The basics have somehow been forgotten, or handed over to other nations, along with the Empire.

  3. I’m sorry James, but I can’t endorse Mr Webb’s performance the way you have. I know that not sending off De Jong helped keep it 11 vs 11 for entertainment etc.

    But, studs in the chest… that’s over the line for me.

    As for the footballing culture – I’d like to hope that now we’ve seen a side of mostly short, skillful players win and win in the face of a team “getting stuck in” with “passion” that England (can’t comment on the state of Scotland) may finally be ready to reform the way young kids are brought into the game of football.

    It’s unlikely though – the problem is illustrated in the way there’s a groundswell of antagonism towards the way the Spanish play. We (the British) don’t have the patience to play this game.

  4. I’d normally be with you on De Jong – in an ordinary match, that would have been a straight red. Although there is some question of intent in that particular case (it doesn’t look as though DJ went in deliberately to get Xavi Alonso) ONLY in a major final would a referee pause and consider the situation in the way Webb did. I suppose I just feel – outside of the laws of the game and advice to referees – that the WC Final places unusual pressures on both players and referees and that allowances must therefore be made on both sides. I’d say the same for the two major European club finals, the FA Cup Final (remembering how shocking, upsetting Kevin Moran’s 1985 red card was for both teams on the day) etc.

    That said, I do think the players were pushing Webb – trying to present him with impossible situations as a means to deflect the pressure from themselves. (But the reffing team were there on merit too, and it was their Final too). It’s possible to see the Dutch response post-match as evidence for that.

    That groundswell of antagonism towards the way the Spanish play – remember the booing from the England fans when Capello’s England began to play possession football? I’m beginning to wonder if what the English public (the Scottish situation is weird, peculiar by comparison, at least I think so after 2 yrs up here) wants from the international team isn’t actually entirely divorced from the sort of footballing questions the Dutch, the Germans and the Spanish ask about their youth development. It was a thought prompted by watching a Tiger Woods interview – the stark difference between the qns asked by English journalists and those asked by US and European journos – that plus the usual 6-0-6 responses.

    I’m a GREAT Alan Green fan – would much rather disagree with everything the man says and feel my attitude contrasting with his – just for the moments when he gets the words and atmosphere gloriously, magnificently right. IMHO it’s him, John Murray, Mike Ingham and then the departed (Brian Moore, Peter Jones) and the retired (David Coleman, Barry Davies). There is currently no TV commentator who I think worth listening to. Watched the Final on ITV (the only online feed that wasn’t swamped and useless) and couldn’t help noticing how their team failed – simply failed – to provide any insight at all into what was happening. Nothing tactical. No attempt to draw attention to the myriad displays of skill or the wondrous Spanish passing or… take the picture away and you could have been watching Stoke v Blackburn on a mudpatch in January.

    😉 writing about the World Cup always puts me into rant mode/bitter-and-twisted mode..

  5. Well, James, we are going to disagree here. I do think it was an awful final. If that is complexity and thinking, count me with the dumb. If that was late Bach and late Beethoven bring on the penny whistle. And that is from someone who particularly loves Beethoven’s Late Quartets.

    Howard Webb did very well in the circumstances but the Dutch have vanished off my aesthetic map for now. They must have thought that the only way to beat Spain was to bully and discompose them, then counter attack with the long ball down the middle.

    Let me get dumb and dumber still. Moves constantly broke down. There were more passes played across the field and back than in any other game I have seen this tournament. More misplaced passes too, the ball going straight out of play, particularly in the middle patch of the first half, or booted from goalkeeper to goalkeeper. Spain were indeed discomposed. The Dutch were England with menace. Players on both sides were losing tempers. Their assaults on Webb were predictable and self-indulgent in some cases and quite justified in others. Sheer frustration.

    I will now go and sit with the dunces who do at least remember the Dutch as they were, the French as they were, the Brazilians as they were and think that this final was very second class fare compared to anything those teams offered even on an average day.

    And so much was hoped of this game. I hoped it. There were supposed to be two teams who played flowing, skilful, enterprising football, aka the beautiful game. Nothing beautiful there, only the relief that Spain won in the end, because at least they tried.

    I think I might actually buy a season ticket to Norwich this year. I shall go there bitter, and I shall go there twisted. With a bit of luck not both at the same time.

  6. I take your psychological points – and I’d add that I think that the WC and European Championships, being 4 years apart, have more pressure to them (despite perhaps a lower standard of play) than Champions League/UEFA Cup finals.

    It’s interesting to read Jonathan Wilson’s latest – he explains the persistence of 4-4-2 in the EPL in part as it being “what English players understand” – and I think that highlights the issue – although surely the majority of those in the England squad were used to playing 4-3-3/4-5-1 variants with their clubs?

    Still, I think there’s something in the contention that the one thing England players know tactically is their role in a 4-4-2. Part of this is just that thing we all know – how youth football and coaching is broken. Another part might be that football in England has become culturally fossilised – there’s a ritual and the value is in the repetition of the ritual, rather than living and growing.

    The strangest part is how spectating is predicated on “excitement” – that’s the usual excuse for the rushed play and bad technique in the English game. And yet, there’s plenty of stultifying games played to draws on boggy pitches that attract none of the complaints of a Spain/Barca possession game…

  7. Superb analysis. Spain’s victory – and even Holland’s appearance in the final – demonstrates most astutely everything that English football still lacks: namely, adherence to a workable tactic.

    It was an enthralling game, fitting of the final and cup was delivered to the right hands in the end.

    For what it’s worth, my own thoughts on England’s failure tally with one of the previous commenters’ fairly well. Even in the era of Capello and what looked like an accomplished path to the finals, once we got there and the blood was pumping we fell into the same trap we always do…

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