Like those who awarded Zinedine Zidane the Golden Ball before he nutted Marco Materazzi, I am running the risk of reviewing the World Cup before it has finished.
Overall it has been a good tournament, if not a great one. But that's not much of a blog post. Let's go into more details in 10 categories below.
Unlike the 2006 World Cup, the goal flow has increased throughout the tournament. The first week was, if we are honest, a bit tough going, and for a long time matches were averaging less than two goals a game. But Sami Khedira's header last night was the 144th goal - even if tonight's final ends scoreless the average will be higher than the 2.21 from Italia '90. The flighty Jabulani ball encouraged players to shoot from long range, but only Diego Forlan, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Japan's free-kick takers seemed to get the hang of it. Other goals that stick in the mind include David Villa's long shot against Chile and his solo run against Honduras, Carlos Tevez's netbuster against Mexico, Maicon's 'did he mean it?' shot from an impossible angle against North Korea, any of Germany's brilliantly incisive counter-attack goals, and of course Siphiwe Tshabalala's thumping strike for the hosts in the opening game.
From my vantage point several thousand miles away, the crowds were less noticeable than in previous tournaments. That is partly positive, because it means they weren't fighting each other, and the largely unsegregated seating at matches really was hugely encouraging. But the cost of getting to South Africa and the large internal travel distances meant there were fewer fans than four years ago in Germany. Worst of all, there were significant numbers of empty seats at many games, including the Holland-Uruguay semi-final. Whether that is to do with people buying tickets and simply not turning up, as FIFA said, I don't know. Certainly the huge allocations given to corporate sponsors and national federations cannot have helped. Whatever: if places went unfilled they should have let local kids in for free. Empty seats at a World Cup are truly unacceptable.
The wretched things deserve their own section, as they have been a constant soundtrack and in some ways the symbol of the tournament. Even YouTube added a 'Vuvuzela' option so you could have them blaring over whatever video you were watching. They were totally inescapable - even if you muted the TV your ears would get assaulted by the sound of people complaining about them. The charge against the vuvuzela was that it made a sound like a million heavy smokers playing the bagpipes, and the unceasing noise drowned out any 'normal' crowd noise such as cheering, singing and swearing. Oh, and it was incredibly annoying. I quickly got used to the sound, and think it would take a special brand of killjoyery to take the South Africans' plastic trumpets off them because they were disturbing fat slobs watching on the telly. They helped make the tournament memorable and definitely gave us something to talk about. Just don't let them anywhere near a Premier League ground.
Positive (no, really)
The worst thing about FIFA introducing a new ball for the World Cup is not that it affected the game. It is that the teams moaned constantly, and every long-range strike or goalkeeping error immediately sparked a debate over whether the ball was responsible. New balls always provoke some grumbling, but this time the whingeing was of ear-splitting vuvuzela-chorus volume. It seems the Adidas Jabulani is not the best football ever made, but it is hardly surprising that the Germans, who had been using it in the Bundesliga since February, seemed to cope fine. I enjoyed the quote from the Spanish player who said the ball could make Xavi misplace a long crossfield pass by as much as "one or two metres" - that would represent a major success for most of England's midfielders.
It was a month of discontent within many squads. England had John Terry's coup that never was, Ghana had Sulley Muntari rowing with the coach and Cameroon's players spoke out publicly against Paul Le Guen's tactics. But France's mutinous bunch surpassed themselves. Nicolas Anelka's half-time row with Raymond Domenech during the defeat to Mexico sparked a staggering chain of events. Anelka's rant at the coach was leaked, he was sent home, the players issued a statement protesting the decision, then refused to train as captain Patrice Evra fought the fitness trainer in full view of the world's media, half the team was dropped for the final game against South Africa, France went out ignominiously and the government ordered an investigation in the debacle. It was unedifying, and heartbreaking if you had any love for the French team, but it was enthralling, dramatic and not a little entertaining. It would have been a poorer World Cup without the in-fighting.
Some people revelled in the failure of big names like Wayne Rooney, Franck Ribery and Cristiano Ronaldo, citing it as indisputable evidence that there is no 'I' in team. And the mysterious Nike Curse seemed to provide a timely antidote to corporate hubris. The problem with that argument is, all of the stars who flopped in South Africa have shown they can excel in a team at club level. The odd high-profile failure is amusing enough, but at a World Cup you want to see the planet's best players at the top of their game, and it was to the tournament's detriment that so many were unable to do that. Not to take anything away from Forlan, David Villa, Wesley Sneijder and those players who showed a 50-plus-game club season need not prove a barrier to further brilliance at the World Cup.
FIFA's head of refereeing claims the referees have got 96 per cent of their decisions right, a statement whose logic is neatly ripped apart by the Dirty Tackle blog in a post entitled World Cup refs 96 percent accurate, 4 percent awful. The point is there are decisions and decisions, and if you get the big ones wrong you have failed. That is the nature of the beast. FIFA's worst day came when Frank Lampard's shot crossed the line by several furlongs but was ruled out, then Carlos Tevez was even further offside against Mexico but his goal stood. The one positive is FIFA will be shamed into introducing goalline technology, although I think a more comprehensive use of video replays is both feasible and desirable (see the bottom of this post). But what do I know?
Well, this is an armchair blog after all. That the World Cup was played in the a convenient time zone represents a major plus. Both the BBC and ITV were largely competent, though the latter's failure to screen Steven Gerrard's goal against the US in HD was a massive clanger. Adverts apart, I preferred the ITV studio setup, with Adrian Chiles very much a host, asking the right questions to his pundits, the pick of which were Gareth Southgate, Marcel Desailly (whom I unfairly maligned at the start of the month) and the irrepressibly naive Kevin Keegan. Gary Lineker is an intelligent and insightful presenter, but slips too easily into the bootroom banter that became a little overpowering at times, particularly when Lee Dixon and Alan Shearer were about. Clarence Seedorf was great, however. I like Colin Murray, but his highlights show was a bit too self-consciously zany, with some features, like the Tom Daley diving award, that James Corden would have turned his nose up at. Both networks understandably ensured we saw a lot of the host nation, with reports that were by turns inspiring, engrossing, patronising and a little bit worthy. The Beeb certainly didn't send a battlebus on a tour of Germany four years ago, treating the people of Gelsenkirchen with a strange sort of reverence.
If you're English, it is impossible for the Three Lions' fortunes not to affect your perception of a World Cup. It was a pretty depressing tournament for England fans, all told. Having qualified superbly, Fabio Capello's side were unhappy and underperformed horribly - particularly in an eye-wateringly bad draw against Algeria - and only raised a smile when they struggled past Slovenia 1-0, a result that proved merely a stay of execution as it put us on collision course with Germany. I was roundly slated for daring to suggest a route to the final that would have taken us through Germany, Argentina and Spain (Holland, not Brazil, were the fourth team) was too tall an order for England. As it turned out, we didn't have to worry about the last three. On the plus side, Germany gave us such a comprehensive reminder of what a team looks like that even the tabloids could not help but be magnanimous. And as Jim White pointed out we were left clutching at the straws that Howard Webb and Octopus Paul were both born in England.
A final contested by two teams who have never won the tournament sound like it might lack a sense of occasion, but happily that is not the case. Spain have been the best team in the world over the last four years and would be worthy winners. I have been blowing the vuvuzela for them all tournament, even after the group stage when everyone was all over Brazil, Argentina and Germany, so expect the smugness to go up a notch if they triumph tonight. This may not be the most exciting Netherlands side we have ever seen, but they can claim historically they are the best team never to have won the World Cup. But the only way to find out if they really are worthy World Cup finalists is to watch them in the World Cup final. Happily, we get the chance at 19.30 this evening.
Wait and see...
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