Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brazil v Chile 3:0

Chile has impressed me greatly in this World Cup. They came second in qualifying in the South American Confederation, an impressive achievement in itself, especially when you consider that, until tonight, not one of the five South American countries had been knocked out of the World Cup.

There's ten left. There remains one of five from Africa (Ghana), one of five from Asia/Oceania (Japan), none from North America and four from thirteen Europeans (Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands). This is all interesting enough, and finally it took a South American team to knock out the first South American team. Now so many of my predictions have been wrong that I have no right to self-congratulate, but I take some pleasure in noting that my broad prediction that this World Cup would be mad and that it's the South Americans that would best deal with the madness, has borne itself out.

Tonight's game between Brazil and Chile was, for my joyful sense of football wonder, the best yet. And a great team - in my opinion a really great team - came up against something more. Brazil's team are composed of gods, no less, and even the greatest of mortals cannot test the gods and survive.

Over the past couple of weeks a few people have pointed out that Brazil have looked a bit out of sorts, a bit "pedestrian" (to quote one), in general a bit ordinary. Meanwhile of course they have not lost a game and the thing is, they are so good that they can afford to play only as well as they need to. They have no need whatsoever to give their all against North Korea, Ivory Coast and (especially, as there were no stakes) Portugal. The latter Group game was, despite great hype and expectation, a boring 0:0 draw in which neither team saw the need to bring it.

If you did not watch the Brazil v Chile game I urge you with all the emphatic vehemence that I can contrive to find out when there's a replay or figure out how to download it, and watch the thing. This is the stuff that led me to sacrifice so much of my life to this sport in the first place, the stuff that turned watching a bit of sport for me into an act of worship. You'd be right to point out how rare a game like this is, but I would only reply that it is the rarity of such a spectacle that makes soccer the most sublime pursuit in the world. Millions try, and occasionally - very occasionally - 11 succeed.

Personal digression... Jacob and I arrived in Durban today and booked into a B&B. The air, as soon as we got off the plane, was noticeably easier to breathe, due to the warmth, lack of smog and lack of altitude. We had proper hot showers. We have our own bathroom, and the capacity to make tea. We lay on beds that are not thin waifs of foam laid over iron cleats. Our room is sealed, tasteful and warm. There are birds here. I wore shorts and bare feet in my first sojourn into the neighbourhood. We are indulging in 10 days of relative luxury compared to the frankly disgusting conditions of Total Sports Travel Football Village in Johannesburg. I already love Durban, and eff knows why the centre of the World Cup is not here, as it could have been so much better for South African tourism if it was.

We watched the Netherlands' convincing and predictable defeat of Slovakia on the TV downstairs. Then this evening we head out to find a pub, where we ate steaks and watched the above game in a very cosy and cool atmosphere. So life is on the up. We're gonna like this town.

But enough digression. Why are the South American teams doing so well? I have the beginnings of a theory. Spain and Germany have been the most impressive of the European teams in the sense of virtuosic football, the sort of football that Fozzie describes so well in his book and that SBS does its best to teach us to appreciate. It's a very sophisticated, developed football of short passing from the back along the ground, and highly disciplined tactical shape. According to many this is what we're all aiming for. Any of the lesser football countries are also in the process of pursuing this sort of football, including Australia, with its Dutch emphasis.

But both Spain, Italy and Germany have been shown up by gutsy, spirited but less sophisticated methods from Switzerland, New Zealand and Serbia respectively, and we all rue that Australia didn't at least have a go at the same against the Germans. It seems to me that 'champagne football', with all the time and effort required to develop, can become limited by its own orthodoxy.

The South Americans have highly educated coaches as well, and no shortage of sophistication, but they have something more. They dance, and I refer especially to the Brazilians and Argentinians. The long ball into the corner, the chip, the long switch and the completely unexpected are all part of their game as well as the short passing along the ground within a disciplined tactical shape. That is, their options are not limited by orthodoxy. All of these great teams from Europe and South America also have individuals capable of great flair, which has been a distinctive key to this tournament. My feeling is that however powerful a team of brilliant technicians within a highly considered system can become, if it becomes the whole objective the improvised dance and individual flair are somewhat sacrificed. At this tournament in particular, in an unfamiliar setting and with new distractions (like the bloody vuvuzela which stops anyone from even being able to hear themselves think, let alone be able to communicate adequately among one another), these more random factors come to the fore.

The sort of technical orthodoxy I'm talking about, which has become very popular globally as importing successful European coaches becomes widespread throughout the world, should not be undermined. I'm convinced for example that Australia should continue to pursue this sort of virtuosity. North Korea, for another example, had developed enough to hold out (mostly) against even Brazil, but they cannot keep it up against what is, for lack of a better description, a divine dance. And they have trained so much to achieve their desired tactical approach that their options against different teams are limited.

Like a great martial artist (and anyone familiar with the writings of Bruce Lee will best know what I mean), you need all the technique you can get, but then you must be willing to dance. A single style is not enough.

As this tournament goes on I'm thinking more and more that the Final will be a showdown between Brazil and Argentina. If that is the case don't miss it even for your own wedding.

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