Goodbye To All That
Midfield maestros Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Pirlo deserved a better send-off, but early goals and adventurous attitudes will keep the party going in Brazil, says Sopan Joshi
Spain and Italy are the biggest eliminations thus far. Each World Cup has its surprise exits in the first round; three of the past four winners have departed in the first round — the exception being Brazil in 2006.
For those who like the finer points, this was a last chance to see two all-time greats who have left a mark, without being fancied goal-scorers with trophy-model wags (wives and girlfriends) to keep the tabloids busy. Andrea Pirlo failed to produce one of his deadly free-kicks to rescue Italy from slumping out after going a man down against Uruguay. Here is the man whose influence, control and passing won the 2006 World Cup for Italy. Among the biggest mistakes in recent years in the transfer market was AC Milan letting Pirlo go for free to Juventus in 2011 — Juventus has been winning the Italian serie A since and Milan has languished.
All the fluid plans that manager Cesare Prandelli had conjured for Italy fell through after Claudio Marchisio’s sending-off after a reckless challenge; Pirlo’s control wasn’t going to dictate terms with Uruguay hungry to nail their advantage, though this team doesn’t look very promising and will miss the bite and sting Luis Suarez provides (depending on how FIFA views the dental impression he left on Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder). This Italy squad doesn’t have the steel to defend with 10 men. So this is the last we have seen of Pirlo and perhaps also of their ace goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Even more poignant was the picture of Xavi Hernandez sitting on the bench in Spain’s dead rubber against Australia. Here is a player often hailed as the greatest since 2008, the supreme orchestrator who has led his club and country to 25 major titles, the most successful Spanish footballer ever. Experts now say no central midfielder has ever controlled football games with the skill and commitment Xavi has shown since 2008. With the Spanish squad due an overhaul, there is no way Xavi will be seen in a Spanish shirt again.
Players like Xavi and Pirlo deserve a better send-off. But sports is not an arena for aesthetics; many of the greatest players have not even appeared on the World Cup stage. One has to look ahead to the players who promise a pleasant future for those who enjoy football.
Brazil finally get it right
Like Fernandinho. The first half of Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Cameroon looked exactly like the first two games, despite the sparkle of Neymar’s brace. Cameroon had scored once, and did not look out of depth. At half-time, Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari took out the listless Paulinho and put in Fernandinho, and immediately there was a change in the run of play. The young Manchester City midfielder looked far more comfortable on the ball than Paulinho, the man Scolari was relying on for control and creating moves from the middle.
After a stellar Confederations Cup performance last year, English premier League side Tottenham Hotspur signed Paulinho. He has had a disappointing season. It is not uncommon for players who have had a poor club season to lift their game during an international tournament like the World Cup. But Paulinho turned out two lacklustre performances in Brazil’s opening games. Fernandinho, instead, seems more like the lynchpin who can free the players with genius — Neymar and Oscar — to do their stuff.
That Brazil has tried this in the group stage bodes well for them in the knockout stages. It is likely Fernandinho will start in central midfield when Brazil take on Chile in the first Round of 16 game on 28 June. For the neutrals, too, it is important that the hosts have a good tournament, given what they are capable of. For that, it is important that Brazil are solid in the middle.
Which is exactly what Argentina are not. While Iran’s defending against them was impressive, as were their attempts at scoring – their last group game against Bosnia-Herzegovina becomes interesting now — Argentina seemed desperate for a miracle from Lionel Messi. The Argentine captain is under more pressure than even Sachin Tendulkar ever was to single-handedly take his team to glory. He must be sick of comparisons to his role model Diego Maradona. But people tend to forget that the Argentina team back then was far more solid in the centre and at the rear than this squad. Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, too, have given a poor account of themselves in attack. This team will need an overhaul in attitude if it is to progress through the knockout stage.
And it will need magic on tap from Messi, who produced a stunner in injury time on the only occasion that the Iranian markers gave him room. One couldn’t but feel sad for Iran, which did everything to compete with a team ranked much higher and contained Messi for 90 minutes. How many teams will make such mistakes?
A cup of promise
Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Chile have continued to win and impress; Colombia, in particular. Its manager Jose Pekerman made a name for himself coaching the youth squad of Argentina, which created an assembly line of talent for the national team — but then the same players disappointed when he managed the senior team. Now a naturalised Colombian, Pekerman is known for not caring for players’ reputation.
Pekerman’s work in producing disciplined and sharp performances from Colombia — a team with an erratic history of sparks of brilliance and collective failure – is winning accolades. The violent victory celebrations in Colombia have been a stark contrast to the composure and control the squad has shown in Brazil.
Pekerman’s team is without their most famous player Radamel Falcao, who is out due to injury. The biggest names in his squad, the biggest reputations in Europe have been on the bench or getting bit parts as substitutes — Carlos Bacca of Sevilla in Spain and Jackson Martinez of Porto in Portugal are two examples. The brilliance has come from playmaker James Rodriguez. A lot of neutrals will root for Colombia, especially those who still have memories of their brilliant, under-achieving team in USA 1994, and of Andres Escobar’s own goal that cost him his life at the hands of the violent drug cartels in Colombia.
Ghana impressed everybody with their show against Germany, surely one of the best games till now. Showing scant respect for one of the strongest sides in the world, Ghana were looking like the favourites to win by the end of the game. Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari are players who have proven their class; the inspirational show against Germany was from Andre Ayew.
To remember that Ghana lost 1-2 to USA shows the nature of the league games this time. Had portugal not equalised at the end, USA would have booked its berth to the next round — Portugal has easily looked the most unimpressive team in this group. The USA-Germany game is now of great interest.
For all the talk of European teams doing badly, they top four of the eight groups at the time of going to press. The most impressive show till now has been the French squad. Missing their biggest star and winner in Franck Ribery, France has been so good that there are fears of them peaking too early. While emerging from Honduras-style hacking was more a test of temperament than skill, putting five past Switzerland was truly impressive. This squad has penetration and speed in Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud, control and industry in Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Valbuena and Paul Pogba, and defensive steel in Raphael Varane. If you had to bet on which will be the first European team to win the World Cup in the Americas, based on the performances thus far, it will have to be France.
And yet that seems unlikely. Given the goal-scoring fest this World Cup has turned into, that formations and tactics are more fluid and early goals are leading to more adventurous attitudes, the semi-final line-up could be full of surprises. Watch this one closely. You may have many stories to tell years from now.