Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A little pause before the second round started – used to comment, speculate, analyze, and predict. Pundits paradise. So far, political issues were taking secondary place – fears of terrorist attacks, kidnapping, and mass protests staged during games did not materialize. Security was tight, but as far as there were no problems for the teams, it was so big deal. Most complains were game related: namely, the poor state of the pitches. There was no much grass left as soon as game started, the surfaces were rough. May be the Argentines did not really prepared the stadiums, but people did not really take into account an objective problem – the World Cup was played in the midst of South American winter. European stadiums were mostly mud in January – why expecting different at the same season in Argentina?

The rest of scandalous hype was related to accidents and strange decisions. Poland had appointed a psychologist to her national team. A novelty back in the 1970s, which puzzled observers – the role of the psychologist was unclear and Jacek Gmoch failed to explain the need for such specialist. Which was 26-years old female... today the gossip columns will have a field day with such 'news', but in the 70s the only problem was 'what for?' Much more was made of the new captain's armband of West Germany: Berti Vogts was no longer 'captain', but 'team leader'. Which is 'fuhrer' in German...

'First among equals', the new position was explained, but photos like this one evoked memories of one other German Fuhrer. And Berti grew a moustache... And the ominous armband was introduced in Argentina, full with old German Nazis, and called Fascist state, because of the practices of the military Junta. Bad choice and poor taste. Food for critics.

Then - the doping scandal. It was the first time player was found using dope, so the whole thing went through the roof. Willie Johnston of Scotland failed the test, maintained his innocence, but fact is fact, and the Scottish authorities immediately sent him home.

Willie Johnston arriving in UK – and immediately surrounded by Police. The same way he left Argentina – and at gun point, for good measure. The scandal was huge in part because it was practically impossible to defend the player – Johnston had long history of misdeeds, pranks, and disciplinary fouls. Suspensions were frequent, the Scottish Federation was against his playing for the national team for years – a scapegoat he may be was, but his history spoke heavily against him. Besides, Scotland had to pacify FIFA – and quickly. Luckily, they lost the match after which Johnston was tested positive. With his expulsion, Scotland prevented punishment of the whole team. Yet, the case was widely commented – it was proving suspicions of doping, which existed for many years.

The last outcry was about favouritism of the hosts. It was the schedule by which Argentina played later than her opponents. It was the 'gentle' help of the referees – the controversial penalty given against Marius Tresor and the expulsion of the two key players of Hungary. The Hungarians were particularly irritated – in their view, the red cards of Nyliasi and Toroczik were deliberately given and practically destroyed the chances of the team in the next games. The weird case of the missing French kit, forcing the team to borrow jerseys from a local club was another unbecoming to World Cup finals incident, but in view of more serious problems, this was trivial.

The rest was directly concerning the game. It was observed that so far the general level of football was higher than four years ago. There were no outsiders – Mexico failed, but even their play was not so fantastically incompetent, as Zaire's in 1974. Iran and Tunisia were more than pleasant surprises and both teams were pretty equal to the rest. They had good chances even to go further. South American teams were also at par with the Europeans – unlike 1974, when all South Americans were clearly outdated. Peru was particularly good – may be even the best playing team at the first stage. Other good news were Austria, Italy, and France – not only strong, but pleasant to watch. France was the team observers were sorry to see eliminated. To a point, Scotland was the other team going home too early – but it was mostly thanks to their last match with Holland.

On the negative side was the collective underperformance of the favourites – Argentina, Brazil, West Germany, and Holland struggled. None was convincing, everyone displayed severe problems and much needed changes and adjustments. There was not team at all appearing head and shoulders above the rest, as it was Holland in 1974. The mega-stars did not shine at all. There were no bright newcomers either, bursting at the finals, like the Polish players four years earlier. No tactical innovations were observed, The only surprise was perhaps Italy, with her untypical attacking approach.

Too little for a world finals. Although a lot was said about collective game, no longer needing individual stars, the absence of great figures was upsetting: it was hard to distinguish players and worse – there were no one really influencing his team, let alone been exciting to watch. It looked like the big names of the sport were either fading, or not in form. Which contributed to unconvincing performance by the favourites. The best players so far were quite a strange group:

At a glance, the big favourites were not represented at all – only Ruud Krol was selected, which still was weird, for Holland did not play well so far. On the other hand three players already finished, for their teams were eliminated Dhiab, Hellstrom, and Jordan. It was alarming that eliminated teams had more impressive players than those going ahead. The midfielders were entirely Peruvian, recognition of perhaps the most consistent team of the first phase, but... it looked like secondary players were outplaying those who should have been really shining – and that in midfield, considered the most important line for years. The Peruvians were fairly big stars, yet, a second tier when compared to the likes of Rivelino, Neeskens, Bonhof, to name a few of those who failed to impress. Italy was strongly represented and it was a team seen as one in the making, not yet ready for anything big. Same with Pezzey. And what was the most alarming when looking at the selection: no really strong team emerged so far – if there was, it should have been represented in every line, like it was in 1974.

Meantime struggling favourites and surprisingly strong outsiders resulted in weird continental divide of the semi-final groups – one South American, the other European. South Americans, as Rinus Michels professed before the finals, were quite strong – all three South American teams reached the next level. The forth team in the group was Poland – but judging by the way they played, it was considered the obvious outsider of the group. Even if miracle happened and Poland suddenly improved, the combined strength of the South Americans would have crushed the Poles. Peru, darlings so far, lacked depth – they depended on few irreplaceable players. Besides, Peru had no secrets for South American teams. Enthusiasm may inspire them, but it was unlikely Peru could finish at first or second place. They were dangerous for the favourites mostly because they were able to influence the final standings – and nothing but playing for the World Cup would do Brazil and Argentina. Which were considered the obvious favourites in the group. Argentina played a little bit better than Brazil so far, had the home advantage, had enormous ambition, but Brazil was ambitious too and between such rivals anything was possible. Which was probably the biggest fear of the Argentinians, although there was no regret for ending in this group and not in the other: over there the predators were more, all playing tough European football with vicious defenders.

The other group immediately evoked the final of 1974 – Holland and West Germany had all scores to settle. True, neither team was nearly as good as they were in 1974, and West Germany was particularly bland so far. Holland was a bit more vulnerable, because of the presence of Austria – it was like playing twice against difficult German team, something the current Dutch team was unlikely to survive. Austria was seen similarly to Peru, but because of the making of their group, the outsider. It was mostly a matter of experience and the other teams surely knew how to handle an exciting, but smaller team. Austria was able to decide who ends there, though – Holland was expected to suffer. Italy was pleasant surprise so far, but the team was judged still in early phase of development, immature, and therefore not a real contender. May be at the next World Cup, but not now. Between Holland and West Germany, the reigning world champions had some advantage, but small one. However, the favourites had to improve quite a lot...

Which applied to all favourites – hopes, of course, became strong as ever: that now the big teams will start finally playing real football. Especially Brazil. Especially Holland. Who else, if not the Germans. No way Argentina would miss their best chance. Just wait and see what Kempes, Zico, Rensenbrink, and Bonhof are really capable of. Tomorrow.