The first ever World Cup to be hosted by an African nation is now for the history books. It was a tournament that exceeded expectations in terms of organization and presented some unfamiliar nuances on and off the field, yet not one among the most memorable. More often than not, the quality of play left the audience wanting, possibly the effect of ever longer club seasons, with some of the most electrifying moments provided by unheralded teams and flashes of individual brilliance. A brutish Brazil, an out-of-form Cristiano Ronaldo, a truly disappointing England well short of projections, refereeing controversies – how will the 2010 World Cup in South Africa be remembered? Some retrospective impressions:
1. Germany’s surprising run to an eventual third place. The Germans arrived at the World Cup without their injured star Michael Ballack, featuring a young, somewhat experimental team that included Sami Khedira, Thomas Mueller and Ozil. Germany’s resounding victories over England and Argentina on a global stage represented triumphant moments in German football history and provided some of the best quality throughout the World Cup.
2. France’s meltdown. Entirely predictable and in fact predicted by 91minute after the Ireland qualifier, under Raymond Domenech’s leadership France was going to struggle hard just to get through the group. The implosion was even more radical than projected. French players did absolutely nothing on the field and generated the most infamous scandal imaginable at the World Cup by boycotting their own sessions, an indignity that is still being digested at the highest levels in France – a national humiliation. Some players are deeply ashamed, while others including Anelka and Evra will never be called up to the team again.
3. USA’s magnificent spirit. After holding England to an unspectacular draw and starting off poorly against Slovenia, USA demonstrated tremendous fighting spirit and gamesmanship, dazzling with its come-back performances in the Slovenia and Algeria matches, some of the best drama of the entire World cup. USA bowed out respectfully, with a higher global standing and more fans than ever, although the players and the USA officials had expected to progress to the last eight. A new, higher standard was set in South Africa for American soccer.
4. New Zeeland undefeated, Uruguay stupendous. Incredibly, a team that every one had expected to take three points from went home unbeaten. Draws against three very respectable teams, something to take to heart and build on, or at least tell the grandchildren about. Uruguay’s sensational run was logical on the wings of such a talented group, but a fourth place finish was above all expectations. Diego Forlan, debatably named Player of the Tournament, has reached Enzo Francescoli heights back home in a magical year where everything he touched turned into glory. Of course, Uruguay was much more than Forlan.
5. Africa is Here, Feel It! Big hopes were pinned on the most talented African sides competing in the tournament, but none was able to generate the performances, let alone the results, to inspire. If Cameroon surrounded Samuel Eto’o with an unglamorous supporting cast, Ivory Coast with Drogba, Eboue and the Toure brothers came up well short of potential. The positive African surprise came from Ghana, a team that was not expected to get far without injured captain Michael Essien and very nearly reached the semifinals. Nigeria’s campaign was such a mess that its government suspended the national team program!!! for a period of two years in a truly bizarre form of punishment.
6. Diego Maradona’s new Cervantes look. Contrary to fears and predictions, Maradona was well-behaved while still being Diego throughout the tournament. Things went so well in the first four matches that Argentina got typically over-confident and was rolled over by an irrepressible Germany. This is where Diego went terribly wrong, tactically. The Germany disaster would have never happened with Veron and Milito on the field. On the verge of his 50th birthday, Maradona looked great and appears set to continue as Argentina’s man.
7. Defending champion Italy eliminated at group stage. Another 91minute prediction, this one can only be pinned on Signor Marcello Lippi whose tactical errors cost the Azzurri dearly. Montolivo – DeRossi – Marchisio this is the midfield that failed abysmally and, along with fallible Juventus duo of Chiellini and Cannavaro, is responsible for Italy’s early exit. The good news is that Italy is now in the capable hands of maestro Cesare Prandelli who has the confidence of all Italians, players and officials alike. The future looks brighter for the Azzurri.
8. The Vuvuzelas. In small doses, this popular but irritable one note instrument would have been ok, but the incessant buzzing killed the atmosphere at many matches by drowning out the human elements – the chanting, the crowd reactions, the drumbeats and other music. No more please!
9. Spain won the World Cup without actually playing one full, great game. So talented is Spain that even though its players never hit their stride together, each game enough of them stepped up to carry the day. Time and time again David Villa was the savior, but he had a poor final. Xavi and Iniesta made the difference as always and when they needed a lift Puyol and Sergio Ramos provided it. Fernando Torres was completely ineffective. On the way to the top, Spain won 1-0 four times, winning the tournament efficiently if not spectacularly.
10. Refereeing is poised for changes. There were too many instances where wrong decisions directly impacted the outcome of a match. Australia, South Africa, England, Mexico and USA were all on the wrong end of such instances. FIFA will make certain changes in the future, possibly allowing for instant replay. But just as importantly, there must be a crackdown on players faking injuries from minimal contact. Such instances discredit not only the player but also the game itself.
If the World Cup was short of the sensational, from a commercial point of view it was a tremendous success. Full stadiums, record ticket sales, marketing, corporate sponsors, all that made FIFA rich and happy, although the danger of over-commercializing the World Cup is clear. Four years from now an entirely different energy will mark the tournament in what should be the best global event since Espana ’82. Brazil took note of what worked and what did not work in South Africa. With enormous tradition and a booming infrastructure, Brazil will be ready to deliver the magic that eluded the World Cup this time around.