Subverting those World Cup stereotypes

Apparently the Brazilians are ruthlessly efficient and the Germans play with flair. And commentators still talk crap.

Duleep Allirajah

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The English vuvuzelas have fallen silent. The inquest has begun. Or, to be more precise, the inquest has resumed. We live in a state of perpetual inquest into the wretched state of English football. Too many foreigners in the Premiership, too much football, our players are paid too much money. Yada, yada, yada. Expect the same tired old explanations to be aired over the coming weeks, ad nauseam.

So dismal was the performance against Germany was that we can’t even console ourselves by indulging in the traditional British Facebook hate campaign against the Uruguayan referee and his myopic assistant. The officials obviously screwed up, but does anyone – Fabio Capello apart – seriously believe that the disallowed goal had any material effect on the outcome of the game? Of course not. This time the England team have no one else to blame but themselves.

The choking was true to type but the defeat was, in many respects, very un-British. For the first German goal our defenders inexplicably forgot how to defend against Route One football. Quite incredible. There’s plenty of long ball stuff in the lower leagues, but you’ll very rarely see a League One team concede a goal like Miroslav Klose’s opener. Joachim Löw has been lauded for his tactical ingenuity, but does anyone seriously believe that ‘lumping the long ball up to the big fella’ was a strategy they worked on in training?

Secondly, where was the plucky British failure we’ve come to know and love? Where was the emotional white knuckle ride? Where was Das Englische Elfmetertrauma (English penalty trauma)? Where was the heroic backs-to-the-wall Dunkirk spirit? Apart from a five-minute spell in which England scored and Germany wobbled, there was no spirit. This was an abject surrender. Are we France in disguise?

This got me thinking. Lazy national stereotypes are alive and well if you listen to the TV commentaries. But the really notable feature of this World Cup is just how few teams have conformed to their stereotypes.

Just like watching Brazil? At every World Cup we are subjected to the nauseating spectacle of TV commentators purring and salivating over the samba skills of the Brazilians. But something is different this time. Sure, Brazil have fantasy players, like Kaka, Elano and Robinho, but Dunga’s team is built on pragmatic foundations with two holding midfielders mopping up in front the back four. The Brazilians are strong, athletic, hardworking and defensively strong. It’s not the all-out attack of the 1982 team of Socrates, Zico and Falcao. Brazilian have abandoned joga bonito and now look positively German in their ruthless efficiency.

Just like watching Brazil? ‘Argentina have become the new Brazil’ wrote Jonathan Stevenson on his BBC blog. If Brazil have taken a turn towards Teutonic pragmatism then Argentina have picked up the baton of beautiful football. Diego Maradona’s team only just scraped through the South American qualifying round, prompting many pundits to write off their chances in South Africa. We all thought Maradona was mental. And, to be fair, he is mental. But in a good way. Somehow he seems to have inspired his players to rise to the occasion. Argentina boast the most potent strike force plus a fast short passing game to die for and – of course – the genius of Lionel Messi. This has made them the most watchable team at the tournament. And like all good faux-Brazilians, Argentina’s Achilles heel is their defence. Aesthetically pleasing perhaps, but we suspect they might slip up against opponents who can punish their defensive frailties.

Industrious Orientals. Not only was the Japanese coach described as ‘inscrutable’ by the ITV commentators, but time and again the tired old cliché that East Asian teams were industrious was trotted out time and again. ‘These Japanese players must be on Duracell batteries, they just don’t stop running’, exclaimed Martin Keown as Japan demolished a hapless Denmark. ITV commentator Jon Champion said of the South Koreans: ‘They seem almost pre-programmed to run and run, and then run some more’. The reality is that both Japan and South Korea aren’t just hard working. They can play a bit. The three Japanese goals against Denmark were not the result of work rate, but artistry and technique – two glorious free kicks and one glorious Cruyff turn by Keisuke Honda.

Indefensible Italians. It was no great surprise that an ageing Italian team with neither playmaker or a goal scorer succumbed at the group stage. What was jaw-dropping, however, was watching an Italian team that couldn’t defend. Unthinkable. Italy is the birthplace of defending. It’s where catennaccio – the most defensive system in the entire history of football – was invented.

Even the Italian reaction to their World Cup exit was untypical. Where were the traditional Latin conspiracy theories? The paranoid Italians usually blame defeat on an imaginary collusion of ‘dark forces’ (FIFA, freemasons, CIA etc). But, after crashing out at the group stage the Italians, inexplicably, blamed themselves. ‘I take full responsibility’, said coach Marcello Lippi said. ‘If a team shows up at an important game with terror in its heart and head and legs, it must mean the coach did not train them as he should have done.’ The Italian media, uncharacteristically, refused to blame their team’s exit on the questionable decision which denied the Azzurri a late equaliser. Instead the media gave the team a good shoeing. ‘One of our ugliest national teams ever, actually, the ugliest ever’, was the damning verdict of Corriere della Sera.

Germans with flair. The old cliché about the German national team is that they have always been much more than the sum of their parts. What they lacked in flair and technique they more than compensated for with discipline, organisation and oodles of self-belief. They ground out results; won games they should have lost. They were the living embodiment of winning ugly. No surprise then that Joachim Löw’s youthful German side play without fear. We expect nothing less from them. But they also play with flair, adventure, pace, tactical nous and invention. In Mezut Özil they have one of the stand-out creative players of the tournament. While the European teams have been gutless, unimaginative and disjointed, Germany have been a joy to watch.

It’s unthinkable for the English to lend their support to a German football team. But right now, I’m thinking the unthinkable.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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