World Cup 3rd/4th place play-off: a rant, not a review

Honestly, I was going to do a proper write-up of last night’s World Cup 3rd/4th place playoff match. Really, I was. But, seriously, who cares?

I know I really should be interested. After all, the game was an intriguing match-up between Germany and Uruguay, two countries who has overachieved at this World Cup. And it is also game 63 of 64 in this 2010 tournament; after tonight’s final, that’s it until we reconvene in Brazil four years hence (with a minor detour to Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012).

But are we really that bothered about determining who finishes third and who finishes fourth in the tournament? FIFA certainly are. They talk about how this is a prestigious game and that third place is a significant prize in itself. And – here’s the clincher – there are ranking points available for the victor. (Woo hoo!)

If it is so important, why don’t we have a series of playoff games between the losing quarter-finalists to decide fifth to eighth place? That would give you three extra games which could be played in the otherwise ‘dead’ days either side of the semi-finals. Think of all the tickets FIFA could sell (or not, as the case may be) for those.

In fact, why not follow this argument all the way to its (il)logical conclusion and set up a format whereby we end up with a definitive ranking of all the participating teams from 1-32 – maybe some kind of league system which leads to qualification for a small knockout tournament at its end, as happens in rugby league and Aussie Rules. I bet FIFA would love that. (Yes, I know it would take an unfeasibly long time. It’s just an example to make a point.)

Okay, I’m getting silly. But the fundamental question stands: why bother?

My yardstick for judging excess in sporting competitions remains the cricket World Cup. Now I love this four-yearly event, but even I lost interest during the first half of a 2007 tournament between just 16 teams which took a seemingly interminable 47 days to determine that Australia – far and away the best team in the world at the time – were, in fact, the best team in the world. Paul the psychic octopus could have told them that and saved us all a month and a half.

Anyway, my point is that even the cricket World Cup didn’t bother with a third-place playoff match. They held every other kind of match to ensure they squeezed every last cent of commercial revenue out of the tournament, but not one between the losing semi-finalists. What does that say?

(Incidentally, after much criticism of the bloated format used in 2007, next year’s World Cup has been reduced to 14 teams, meaning the tournament will be slimmed down to a positively svelte 43 days. Well, that’s alright then.)

To be fair, the rugby union World Cup does also have a ‘bronze final’, but if you look at what happened at the 2007 tournament this only serves to underline the pointlessness of organising such a match. The game between Argentina and the hosts France should have been a passionate affair with real competitive bite, particularly given that the Pumas had created a huge upset in the tournament’s opening game, shocking France 17-12 in their own back yard. The result? A 34-10 romp for Argentina against a French team which rapidly grew disinterested in the game.

Hardly a glowing endorsement, wouldn’t you agree?

One final test. England is a country as passionate about its national team as any other in the world. We have played in a 3rd/4th match once at the World Cup, in Italy in 1990. Ask any average England fan of a certain age about the semi-final defeat to West Germany, and I guarantee you they will wax at length about the match: Andreas Brehme‘s deflected free kick which looped over the back-pedalling Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker‘s swivelling finish to force extra-time, Chris Waddle hitting the post and the agony of the penalty shootout in which Stuart Pearce and Waddle failed to convert their spot-kicks.

Now ask them what they remember of the third place match. I am willing to bet that not many will be able to instantly recall that we played Italy in that game. With a little prompting, some will remember Shilton’s howler to gift Roberto Baggio the opening goal, David Platt‘s headed equaliser and Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci‘s late penalty which gave Italy a 2-1 victory. But none will remember this game in the vivid detail with which they can recall the semi-final.

The harsh reality is that a 3rd/4th place playoff is effectively an irrelevance to everyone concerned except the tournament organisers. Even if it ends up being the best game of the tournament, it is soon forgotten (assuming people watched it in the first place). It will be interesting to see how the viewing figures for tonight’s game compare with both the final and the two semi-finals. Not well, I suspect.

Oh, by the way, in a repeat of the 1970 third-place playoff (which the then West Germany won 1-0), an under-strength Germany beat Uruguay 3-2. It was actually a pretty good game, but I will have long forgotten about it by this time next week. Entertaining as it was, I’m just not that bothered.

World Cup semi-final review: Seven will become eight

So now we know that the 2010 World Cup final will be contested by Holland and Spain. As neither have previously won a World Cup, this means we will have a new winner – the eighth in all – of the Jules Rimet trophy, joining the elite group of Uruguay, Italy, Germany/West Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina and France.

Here is how the two teams reached the final.

Uruguay 2 Holland 3

Two second-half goals from Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben – the first carrying more than a whiff of controversy – helped put Holland into their first World Cup final for 32 years at the expense of a battling Uruguay on Tuesday night.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst

Hopefully the game will ultimately be best remembered for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s opening goal. The Dutch captain – who is set to retire from football after this World Cup – put a memorable stamp on the tournament by advancing down the left flank and hammering an unstoppable 35-yard shot into the top corner of Fernando Muslera‘s net for what will surely be the goal of the tournament.

The goal should have been the signal for the opening of the floodgates. However, this remains a Holland side which, despite having won each of their 14 games so far in both the qualifying and finals tournaments, is the antithesis of past Dutch teams. Where sides containing the likes of Cruyff, van Basten, Gullit and Bergkamp would have played beautifully and somehow found a way to lose, Bert van Marwijk‘s squad have a knack of winning ugly. So, instead of being treated to ‘total football’, we were subjected to the Holland we have seen throughout this tournament: fitfully brilliant, more often pragmatic, sometimes just plain poor.

And so a Uruguay team missing the ability of the suspended Luis Suaraz to get into threatening positions inside the box gradually clawed their way back into the match. Diego Forlán‘s shot from the edge of the area swerved in flight but went straight at goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, but he somehow contrived to flap at empty air as the ball went straight over him, allowing Uruguay to go in level after 45 minutes.

After half-time, the match sat precariously in the balance before Sneijder’s 70th-minute effort whizzed just past Robin van Persie and into the net. Van Persie was clearly in an active position, and replays suggested he was marginally offside. It was a tight call for which the officials should not be blamed, but it was also an incorrect decision. Nevertheless, the goal was allowed to stand. It was Sneijder’s fifth of the tournament, putting him level with David Villa as the tournament’s top goalscorer.

Still reeling from going behind, three minutes later Dirk Kuyt crossed for Robben to head home, and at 3-1 the game was as good as over. Uruguay managed an injury-time goal from Maxi Pereira, but despite some heart-stopping moments before the final whistle it was too little too late.

Uruguay can return home with their heads held high, but it will be the Oranje, for all the disappointment of their frequently disjointed play, who head to Johannesburg for Sunday’s final.

Key numbers

5Wesley Sneijder has now scored five goals from seven shots in open play during this tournament.

14 – Including the qualifying tournament, Holland now have 14 consecutive wins in this World Cup campaign, a new record.

2,200 – Holland’s final goal, scored by Arjen Robben, was the 2,200th goal in World Cup finals history.

1974 – The year of Uruguay‘s only previous World Cup meeting with Holland. Diego Forlán‘s father, Pablo, played in that game (won by Holland).

14 – Uruguay are now without a win in their last 14 World Cup games against European opposition (six draws, eight defeats).

1 – This was the first World Cup semi-final since 1986 to be won by more than a one-goal margin in normal time (Italy beat Germany 2-0 in 2006, but this was after extra time.)

2 – Holland remain one of only two unbeaten teams at the 2010 World Cup. The other is New Zealand.

22 – There have been 22 goals at Cape Town’s Green Point stadium, the most among this tournament’s ten stadia. Johannesburg’s Soccer City, which stages Sunday’s final, could still overtake Green Point – 20 goals have been scored here so far.

Spain 1 Germany 0

Although this game was far from being a classic, it was a shame one team had to lose an absorbing semi-final which see-sawed first one way and then the other.

The game unfolded much as expected during the first half, with Spain – starting without the out-of-form Fernando Torres – playing their intricate passing game and Germany largely content to defend and exploit opportunities on the counter-attack. Both sides occasionally threatened, but with little sustained menace. It wasn’t a great half of football, with a Torres-less Spain lacking a central focus up front, and Germany struggling to get Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski involved.

Carles Puyol

The second half started more brightly, with Spain enjoying an early period of dominance before the game settled into a pattern where first one team would dominate for a few minutes, then the other. But if the pattern of the game had become fairly predictable, the scorer of the all-important goal on 73 minutes was not. Xavi swept in a corner from the left, and a charging Carles Puyol leapt high to power a thunderous header past the helpless Manuel Neuer from 12 yards. A team which prides itself on playing the most beautiful modern football had produced a proper old-school goal.

Germany pressed forward and kept trying all the way to the end, leaving gaping holes at the back as they threw caution to the wind. Remarkably, Spain failed to capitalise on several chances to make the game safe, not least when Pedro squandered a two-on-one situation by selfishly keeping the ball to himself instead of squaring it to unmarked substitute Torres.

But no matter. 1-0 was ultimately enough, and Vicente del Bosque‘s side were deserving winners, having been on top for long spells during the game and created the bulk of the goal-scoring chances. They will now have the opportunity to add the World Cup to their 2008 European Championship win in Sunday’s final at Soccer City.

Key numbers

7 – Number of Barcelona players in Spain‘s starting line-up (Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Pedro and David Villa).

26:52 – Time of the game’s first foul, when Sergio Ramos brought down Lukas Podolski.

4 – For the fourth time in a row, a World Cup semi-final involving Germany was scoreless at half-time. They went on to win in 1990 and 2002, but lost in 2006 and last night.

1 – In his 13th World Cup appearance, Spain’s Carles Puyol scored with his first-ever attempt in target.

1 – This was Germany’s first defeat in four World Cup meetings with Spain (previously two wins, one draw).

22 – Every member of both starting elevens plays for a club in their country’s domestic league.

0 – Puyol’s goal ensured that, after 19 tournaments, no World Cup semi-final has ever finished 0-0.

(Statistics courtesy of FIFA statistics, @optajoe and @StatManJohn.)

World Cup quarter-finals 1 & 2: Two reds, one hand, no more African teams

Friday’s two World Cup quarter-finals were nothing if not eventful, providing us with a montage of memorable moments, from great goals to senseless red cards, and producing scenes of both elation and despair – not to mention possibly the most dramatic end to a match the World Cup has ever seen. But ultimately the tantalising – or depressing, depending on your point of view – prospect of two all-South American semi-finals will now not come to pass, and we sadly said goodbye to Africa’s final representative in the tournament.

Holland 2 Brazil 1

Wesley Sneijder

This was, truly, a game of two halves. The first 45 minutes was dominated by Brazil. Ten minutes in, Robinho ran unattended through Holland‘s hastily reorganised back line – Joris Mathijsen having been injured in the warm-up – and swept home Felipe Melo‘s through-ball. Had Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg not been in fine form, Brazil would have had one foot firmly in the semi-final by halftime. First he tipped over a curling shot from Kaka, then he turned away a thunderous shot from the full back Maicon.

But the game turned early in the second half when a Wesley Sneijder cross caused panic in the heart of the Brazilian defence. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar tried to punch the ball away but collided with Melo, with the ball bouncing off the latter into the unguarded goal. With the momentum shifting in Holland’s favour, Dirk Kuyt then flicked on a corner for Sneijder to head in what would turn out to be the winner midway though the second half.

Under pressure for the first time in the tournament, Dunga‘s team lost their composure. Melo experienced a rush of blood to the head, and his deliberate stamp on Arjen Robben received the red card it deserved. Although Brazil surged forward desperately in the last 15 minutes in search of the equaliser, none was forthcoming, and as gaping holes started to open up in Brazil’s back line Holland missed a couple of great chances to put the result beyond doubt.

Nonetheless, it is the Dutch who qualified for Tuesday’s first semi-final. On every previous occasion Holland and Brazil have met in the knockout stages, the winner has always gone on to the final. You have been warned.

Key numbers:

42 – Defeat against Holland brought to an end Brazil’s streak of 42 unbeaten World Cup games (excluding penalty shootouts) outside of Europe. Their previous defeat in a non-European World Cup was in July 1950 against Uruguay.

2 – Holland join an elite band of France, Hungary and Italy as the only sides to have beaten Brazil twice at the World Cup.

1 – Felipe Melo is the first player in World Cup history to score an own goal and be sent off in the same game.

97 – Melo’s own goal was the first ever conceded by Brazil at the World Cup – in their 97th game.

Uruguay 1 Ghana 1 (aet, 90 mins 1-1) – Uruguay win 4-2 on penalties

Luis Suarez

Uruguay striker Luis Suarez has caught the eye in two respects during this tournament. On the plus side, he has contributed three fine goals which were instrumental in propelling his country into this quarter-final. In the minus column, however, he has been perhaps the single worse perpetrator of what FIFA likes to euphemistically call ‘simulation’. In other words, he is a diving cheat. So it was perhaps inevitable that Suarez would have a hand – literally – in the outcome of this match.

An entertaining game had finished 1-1 after 90 minutes. Diego Forlan‘s spectacular free kick from the left corner of the penalty area early in the second half cancelled out Sulley Muntari‘s swerving, dipping drive from the nearly 40 yards out in first half stoppage time. On both occasions, the less than true flight of the derided Jabulani ball made both goalkeepers look rather silly through no fault of their own.

Unusually and refreshingly, both sides played with ambition in extra time, but the game was heading for the dreaded penalty shootout when Suarez first cleared Dominic Adiyiah‘s goalbound effort off the line with his knee, then batted away Adiyiah’s follow-up attempt with his hand. It was an instinctive and desperate reaction, but the punishment was swift and correct: a red card for Suarez, and a penalty for Ghana. Asamoah Gyan, scorer of two penalties already in the tournament, fired his spot-kick off the top of the bar with the final act of extra time.

After five well-taken penalties in the shootout – Gyan himself bravely stepped up to take Ghana’s first and blasted it into the top corner – John Mensah, Maxi Pereira and Adiyiah failed in succession to convert their efforts. This left Uruguay substitute Sebastian Abreu to cheekily chip the winning penalty into the space vacated by the diving Ghana keeper, Richard Kingson, triggering scenes of celebration in Montevideo.

Suarez will miss the semi-final, but will feel justified he did the right thing given the eventual outcome. Ghana and Gyan will rue the fact that a red card and a penalty were ultimately not sufficient punishment for the deliberate prevention of a match-winning goal.

Africa has lost its last representative in this first African World Cup, and the continent’s record of never having had a semi-finalist will continue for at least four more years. Meanwhile Uruguay travel to Cape Town for a date with the Oranje next Tuesday.

Key numbers:

40 – The teams combined for a total of 49 shots (26 Ghana, 14 Uruguay).

3 – Asamoah Gyan has struck the woodwork three times, more than any other player at this World Cup.

3 – Gyan’s penalty miss at the end of extra-time was the third unconverted penalty of the tournament (excluding shootouts) – and arguably the most costly.

(Statistics courtesy of @StatManJon, @optajoe@optajean and FIFA statistics.)

France surrender meekly as South Africa go down fighting

South Africa 2 France 1

France, the ninth-ranked team in the world, are out of the 2010 World Cup.

The last time a French player used his head at a major tournament, it did not end well. Zinedine Zidane was sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi in the chest, and France lost the 2006 World Cup final on penalties to Italy. And while they have ‘handled’ tense situations since, their collective performances have generally resembled those of headless chickens.

On paper, this team should have cruised through Group A with plenty to spare. Unfortunately, the tournament is played on grass not paper, and an ignominious 2-1 defeat against the hosts South Africa means that France are winless in six games at major tournaments since Zidane’s sending off and international retirement – and on their way home to lick their wounds, most of which have been self-inflicted.

Both South Africa’s first half goals in this game came as a result of calamitous French defending. First Hugo Lloris charged off his line to punch away a corner, only to miss by a distance, allowing the ball to fall to the unmarked Bongani Khumalo to head into the unguarded net. Then Bacary Sagna allowed left back Tsepo Malilela to ghost behind him, and after Abou Diaby had failed to clear his cross Katlego Mphela was on hand to tap the ball in.

In between the two goals, France had been harshly reduced to ten men when Yoan Gourcuff was shown a straight red card for using his elbow in an aerial challenge with MacBeth Sabaya. It was a poor decision, with replays showing Gourcuff’s elbow was neither actively swung nor raised particularly high, but it is exactly the sort of call which goes against you when everything else is going wrong.

With news that Luis Suarez had put Uruguay ahead against Mexico shortly before half-time in the other Group A match, what had at first appeared a distant and forlorn hope of qualification suddenly became a realistic probability. (At that stage, two more goals for Uruguay or two more for South Africa would have put the hosts through; a goal for each would have required the drawing of lots between themselves and Mexico.)

South Africa continued to hammer on the door throughout the second half, but substitute Florent Malouda‘s 70th-minute tap-in for France muted a crowd who knew their hopes had just been dealt a mortal blow. Although they kept running all the way to the final whistle, the home side visibly tired thereafter and never really looked like getting the goals they required.

At least they will depart their own tournament in a blaze of vuvuzelas and without shame, despite being the first host nation ever to fail to qualify for the knockout phase. They always looked to be some way short of the quality required to reach the last 16, but Carlos Alberto Parreira‘s side have won many friends with their effort and enthusiasm.

Which is more than can be said for the French. There is a cancer running through the veins of their national team, as we have seen repeatedly throughout this tournament. First Malouda was dropped after disagreeing with coach Raymond Domenech. Then Nicolas Anelka was sent home after an, ahem, heated exchange with Domenech during last week’s defeat to Mexico; the entire squad subsequently refused to train. Captain Patrice Evra was relegated to the bench for his role in the revolt. Even on the field, the team’s stars such as Franck Ribéry have been conspicuous by their under-performance throughout their three games.

Incoming coach Laurent Blanc now faces a tough challenge as he considers a Euro 2012 qualifying campaign which commences in ten weeks’ time. His squad is riven by discord, and he will have to prepare for life without senior players like Anelka, Thierry Henry and William Gallas, who are unlikely to still be around for the Euros. Not an enviable task!

It is not that France do not possess individual talent; they do, in abundance. It is more that they lack a squad with any kind of collective spirit, one which has devoted more energy to fighting each other than they have to defeating their opponents.

Tomorrow afternoon: England, another side unexpectedly scrapping for their lives with publicly-exposed internal divisions (although nothing nearly as bad as the French). The winner of England’s group could face Mexico should they reach the quarter-final; the runner-up, Uruguay. Neither potential opponent should fill Fabio Capello‘s side with fear; like France, England’s greatest enemy is potentially themselves.

First the Spanish inquisition, now a Mexican wave as France fail again

It has taken a long while and a sequence of low-scoring and largely dull games, but at last it feels as if this World Cup has properly started.

The turning point was probably Brazil‘s thrilling game against North Korea on Tuesday, where the underdogs gave as good as they got for the best part of an hour until Maicon‘s geometry-defying opener.

But no World Cup is complete without a genuine upset, and in Spain‘s 1-0 defeat to Switzerland on Wednesday and then France‘s tame capitulation to Mexico last night, we were treated to not one but two in consecutive days.

Spain were the victims of a classic counter-punch against an underrated Swiss side who lack a cutting edge up front but are as obdurate in defence as the finest exponents of catenaccio. Yes, Switzerland were the technically inferior team. Yes, they created little in the way of genuine chances, and the goal Gelson Fernandes did score was as scrappy as you will ever see on the game’s grandest stage. But no one ever won a World Cup based solely on style points, and the simple fact was that for all their possession and neat interplay, the Spanish simply did not live up to expectations.

At least the Spanish, with two games still to play, remain masters of their own destiny. France have played two of their three games, and are within a whisker of elimination from the tournament, with goals by Mexico’s Javier Hernandez and the 37-year old Cuauhtemoc Blanco condemning them to a deserved 2-0 defeat.

The Group A table now looks like this:

Uruguay – Pts 4, F3 A0, GD +3
Mexico – Pts 4, F3 A1, GD +2
France – Pts 1, F0 A2, GD -2
South Africa – Pts 1, F1 A4, GD -3

France now require a minor miracle if they are to avoid the ignominy of an early exit.

According to the FIFA World Cup regulations, group positions are determined as follows:

The ranking of each team in each group will be determined as follows:

a) greatest number of points obtained in all group matches;
b) goal difference in all group matches;
c) greatest number of goals scored in all group matches.

If two or more teams are equal on the basis of the above three criteria, their rankings will be determined as follows:
d) greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned;
e) goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned;
f) greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned;
g) drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee.

What this means is that if Uruguay and Mexico draw their final game against each other, both will have five points each and will therefore qualify regardless of what happens in the other game. (Uruguay would go through as group winners and would potentially face the winner of England‘s group in the quarter-finals.)

If one or the other wins, the maths then starts to get complicated. Fundamentally France need to ensure they end up with a better goal difference than the loser of that game, or if they are tied on goal difference, they need to have scored more goals.

So, for instance, if Uruguay win 1-0, France will need to score at least four against South Africa and win by at least three goals. (A 1-0 Uruguay win and a 3-0 France win would leave France and Mexico equal on both goal difference and points, but Mexico would qualify by virtue of having beaten France.) A 2-0 Uruguay victory would require France to win by three goals, or by two if it is 4-2 or better (but 3-1 would see Mexico qualify). And so on.

If Mexico win, the task for France is even greater due to Uruguay’s better starting goal difference. There is also the chance that it might come down to the drawing of lots. This could happen if, for instance, Mexico win 2-0 and France win 3-0, leaving Uruguay and France with a 3-2 goals record, and with their head-to-head result (a 0-0 draw) not helping to split the teams.

Either way, it’s hard to see the Uruguay/Mexico game being lop-sided, so France will need to win and win big – and then cross their fingers that the other game is not drawn – if they are to have any chance of participating further into the tournament.

There is no question that France – not for the first time at a major tournament – have seriously underperformed. How a squad which boasts the attacking talents of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda can have failed to score as much as a single goal in three hours of football so far is bewildering. It does not help that unpopular coach Raymond Domenech is a dead man walking, with his successor Laurent Blanc already named.

The players themselves must shoulder a considerable portion of the blame, with repeated rumours of cliques and in-fighting among various factions in the squad. But Domenech, who has been eccentric in his team selections and tactics to say the least, has not helped. Despite leading his team to the final of the 2006 tournament (which they lost to Italy on penalties), he is widely unloved by his team and his country as a whole. His diffident attitude last night, leaning passively against the dugout while his team drifted with an increasing lack of purpose, was reflected in his players’ general attitude. The only thing missing was a half-smoked Gauloise hanging casually from his hand.

Like many others, I will shed no tears if France exit the competition. Even though they have one of the most talented squads at the World Cup – one which includes six current or former Arsenal players – they are so much less than the sum of their parts. And that for me is the antithesis of what team sport is about. Good riddance.

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