The nineteenth World Cup has certainly been different. There’s a distinctive African flavour to football’s great showpiece – you only have to watch the spontaneous congos that spring up around the stadium and less sterile responses to television cutaways – and the natives are particularly proud of having the tournament on their continent. Setting aside your opinion on the vuvezuelas (personally, anything that drowns out Clive Tyldsley is good enough for me), there’s definitely real passion on display in South Africa. Witness the colour of opening ceremony that wasn’t as tedious as many previous European efforts and how the hosts celebrated their first goal, which incidentally remains the best of the whole competition so far.
It’s too early to make assumptions about the quality of the football but I’m less disappointed that many others. The opening game was much more frenetic that many of the error-ridden, nervous appetisers that past World Cups have served up and the second half was emminently watchable. There have been drab encounters, most notably an utterly forgettable draw between Group A’s two other participants, but there’s been plenty to look and laugh at too. If you weren’t English, you would have found it difficult to supress a smile after Rob Green’s howler on Saturday, especially considering that was one of the worst struck shots I’ve seen Clint Dempsey produce in a while.
A draw against the United States, who too many armchair experts thought would be easy cannon fodder, actually isn’t a particularly bad result for Capello’s side. It does two things straight away; 1) dramatically reduces expectations and 2) makes people worry about getting out of the group rather than going beyond a quarter-final. Saturday provided amble evidence that actually England just aren’t all that good. Having got the perfect start, Capello’s side seemed to forget precisely how to unsettle their opponents: play at a high tempo and move the ball around with intent. By the second period, the football was laboured and England had run out of ideas long before they began launching the ball up to Peter Crouch.
Injuries seem to be taking their toll on an already fragile squad. What was once thought of as an almost impregnable defence now looks decidedly average. Without Ledley King and Rio Ferdinand, England look horribly bereft of pace at the back as Jozy Altidore’s little jaunt past Jamie Carragher demonstrated. If two American forwards can threaten the England goal with such ease on a rare counter-attack could you imagine what Torres and Villa might muster?
Then there’s the age-old midfield question. Seeing Lampard and Gerrard lining up alongside each other was like looking through an old family photo album. Everybody looks happy, but it’s a bit of a facade. Things started well but it’s pretty clear that Lampard, as effective as he might be at club level, can’t play in a four-man midfield. He doesn’t have the license to roam without a designated holding player, which was why he didn’t make any sort of impression in the American penalty area until very late on in the contest. To fit him in, you’d have to revert to a midfield five (which is easier to manage once Gareth Barry is fit) but would have serious drawback of isolating Wayne Rooney.
While England’s start was far from flawless, their potential second-round opponents looked pretty useful. It’s difficult to rate just how good the Germans were on the basis of one performance against an under-par Australia, but there was more than just stereotypical precision at work on Sunday night. There was an art to the German play that is sometimes missing from their workmanlike displays and a spark provided by two of the younger members of the side in Ozil and Muller. In a far less entertaining game, Ghana were disciplined and organised, even if they were indebted to a mention of Serbian stupidity for their match-winning penalty. Neither will be an easy fixture in the last 16.
There’s plenty to look forward to in the next few days, too. This afternoon will see Sven-Goran Eriksson renew his rivalry with Portugal and the Swede will be grateful that group games can’t go to penalties. Spain make their long awaited entrance on Wednesday and we’ll see if the South Koreans, who mustered more of the 2002 spirit than everyone expected in beating Greece at the weekend, can spring a surprise against Argentina. Now, if only FIFA could do something about that ball …