Article written for the Sports section of the The Student Journals – 19/06/14
After a great deal of anticipation and excitement, the first round of group games are complete at the World Cup. We look at what can be learned from the thrilling first week of action.
1. This could be the most exciting World Cup ever
It has been goals-galore in the first round of group games, with matches averaging around three goals every game. Most matches have been played at a high tempo with teams playing attacking football. It is a marked contrast to South Africa four years ago, where even a controversial ball failed to yield the goals and excitement that many expected. There have been almost three times as many goals at this World Cup so far compared to the same stage in 2010. Whether it’s the warm conditions or just the nature of the teams competing, the tournament is living up to its billing and let’s just hope it continues.
The so-called big players have also performed well in the first round of games, with the likes of Neymar, Messi and Van Persie grabbing the headlines. Add in some controversy, sendings off, and vanishing spray in the mix, and this tournament has all the attributes for a World Cup to remember.
2. Spain are past their peak
Suggestions came as early on as their defeat in the final of the Confederation Cup last year against Brazil, and now they’ve been eliminated.
In a repeat of the 2010 final, they faced the Netherlands in their opening match. After a whirlwind second half, the new-look Dutch side pulled off a shock 5-1 win. It was not just the defeat that rocked the tournament; it was the manner of the defeat. A relatively inexperienced Dutch side had unmasked defensive frailties that few thought existed. Would the Spain side of four years ago have lost so emphatically?
Spain have been close to unbeatable in the last few years, and their success in recent times has mirrored that of Barcelona, but all has come to a surprising and sudden end.
Sadly, their defeat to the Netherlands didn’t spark the reaction it did four years ago when they lost to Switzerland in their opening game.
3. Referees need more help
Refereeing decisions were put under the spotlight in the very first match of the World Cup when Brazilian striker, Fred, appeared to dive to win his side a penalty against Croatia. The incident once again sparked the debate over whether video technology should be implemented. The Croatia manager labelled the decision against his team as “ridiculous, and if we continue in this way we will have a circus.”
Several goals were also incorrectly ruled offside in the Mexico and Cameroon match and these incidents are all too common in major tournaments. They underline the need for changes, and it is evident that referees need some sort video support if we are to move to a fairer sport.
There have been some (small) signs of progress from FIFA in this respect. The instalment of goal-line technology is a welcome (but belated) addition to this year’s tournament. Referees also now have a white spray to ensure that free kicks and defensive walls are in the correct place.
Some say a video referee system would slow down play and ruin the rhythm of the game. However, players often spend several minutes arguing with the referee after key decisions. A quick referral and decision by a video referee could even speed up play, and end some of the ugly scenes that ensue after a big decision, where players surround and harass the referee.
4. England are improving
An opening defeat for England against group rivals would not usually be a cause for much optimism, but Roy Hodgson’s side did show some signs of improvement against Italy. In Euro 2012, they faced the Italians in the knockout stages and were completely outplayed. Despite taking the match to penalties there was a clear gulf in quality in nearly all areas of the pitch. However, this time round there was much more ambition and attacking intent from England, with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge impressing.
They still lacked the technical and passing prowess of the Italians. However, it was a match that could have gone either way, and England will feel hard done by that they didn’t come away with at least a draw. A repeat performance against Uruguay on Thursday and England will have every chance of winning and progressing from the group.
5. The “small” teams can make a big impact
In every World Cup there seems to be one outsider that exceeds expectations and progresses through the tournament. This time round it looks it may well be Costa Rica, after they produced a fine performance to upset the odds and defeat a lacklustre Uruguay side 3-1. A three-horse race expected in Group D between England, Uruguay and Italy for qualification to the Last 16. But their win against Uruguay leaves them with a fine chance of emulating their achievement of Italia 1990, where they reached the Last 16 on their tournament debut.
Australia and Iran also produced spirited performances in their first games. Iran secured a point against Nigeria and the ‘Socceroos’ were narrowly edged out by Chile. They may not be able to reach the knockout stages, but the likes of Australian will have a big say in who will progress.