The world’s biggest tournament has ended. Congratulations to the first-time champion, Spain, and their win over Dutch thuggery.
All in all, I think the tournament will be remembered as a fun event, and as Africa’s coming-out party on the world sport stage.
A few thoughts about the key players (and others):
South Africa: Right before the tournament started, we heard about a stampede at a friendly (that wasn’t organized by the SA’10 committee), and of course, the tragic death of Nelson Mandela’s grand-niece after the opening ceremonies. But after that… not a word. 64 games were played. 64 crowds entered, and left, 10 stadiums across South Africa without any major incidents. About the only complaint is that some of the pitches were ragged late in the tournament, but that can happen with any grass surface. The crowds were good. They were loud (oh, man, were they loud – the word “vuvuzela” entered the world’s vocabulary this year). But in the end, it was all peaceful, friendly, and by all accounts, well-organized. Grade: A-.
FIFA: Oh, my. FIFA has once again cemented its place as the biggest obstacle to world soccer. Let me count the ways…
- FIFA’s insistence on dragging in officials from the backwaters of continental football to officiate their quadrennial world championship blew up again. I don’t blame Koman Coutibaly for his awful “phantom foul” call (or his other botched calls all that night) in USA-Slovenia. I blame FIFA for putting him in a position to screw up. And it kept happening. These are, theoretically, the best players and teams in the world. Why can’t FIFA provide the best officials to handle them? And FIFA says that it’s OK that the officials were “96% accurate”? SERIOUSLY?
- FIFA’s refusal to set any kind of standards for conduct. Officials are allowed, basically, to have their own standards for when to issue yellow and red cards, with no apparent guidance from FIFA. This leads to some matches with 8 yellows, and other matches with none, while the play on the pitch is fairly similar from one match to the next. Of course, the final had 14 yellows, and probably should have had more, as the Dutch decided to play their version of Hack-a-Shaq instead of actually trying to win on the pitch. So I’ll give the referee a pass there – but you have to wonder if the Dutch were cynically counting on weak-kneed officiating…?
- FIFA’s refusal to require its officials to face the media. They’re soccer officials, and they’re less accountable that kings and presidents. Please. Coutibaly will go to his grave with the secret of the phantom foul. That’s absurd.
- FIFA’s refusal to put any real effort into ending the art of the dive. Really, how hard is it to tell officials to call what they see, and not the dive afterwards? And if that means reworking some rules interpretations – if they start NOW, they can make some progress before Brasil in four years. At the very least, look at huge fines or long-term suspensions for diving if you’re afraid to red-card everyone who dives. But who am I kidding? FIFA has done nothing about diving for decades, they’re unlikely to start now.
- FIFA’s mishandling of the Adidas Jabroni Jabulani ball. The Jabroni wasn’t given to the teams until a few weeks before the tournament. Why FIFA didn’t release the ball at the start of SA’10 qualifying in 2008 is beyond anyone with common sense – which would explain why FIFA didn’t do it, I guess. The Jabroni doesn’t behave properly. Let’s face it, we haven’t seen this many free kicks go into the 20th row of the grandstand since the glory days of Mezzaninho (Francisco Marinho) with the New York Cosmos in the Pele era. The difference is that while Mezzaninho was just terrible at free kicks, the players in this World Cup were dealing with an ineptly-designed ball that, according to reports, has been proven in wind tunnels not to move through the air like a normal soccer ball. Some players, by the end of the tournament, were starting to get the hang of the Jabroni. But in the end… good riddance to a bad idea. Let’s play soccer with soccer balls, not Jabronis.
- And, of course, FIFA’s refusal to enter the 20th century, never mind the 21st. FIFA Generalissimo Sepp Blatter nearly broke his neck doing a U-turn on video review after that horrible call against England – but still, if you think FIFA will implement video review in your lifetime or mine, you haven’t watched world soccer long enough. They will spend the next 15 years killing the idea in a maze of committees and tribunals, but will never actually implement it.
FIFA pretty much fails. Honestly, the best comment that was made during the tournament (and I wish I had made it) was that FIFA is the world’s BCS. Just as inept, just as backwards, and just as useless. And just like the BCS, we’re stuck with FIFA unless the major soccer countries tell FIFA to stick it and start over. Grade: D-.
Team USA: Bob Bradley made some odd management decisions with his lineup. The team didn’t play a complete 90-minute game during the group stage, and still won the group. They had a chance with Ghana, but had two critical lapses and paid dearly. But at that, they brought American sports fans (and some non-fans) together for a few days in the summer of 2010. We can wonder what would have happened if Charlie Davies hadn’t wrecked on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in 2009. We can wonder what would have happened if Bob Bradley hadn’t tinkered with the lineup going into the Ghana game. But what we know is this: there’s a foundation here. There’s real hope for American soccer. The goal now is simple – build on this. Be truly competitive with the rest of the world by the next time we host the World Cup (hopefully in 2022). I don’t know if Bob Bradley is the right manager to take us there. But I don’t know if American fans would take well to an offshore manager. Perhaps the one we would accept is living in California right now. Paging Herr Klinsmann? Grade: B-.
Overall quality of play: It would be nice to report that all 64 games were epic battles. It would also be untrue. But look, you can’t blame the teams for doing whatever they felt they needed to do to advance. While we want to be entertained, the teams aren’t out there as entertainers. They’re athletes, trying to win the single biggest prize in their sport. If that means slow, tactical football, so be it. I think the more devoted soccer fans got their entertainment value… and there were some great moments (Donovan’s tournament-saver, for example). It was good, not great. The cynical display today by the Dutch managed to lower the grade a full half-level. Grade: C+.
ESPN: Saving the best for last… after the horrendous 2006 World Cup with an overmatched baseball announcer calling the major games, ESPN has learned their lesson. The coverage was, and I’m not overstating this, awesome. 30-minute pre-match shows for every match (60 for the semis and final), 30-minute end-of-day recaps, extensive primetime coverage, lots of time in SportsCenter and on ESPN Radio. There’s been above-average studio work from the American hosts; the international studio analysts have been informative and fun to listen to. Ruud Gullit, to me, stood out, but they all did well. And as to the match commentators – sure, it felt like we’d been transported to London but if ITV and the Beeb don’t want terrific voices like Martin Tyler and Ian Darke, we’ll take them. And I have to make note of the two African commentators – South Africa’s Shaun Bartlett in the studio and Nigeria’s Efan Ekoku in the commentary box – as they were among the best of ESPN’s team. Oh, and we got some good news that was somewhat lost in the Independence Day holiday weekend – the AP reported that Martin Tyler has already been signed for ESPN’s coverage of Brasil ’14. Guess it’s fitting that Tyler and Ekoku called the 2010 Final. See you guys in four years… Grade: A.
I can’t grade ESPN Radio’s coverage as I didn’t get a chance to listen, but JP Dellacamera and Tommy Smyth have worked together so much that I have no doubt that radio listeners were well-served.
The road to Rio starts in July 2011 with the announcement of qualifying formats and allocations. Well… actually, it starts at Meadowlands Stadium next month, with the USA v. Brasil friendly, but you know what I mean. I’m looking forward to CONCACAF (the USA’s region, North/Central America) qualifying – which they are hoping to pattern after South America’s qualifier. After a knockout round, the final qualifier would be a 12-team/2-year/22-match league with the top teams qualifying. That would mean the USA could have their quadrennial loss at Azteca Stadium without really jeopardizing their spot in Brasil… In the meantime, if you discovered soccer with this World Cup, you should know there’s probably soccer near you. Check it out. It’ll be fun.