Sunday, November 4, 2007

World Cup Winners, But Not Worthy

Memories of Fabio Cannovaro lifting the world cup trophy last summer may still be fresh in the mind, but qualification for next event in 2010 has already got underway. We all love the spectacle of the world cup, a competition which only the Olympics can rival in terms of global appeal. Every four years we are provided with a month of footballing stories, miracles, joy and heartbreak for players and fans alike.

Yet it could be argued that this competition has failed to provide us with the best team in the world for the past few competitions. The knockout format has always favoured teams who find good form going into and during a tournament, or a team that adapts their style for just a handful of cup games. One has only to look at past tournaments to see that pre competition favourites often fall by the way side through a combination of bad luck, dubious refereeing, or just not performing on the day.

The 1954 world cup stands out as the first competition where the overwhelming favourites, Hungary, didn’t quite achieve their goal. The Hungarians had defeated fellow finalists West Germany 8-3 in the first round, and were all set to claim their first world title. But torrential rain on the day of the match, injury to inspirational captain Ferenc Puskás, and a remarkable comeback by the West Germans culminated in the unthinkable – a 3-2 defeat and an unlikely German victory. “The Miracle of Berlin” as it was later called would surely have reached a different conclusion had Puskás been fully fit and the pitch in a more playable condition.

The world cups of 1974 and 1978 were won by the host nation on both occasions, another crucial factor in determining world champions past and present. The fancied team in both competitions had been the Dutch, who dazzled with their Total Football approach to the game. In 1974, Germany once again defied the odds and beat the favourites 2-1 on the day. The same was repeated four years later in Buenos Aires when a partisan Argentine crowd and stalling tactics by the home team unsettled the Dutch. A rattled Holland side never really performed in the final, and Argentina’s momentum was enough for them their first ever world title with a 3-1 win. But 30 years on, which team has been celebrated more in football folklore? The winners haven't, that is much is certain.

The very next world cup produced one of the biggest surprise winners of all time, when a Paoli Rossi inspired Italy triumphed 3-1 in the final to claim their third world title. So poor were the Italians for much of the tournament that it wasn’t until their fourth match that they secured their first win, having only scraped through the group stage by a single goal difference. With only minutes to play and heading out of the tournament in the second round, Italy took advantage of poor Brazilian defending at a corner, and Rossi lashed home the winner to complete his hat trick, and send the much lauded Brazilian team home. As has happened in many tournaments before and after, Italy had run into a rich vein of form just at the right time, and the West Germans were no match as Paoli Rossi once again scored in a 3-1 victory in the final.

With football becoming increasingly globalised in the 1990s, the so called ‘lesser teams’ were quickly catching up with the traditional powers of the world game. Football associations around the world began hiring experienced foreign coaches and players were gaining big match experience in major leagues around the world. With the overall quality of teams rising, so did the number of surprise one off results, with Cameroon and Senegal’s opening match day victories over Argentina (1990) and France (2002) respectively being prime examples. In the past few competitions, Turkey, South Korea, Belgium, Bulgaria and Sweden have all made it to the semi-finals - hardly world beaters.

The luck of the draw can also help. Anyone who saw the 2002 Germany team is still scratching their head and wondering how such a poor team made it to the final. Closer examination reveals that Germany’s route to the final involved getting past the Republic of Ireland, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia in the group stages, and then scraping past Paraguay, USA and South Korea in the knock out stages, all 1-0. Hardly a rigorous test if you’re looking for the best team in the world. To make it even more astonishing, the hugely gifted Argentina team was knocked out in the first round after a ridiculously difficult draw for the group stages.

The world cup may provide quick and instant glory for the winners, but it is doubtful whether it produces the best team in the world. The same, however, could not be said of the league system format. The rigours of a long, hard championship always end with the team at the top of the table being crowned worthy champions. The system allows for off days and bad luck not to have detrimental effects on a team’s chances of success due to the sheer numbers of games played. A below par performance or bad luck in just one game at a world cup and you’re out, end of story. Arsene Wenger commented a few years ago that the number of surprise Champions League finalists in recent years could in part be explained by the doing away with the second group stage, and replacing it with one extra knock out round. There were less group games, more knock out ties, and therefore more unpredictable results.

So could a league format be implemented to determine the best team in the world? In truth, not really, as the logistical nightmare of scheduling games and the shifting of power to club football are two insurmountable obstacles. Fifa’s much criticised ranking system gives us some idea of the consistently good teams around the world, but it could never be considered as the defining criteria in finding world champions.

It looks as though, for the foreseeable future at least, that the current world cup format will persist. But remember, when you watch the winners hoist the trophy aloft, you will, in all probability, not be watching the best team in the world, but the luckiest, the most in form, the team who made the most of their home advantage, or any other reason which proved pivotal in finding that particular competition’s ‘world cup winners’.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sven Back Doing What He Does Best

Go on, admit it – you were just waiting for Sven and his legion of mysterious signings to fall flat on their face a few weeks into the season. Just what were Manchester City doing taking him on? But as we move into October, Sven’s City find themselves above Chelsea and Tottenham in the league, and breathing down the necks of leaders Arsenal. Add to that the single goal victory over neighbours United, and the blue half of Manchester is celebrating their best start to a season in a long time.

But should we be so surprised? Granted, Sven’s last few months as England manager were not covered in glory, and their performance at last year’s world cup was a huge let down. It is possible that Eriksson stayed on for one tournament too many, but this should not detract from the job that he did as national coach, nor his numerous achievements at club level.

England fans are fickle at the best of times, and it’s easy to forget just what a state the national team was in when Sven took charge back in 2001. Lying bottom of their qualifying group, Sven galvanised the squad and eventually lead them to first place in the group, qualification cemented by a stunning 5-1 win in Germany. At this point ‘Sir Sven’ could do no wrong, and was so popular that he even inspired a top ten hit. He had also been lined up to replace the soon to be departing Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, such was the impact he had made.

The three lions put in a credible performance at the 2002 world cup, qualifying from the ‘group of death’ with an inspiring 1-0 win over Argentina. Despite leading against 10-man Brazil, England eventually lost out to the South Americans with a wonder/fluke goal (depending on who you believe) by Ronaldinho, although many wondered why the team hadn’t pressed harder for a second goal when they had been on top.

England then cruised through qualifying for Euro 2004 and headed to the championships in confident mood. The team played some good football and averaged well over two goals a game. Only a controversial disallowed goal in extra time prevented England from going through against hosts Portugal in the quarter finals, and they eventually lost out on penalties. Despite some criticism from the press and lurid details about his private life surfacing on the front pages of the tabloids, Sven was still popular amongst players and fans alike.

The Swede then entered his most difficult period as England manager as the team started their qualifying campaign for Germany 2006. The team never really hit the heights despite qualifying, and were lampooned after their humiliating 1-0 defeat against Northern Ireland in Belfast. Things picked up slightly as Sven masterminded another victory over Argentina in a high profile friendly, a team many considered as favourites for the World Cup.

The World Cup in Germany was a disappointment for England and they underachieved massively. They were knocked out for the third tournament in a row at the quarter final stage by a Felipe Scolari team, and by Portugal for the second tournament in a row. Sven was severely criticised this time, with accusations ranging from a lack of passion on the touchline to tactically inept. It was unfair, however, to single out Eriksson as the sole reason behind England’s poor displays. Very few players played anywhere near to their potential, Rooney’s sending off was reckless, losing a world class striker in Owen was devastating (despite not being match fit), and England’s players once again arrived at a tournament looking physically and mentally drained after having played more football over the season than their rivals. Ultimately, the so called ‘golden generation’ just didn’t live up to the hype.

Sven is now back in club football, and looking to add to an already impressive list of honours to this name. He has won the league and cup double in every country he has managed, and amassed three European trophies to his name, including an unlikely UEFA Cup success with IFK Göteborg in 1982. He almost added the European Cup to that list in 1989 with Benfica, but the brilliant Milan side of the late 1980s and early 1990s overcame Sven’s team 1-0. With this kind of record in club football, it’s easy to see why England came calling back in 2000.

Statistically, Sven is rated as England’s second most successful manager after Sir Alf Ramsey, having suffered only five competitive defeats and reaching the last eight in three successive tournaments. It's probably safe to say he won’t be remembered as affectionately as other former managers, say Bobby Robson, but it's disappointing that there hasn’t been true recognition of the job he did as national manager. With every City victory, however, maybe fans will finally realise the debt of gratitude they owe the man from Sweden and recognise his long list of achievements.