Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: There is no invincible team to fear at the World Cup

Sometimes you find a glint of gold in the most unpromising locations but there is surely no easy optimism for football prospectors here in the long shadows of the snow-covered Drakensberg mountains.

Of course it is a little early to pack up the old mule and head home – absurdly so, really – but when Spain lost to Switzerland, who were on offer at 14-1 by one leading bookmaker yesterday, there loomed a harsh possibility.

It is that the 19th World Cup may just be shaping up as the most miserable example of failed ambition and over-stated possibilities since arguably the worst of them all, the 1990 version in Italy that provoked Fifa into changing the back-pass law.

For the moment the ruling body will have to settle for a little passing of the buck, or rather the ball, because it is maybe heaping too much blame on the erratic projectile that is currently making some of the best of the world's players, including the Spanish master of the perfectly weighted pass or shot, Andres Iniesta, look distinctly foolish, to reach out for just one bizarre explanation for a growing sense of disappointment.

What happened in Durban yesterday was simply crushing. Spain were supposed to end the first round of matches not only with a victory but a surge of hope that what we had seen up until then was merely some rather too tentative shadow boxing.

Even the boldest of football men, Diego Maradona, whose Argentina have maybe come closest, albeit spasmodically, to suggesting that they might hit a vein of brilliance in their game with Nigeria, was in defensive mode on the issue yesterday, suggesting that every World Cup has the capacity to produce unlikely heroes and winning teams after careful, "maybe too careful" starts. But this doesn't alter the fact that after the first 16 games we still await an authentically absorbing collision.

In another week we might just have a few reasons to put aside the current bleak mood that is so difficult to shake off.

For now, we can only despair that the admittedly fine tactician Ottmar Hitzfeld was able to organise Switzerland to their first victory in an opening World Cup fixture with a team that, while full of competitive merit, settled on the tastebuds like a bowl of half-boiled gruel. Spain were supposed to give us haute cuisine, they were supposed to remind football that winning can also be about creating an exquisite taste.

So what are we left with after the opening statements that came nearest to sustained conviction with the German victory over an Australian team rooted in mediocrity and down to 10 men? In this case only a reminder that the Germans rarely if ever give less than their best at this level of competition and it could be that they will once again build menacingly on the certainties of discipline and aggressive intent.

But with all respect to German fortitude and bite, it is not what the football aficionado really wants to celebrate. He wants a hint or two that the game is indeed still capable of stirring the senses and the emotions in the way that first made it the most popular in the world. Here, there is the sense of routine, and a rather drab one, rather than the exhilaration of heightened ambition – and exceptional performance.

Who can break the pattern? The suspicion remains that Argentina, with their traditional accumulation of individual talent personified by Lionel Messi's imperious form in the victory over Nigeria, may have the best chance.

Spain obviously have the capacity to redeem themselves but there was almost a tepid fatalism, apart from Xabi Alonso's stupendously controlled shot which hit the Swiss crossbar, about their second-half effort in the face of impending crisis.

Brazil proved against the massed and gallant but otherwise uninspired North Koreans, that on top of coach Dunga's relentless efforts to make them efficient they do retain some remarkable skill. However to dwell on the capacity of Brazil to give us fleeting reminders of what they used to be, is maybe a little too haunting.

The best course is probably to expel so much of what we have seen in the hope that somewhere there is a workable instinct to step beyond all of it.

Certainly this must be the resolve of an England team stricken by some terrible misadventure in their first match, but who must look around now and wonder precisely who is it they are obliged to fear?

The worst of possibilities is that the pattern, as it was in Italy most discouragingly but also to some degree in all the intervening tournaments, will prove a little too hard to break.

In the meantime we can only be grateful that there are players like Messi and Iniesta, Kaka and Rooney and Gerrard who might just wake up and realise that there is nothing more serious to worry about than a lack of belief in their own exceptional powers.

Yes, it is too soon to condemn this World Cup to failures of competitive spirit and superior performance. But deep concern is unavoidable. There has been no limit to the hype or the expectation. Now it is delivery time and we are running late. The real players and the real teams have to announce themselves. If there is gold in the hills, it would be nice to see a little evidence.

Belfast Telegraph


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