World Cup trends: African nations falter; vuvuzelas stir controversy
African nations have failed to shine, with all in danger of first-round elimination
The new Jabulani ball has been blamed for the lack of goals and wayward shooting
Several teams, such as France and England, have suffered internal team strife
As the group stage of the World Cup draws to a close, there are five clear trends to note:
Going into the final round of group matches at this, the first World Cup to be held on African soil, there is a chance that none of Africa's six representatives will make it to the last 16. It was not meant to happen like this and, after South Africa's thrilling, if slightly fortunate, opening-game draw with Mexico, few people saw it coming. In fact, South Africa became the first host nation in World Cup history not to qualify out of the group stages, even after beating France 2-1 Tuesday.
Some teams have been unlucky: Nigeria has missed the injured John Obi Mikel, while Ivory Coast might have achieved more than a draw against Portugal had Didier Drogba, its captain and best player, not fractured his elbow before the tournament and been able to start that game. Cameroon has been the biggest disappointment, and its outspoken captain, Samuel Eto'o, is bound to restart the debate about African sides hiring European coaches. His theory is that an international coach only needs to "take care of a few organizational details and make sure there's a good atmosphere," but even that proved beyond Paul Le Guen.
As it is, Ghana may be Africa's best hope of progression, but it needs to get something out of its game with Germany on Wednesday. Algeria is also worthy of mention, given it has the only African coach at the tournament: Rabah Saadane, also in charge in its 1986 campaign, has shrugged off the threatened walk-out of his captain and a player revolt over bonuses to oversee a goalless draw with England in a game his team could have won. The Algerians will be no pushovers for the U.S., and could qualify if other results go their way.
The new World Cup ball, the Jabulani, has been heavily criticized by players for its unnatural swerve and performance. In fact, the ball was blamed for a bizarre first set of group matches that produced just 25 goals in 16 games (compared to 39 in 2006). While some players moaned about the pitches (the Dutch), the altitude (the Dutch) and the ball (yup, the Dutch), the second set was a different story entirely: 42 goals in the same number of games.
What can we take from this? Mainly, that it was not the ball causing the lack of goals early, but a collective decision to play cautiously for fear of losing the first game.
"The pressure of the World Cup is so intense nobody wants to lose that first game. It harms the style a little bit," said Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, working in South Africa as a pundit for TF1. "Early on, teams play more not to lose than to win."
With teams going into their final group games knowing exactly what they need to do, caution will be thrown to the wind, so expect more goals to fly in.
The first two sets of games of this World Cup have provided more shocks than ever before, as North Korea came close to drawing with Brazil (it lost 2-1), Switzerland beat European champions Spain (1-0), New Zealand played reigning champions Italy even (1-1) and Algeria looked the better side in its draw with England (0-0). Coaches have drilled these less well-known sides to keep possession and control the play, defend with discipline and attack with pace, the upshot being that bigger nations struggle to find new ways of breaking them down.
As the favorites' frustration increases on the pitch and in the stands, the players have to remain patient -- something Brazil managed after an hour of deadlock against North Korea, but England and Spain struggled to do against Algeria and Switzerland, respectively. Even after one decent result, a minnow would still normally struggle to get through, so for the bigger sides it's usually only a question of how it reacts to any setback. And as France and England are proving, that's not always as simple as it should be.
The deafening atmosphere at the World Cup's opening game was mainly down to 85,000 South African fans blowing their vuvuzelas, or plastic trumpets, non-stop, and FIFA heralded it as the sound of the World Cup. As the competition has gone on, though, the vuvuzelas' popularity has quickly diminished.
Argentina's players blamed the noise levels for the goal they conceded against South Korea, when Martin Demichelis simply could not hear a shouted warning from one teammate, while Lionel Messi said, "It is impossible to communicate, it's like being deaf." Players from Portugal and Holland have also publicly complained about the vuvuzelas, and though FIFA has insisted that the instruments will not be banned, some reports claim they are no longer on sale inside match venues.
Certain TV broadcasters have turned the sound down to drown out their noise. And the backlash is not just limited to outside South Africa: Port Elizabeth's biggest shopping mall, Greenacres, has also banned them. As leagues, including the English Premier League, consider selling them as official products next season, perhaps they should weigh the preferences of the players, and those fans for whom a rousing chant is a good enough way of backing your team.
This sounds obvious, but it is not foolproof. For example, South Africa sings and dances its way onto the pitch without results always matching its joie de vivre. Yet while everyone has been looking to Holland, whose star players Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie barely talk to one another, for the first World Cup bust-up, it is the two nations with French coaches that have led the way.
Cameroon was first to crack, with divisions in its squad apparent before its defeat to Japan; after it, the captain blamed the coach, the FA president blamed three separate factions in the squad, and it was little surprise when it was the first side eliminated from South Africa.
The France team's row was even more dramatic, bearing in mind it finished as runner-up in 2006 and has a squad packed with quality. Its federation expelled Nicolas Anelka after he swore at the coach during halftime of the defeat to Mexico. The players then refused to train in solidarity for Anelka, would not allow the coach on the team bus, and then made him read a statement on their behalf criticizing his bosses. Anelka flew to London on Monday and 75 percent of the French public want their team to lose against South Africa on Tuesday.
Adding to the shame for European teams, England has tried its level best. Former captain John Terry is purported to have led a failed coup of coach Fabio Capello, which ended rather embarrasingly for Terry when he failed to receive the support of his teammates.