Argentina-Germany game should buck World Cup's defensive trend
This has been a low-scoring World Cup, averaging just 2.1 goals per group game
Teams have focused on trying not to lose or limiting how much they lose by
Quarterfinal match between Argentina, Germany pairs two highest-scoring teams
Dutch legend Johan Cruyff has warmed things up ahead of Friday's quarterfinal meeting between the Netherlands and Brazil by insisting he wouldn't part with a cent to watch Dunga's side play. "Where has the Brazil team we all know disappeared to in this World Cup?" he asked. "Where is the Brazilian magic? They have talented players but they play in a way which is more defensive and is less exciting. They are not special, they are just like any other squad. It is a shame for the fans and the tournament. They are one of the teams people want to see."
He's right that this is hardly the Brazil of the black-and-white TV era, but it's odd that certain teams should be expected to entertain everybody above all else. And if he was intending to suggest that the Oranje had lived up to its billing as one of the other few teams that "people want to see," it doesn't stack up. While Dunga's team might only have scored one more goal than the Dutch, it has actually attacked almost a third more times and rustled up around 30 percent more shots at goal in doing so. It's a good sign for the Netherlands' intentions on the trophy that it has reached the quarterfinals without getting out of the low gears, but if Cruyff is after entertainment, the Dutch haven't been the go-to guys.
It's been one of the more frequently heard complaints at this World Cup: that too many teams have played boring soccer. A quick look at the stats will tell you that this has certainly been a low-scoring World Cup so far: we saw an average of just 2.1 goals per game in the groups. There's no point, of course, in looking wistfully at the record books; 1954, when each group game yielded an average of 4.9 goals, is a long time ago. But even in 1990, widely regarded as the least entertaining World Cup ever, the group stages brought a marginally higher 2.3 goals per game. In South Africa, defenders have topped the bill, and Switzerland set a new record for World Cup minutes played without conceding a goal before exiting the tournament on a zero goal difference.
There is certainly a debate to be had about the move toward more pragmatic tactics, what we might call the Mourinho-ization of modern soccer (if we didn't think he'd be so pleased about it), but there is questionable wisdom in judging tournaments by the number of goals scored. This isn't basketball; a lot can happen getting from one end to the other. Portugal's 7-0 destruction of North Korea was not seven-times more entertaining than Argentina's 1-0 win over Nigeria, and the high-scoring tournaments of the 1930s, 40s and 50s featured some of the least competitive matches ever.
Brazil itself was upset by the difficulty it had overcoming what looked at times to be a 10-man North Korean defense, but it seems inevitable that the finals will feature teams good enough to overcome their neighbors in qualifying but unable to compete in an attack versus attack matchup with a five-time World Cup champion. Juan was perhaps being less compassionate when he described having come up against "a national team without any sort of tradition at the top level, who mark well and just worry about defending," but the fact remains that soccer's smaller nations must look to their strengths to make their mark.
Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela all came away from Brazil with goalless draws in qualifying, having defended first and foremost. If they pushed forward and allowed themselves to be beaten 7, 8 or 9-0, as South Korea did in 1954, they would be branded na´ve. It's unrealistic and patronizing to suggest that smaller teams owe the neutral spectator a match of mind-boggling audacity (and an even more brain-addling scoreline) at all, let alone over and above any obligation to their own fans, for whom the result is likely to be infinitely more important. It's not the responsibility of a team that thinks it has a chance of beating a more favored opponent to worry about the quality of the highlights DVD.
Having said all that, I admit to being disappointed that the quarterfinals this weekend will eliminate one of Germany and Argentina, the two most consistently entertaining teams in the tournament so far. None of the games involving these two has felt like it simply relied on holding onto the ball and stopping the opposition playing. Even having lost Miroslav Klose to a dubious red card, the Germans pressed Serbia relentlessly. Argentina's second-round win over Mexico was a closer call, I'll grant you, but Diego Maradona's side has defended reactively more often than it has opted to defend first and score later.
Argentina has scored more goals than any other side (10), with Germany close behind in second (9). Both are among the most consistent passing teams, have launched attacks from virtually every position and played throughout as though stepping inside the penalty area is an invitation to shoot and not a reason to look for a teammate. If the limit of a team's capabilities is to avoid defeat, or avoid too heavy a defeat, so be it, but these teams don't fall into that category and it's been gratifying to watch them play to win. Now one of them must prepare to take its bow. From the neutral perspective, let's hope the latter stages of the competition coax the same attitude out of the more intermittently threatening sides.
Georgina Turner has worked as a sports journalist since 2003. She covers the English Premier League, but also reports on tennis and women's sports for UK magazines.