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World Cup Redux

So, another World Cup ends and the succeeding weeks bring a nagging sense of withdrawal  but also a chance to revisit the narratives that were played out.  The pathos of the World Cup tournament came largely from Holland’s defeat – its third in a World Cup final.  This country which has produced some of the greatest players of all time – Cruyff, Neeskens, Gullit and Bergkamp-is the greatest soccer power never to win.  Holland’s loss was especially difficult because they toppled #1 ranked Brazil to get to the finals, taking control of the game in the second half of their game with fine goals by Schneijder and Robben against Brazil’s celebrated defense.The World Cup tournament came largely from Holland’s defeat – its third in a World Cup final.

What makes Holland’s continual failure at this level mystifying is that they are the originators of one of the most imitated styles of play in the history of the game.  Total football was fashioned by former Dutch coach, the legendary Rinus Michels when he  helmed   the team in the early 1970’s.  It called for players to be flexible-equally adept at attacking and defending.  During a match, when the team is being pinned down by the opposition, the team members adopt a defensive stance with all 10 outfield players behind the ball; alternately, if the team is attacking the opposition half of the field, then the players adopt an attacking stance where all ten outfield players support  each other in the opponent’s half of the field.  In order for this strategy to work, a team needs players who are comfortable with the ball and able to switch from attack to defense very quickly.  The irony is that Spain largely adopted total football: their strategy was mainly based on the successful tactics of the Barcelona club team which had been formed over decades by Dutch coaches, including  Michels, Cruyff and Louis van Gaal.

So the final between Spain and Holland should have been a classic struggle of prophet and acolyte.  But it wasn’t.  It seemed like the only team interested in playing  football was Spain.  The Holland team players resorted to roughhouse tactics hoping to unsettle the Spanish team, denying them the space and rhythm to play their close passing game.  Trips, crunching tackles and elbows were the order of the day.  The Holland player, De Jong, launched a scandalous kick to the chest of Spanish player, Alonso, earning only a yellow card from the British referee, Webb.  He should have been sent  off.  Johann Cruyff,  the legendary Holland player from  Holland’s  “Total Football” era of the 1970’s described the team’s performance as “antifootball”.

And what was the other low?  Who would have thought that Italy and France, the teams that played in the last final,  would crash and burn in the first round?  For France, it signaled the end of a 30-year run of glittering, balletic football. From Platini to Zidane, France were a European side that rivaled the South Americans in flair and grace.  Many will remember the epic game they played against Brazil in 1986, an impossible display of intelligence, rhythm and athleticism that ended in a penalty shootout.  Sadly, the 2010 French will be remembered for the fact that their team went on strike when the nation needed their services the most.  This comes 4 years after France’s hero, Zidane head butted Italian player, Materrazzi in the 2006 World Cup final.   Swan song indeed.

Compare the dissolution of Holland’s brilliant gestalt football and France’s aesthetic game to the singular delight of the 2010 tournament which was undoubtedly the re-emergence of Uruguay as a soccer power. Remember that Uruguay was the first nation to win a World Cup, defeating Argentina 4-2 in 1930.  The new  Uruguay team played a crackling game against Ghana to enter the semi finals and came very close to equalizing with Holland which would have taken them to the finals.  Diego Forlan and his teammates gave hope to all the has-beens and minnows in football around the world.  Perhaps their success will wake the soccer greats of yesterday — like Hungary and England — back to form and serve as inspiration to the powers to come.

Rodrigo Silva is AlterNow’s soccer correspondent.  Based in Malaysia, he teaches business and marketing at the MBA level at Segi College in Kuala Lumpur.

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