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Losers and Winners

The FIFA World Cup 2010 ended almost two weeks ago but the void it has left is yet to be filled. The sound of vuvuzelas, which proved so annoying during the matches, is now sorely missed and so is the overdose of soccer for close to a month. The Spanish Team, La Furia Roja, were the epitome of efficiency and possession football as they won their first World Cup in their 13th outing (Did I hear someone say 13 is unlucky?). The world hailed Spain as champions and they deserved the plaudits completely but a lot of other “winners” according to me never got their due and “losers” that were overlooked by the usually all-perceiving media. So here’s my list of winners and losers:

Losers

Netherlands: The Dutch had a stupendous tournament, thumping five time champions Brazil, on their way to the finals of this edition of the World Cup, their third final appearance in history. Guided by the pace of Arjen Robben and guile of Van Persie, the Dutch marched solidly on and when they booked their place alongside Spain in the finals, it became certain that there would be a new champion. And then the dream broke, turning into a horrible nightmare. Under the watchful eyes of Referee Howard Webb, the Dutch flew and slid around as they attempted to break down the dreaded midfield comprising names such as Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Iniesta and Capdevilla. The quartet who had methodically taken apart Germany’s attack, preying on the relative inexperience of the relatively younger Mueller, Schweinsteiger and Ozil, were on a roll before they ran into the Dutch brigade. The Oranje did not play a strictly clean game and the booking statistics are proof of that – 9 yellow cards (including a double that resulted in a red card and sendoff for Centre Back Heitinga). The Dutch had realised early on that the only way to break their opponents was to throw them off their passing buildup and swing the momentum of play. An excellent strategy but one that was implemented in a most ridiculous fashion. The Spanish were not ones to stand and take the beating either and were only a step behind their continental cousins collecting 5 yellow cards by the end of the 120 minutes. The flagbearer (or shall we say pallbearer) of the shame of the Dutch was this one moment in the match when Nigel de Jong decided to administer a flying kick to Xabi Alonso that could have easily put a street fighter to shame!

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The kick made media across the world rechristen de Jong as the new Zidane as we were all reminded of the infamous head butt to Materazzi four years ago.

Italy: The defending champions put in three indifferent performances to quietly exit from this year’s tournament. The Italian defence never showed the famed panache and the midfield was nowhere to be found. Strikers committed runs into the box only to be left without a proper feeding pass. In totem, a performance truly not befitting defending champions.

Patrice Evra and Nicolas Anelka: The French internationals were part of a squad that suffered the ignominy of a first round exit this year. But worse than this were the antics of Anelka as he vented his anger at the coach in excessively strong language. He was promptly sacked and asked to return home. When Evra decided to take up his cause by taking his team on a blanket boycott of the coach, he too was stripped of his captaincy and place in the first team.

Wayne Rooney: The young Manchester United star forward was coming off his most successful league season and the Three Lions were confident that another stellar performance from their young striker would be enough to lift them to the next levels of the tournament. Unfortunately, the performance never came. Gerrard, it seemed, kept looking for Torres in the box, otherwise refusing to pass the ball. Lampard on the other hand was only interested in taking shots which were at least 30 yards or farther from the goal. The few passes that came Rooney’s way were either halfheartedly prodded into the opposition’s goalkeeper’s waiting arms or shot in a haywire manner nowhere even near the uprights.

Christiano Ronaldo: The Portuguese star and the world’s most expensive player looked more like the world’s most expensive mistake as he clearly lacked the game that had made Spanish La Liga giants, Real Madrid pick him up from ManU for a staggering 80 million quid. A performance that could at best be termed luke warm hardly did justice to the young star’s potential as he became another of the famed big guns to misfire.

Robert Green: Possibly the first victim of the Jabulani’s curse but that still does not condone his “crime” of letting a ball that was landing into his arms to bounce off his gloves and roll into the goal. The stunner from USA midfielder Dempsey saw USA equalise with England and resulted in Green promptly being benched in favour of David James for the rest of the matches.

Manchester United: So you thought that I would write a post on soccer and not mention the beloved Red Devils? Well, think again! Now the question is how can a team that wasn’t even involved be a loser? Well, Manchester United was represented by some players in the World Cup. Rio Ferdinand sat out due to injury, Nani sat out due to injury, Patrice Evra was embarassed by his own team management and Wayne Rooney could not replicate his last season’s penchant for finding the back of the net for his national side. Where the big guns failed, the lesser knowns succeeded probably because they were always off the radar of the media hype. Park Ji Sung led his Korean side to a performance that did not hurt their cause. The Korean side was never slated to progress very far ahead but they did prove their capability and their biggest impetus was their skipper. The other, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, is the latest import of the English giants and displayed amply why the Grand Old Man splashed 10 million quid to land him even before the WC began. He made incisive runs and his blinding speed even when on the ball made the Mexican too hot to handle for many a defences. He was even clocked at running at almost 30km/h at one time in a match. Mexico did not reach too far but “Little Pea” proved his potential beyond doubt. In total, however, Manchester United saw its first team regulars being consigned to the nondescript depths of mediocrity as they struggled to perform on the world’s biggest stage when it mattered. Injuries and fatigue took their toll and Fergie may have to rethink his strategy for this year if he wants to protect his players from a potential burnout.

Adidas: Adidas bosses must be kicking themselves over the debacle that was called Jabulani. Criticised by almost every player and his grandmother, the ball became notorious as the single biggest factor in ending goalkeepers’ careers. It swerved and swung with gay abandon as both strikers and goalkeepers fought to “guess” where the ball would decide to go next. Midfielders made exceptional long passes with pinpoint accuracy to opponents’ defenders and most teams that depended on long passing games like France, England and Italy were in a soup straight away. One of the biggest reasons for Spain’s success was their absolute abhorrence to the long pass, a principle that paid rich dividends with the absolutely maverick Jabulani.

FIFA: You ask why FIFA? In my opinion the governing body did no favour to itself when it stood stubbornly on its refusal to use electronic aid at the goal lines. The English media left no stone unturned to disparage FIFA as the English team had Lampard’s legitimate goal disallowed after the linesman failed in his job spectacularly and didn’t call an obvious goal. Even in the final, many people believed that FIFA should have stepped in when Webb was handing yellow cards faster than a favourite aunt distributes candy to her nieces and nephews. Blatant fouls deserving red cards were let off while Puyol shamelessly wrapped his arms around Arjen Robben in the box and got away with it without so much as a yellow card. Intervention would have surely resulted in a yellow card and a definite penalty – imagine the difference it would have made to the outcome of the match.

Ok enough about the losers lets move on to the Winners.

First and foremost, in a way all participating teams (except Italy and South Africa) were winners in their own right as they played through the various pre-qualification rounds to reach what is aptly named the World Cup Finals. The entire tournament is actually just a multi-staged Final that marks the end of a year long tournament played between nations across the world in their respective regions. So they all deserve a round of applause. Why I left Italy and South Africa out is obvious but I still will elucidate for readers who may not know – Italy qualified as defending champions while South Africa qualified as hosts.

Spain: Of course the eventual cup holders were true winners as they stuck to their game plan after the initial shock defeat to Switzerland. In the process Spain also became only the second team after France to hold both the European and World Championship at the same time being the Euro 2008 champions. Puyol and Pique played a tight line at the back leaving Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Capdevilla to frustrate their opponents by their passing ability. It is not a coincidence that Spain won most matches by a one goal margin off a goal scored in the death of the match. By that time the opponent was tired and his nerves frazzled through the lack of time on the ball. The Jabulani’s antics were clearly not affecting the passing prowess of these guys as they were content passing around the ball looking for that one moment of weakness when the opportunistic David Villa would swoop in for the kill. Torres and Fabregas had a more nondescript tournament but it was never a cause for worry when Iniesta bolstered the attack with his experience and eventually scored the World Cup winning goal.

Lionel Messi: The young genius of Messi shown forth with all his might as he constructed play after play for his teammates. His legendary skill forced oppositions to deploy as many as three men to stop him and in such a situation a pass found his teammates free and in space in front of goal. He may not have any goals against his name but this performance has not done any damage to his career.

Germany: The Germans came to South Africa with probably the youngest squad among all teams. With an average age of 24 years, the young players gave a solid boost to their credibility as they combined together to put on view some of the best football witnessed in the World Cup. Immaculate passes and penetrating runs were beautifully constructed to produce football that was beautiful and pristine. As they brought Argentina down in the QFs they announced that they had arrived on the international stage and were here to stay. The German’s were stopped by the systematic play of the Spaniards but even in their defeat they showed a brilliant example of how football should truly be played. Hats off to these guys!

Vuvuzelas: The annoying trumpets were ubiquitous across the venues as they drowned out ambient noise, commentary, player communication et al! But they also drowned all the controversy surrounding the vuvuzelas by triumphing till the end and actually being missed now that the World Cup is over.

Paul: Yes the octopus. While the two year old became an overnight star when he accurately predicted Germany’s matches on the pre eve he was not a new entity to this. He had had similar success at Euro 2008 albeit he had wrongly predicted as Germany victorious in the final match. He redeemed himself this time when he kept a 100% record correctly predicting all German matches as well as the final match between Spain and Netherlands.

The Rainbow Nation: Last but according to me, the greatest of them all. We were all overwhelmed by what China did for the Beijing Olympics but the arrangements and infrastructure put out by the South African Republic was unprecedented. All stops were pulled as the spectators were greeted by spectacular venues one better than the other. Security was perfect to prevent any untoward incident. Playing conditions were exceptional and all venues and playing surfaces performed uniformly as though cast from the same die. Twenty years after liberation from apartheid, South Africa has set the bar so high that it would be an uphill task for the Samba boys to better when the World Cup returns to Brazil in four years. The defining moment of the World Cup would definitely be the ex-President of the South African Republic, Dr. Nelson Mandela walking out to the middle before the final match to shake the players’ hands. It reminded me of the similar scene from the movie ‘Invictus’. However, this was at least a hundred times grander and a million more times more important as the media across the world watched the scale of grandeur that the country had reached. I bow to the resilience of this country to be able to host this behemoth of an event so admirably well!

I will wrap up here since I don’t think I can add anything more that would outshine this achievement of a nation. Please do comment and give your views. And here’s to seeing our own Indian team playing in the World Cup one day.

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