First class first-timers

With pressure on them reaching unprecedented heights, youngsters of this generation should keep one thing in mind, that even Maradona or Ronaldo did not make the perfect first impression in the World Cup, writes Ayon Sengupta.

First class

The saying goes that to be classified as a great footballer, one needs, at the very least, to play a key part in the Mundial.

Going as far back as the 1958 competition, when a 17-year-old Pele charmed the world with his outrageous range of dexterity, the World Cup has always been synonymous with stories of make or break, with players either entering the fiefdom of folklore or fading away with the usual sighs of disillusionment and disappointment.

Every modern great of the game, from Beckenbauer to Maradona to Cruyff to Zidane, have all enjoyed phenomenal success across their playing career, winning domestic League accolades aplenty, but are still revered chiefly for their outstanding displays in the greatest tournament of all.

However, we should not see this grand stage as just an auditioning chamber for the Ronaldos, the Rooneys and the Messis to gain a toehold in the pantheon of all-time greats. It can also act as the elixir that catapults rookies to instant stardom, launching new careers and opening brighter horizons. From Amarildo in 1962 to Toto Schillachi in Italia '90 to Senegal's El Hadji Diouf in the first World Cup of this century, the event has been the theatre of dreams for players, a chance to shine under the brightest of arc lights.

But keeping aside these one-off wonders, the FIFA show has also been the springboard for a Michael Owen or a Thierry Henry to truly showcase their talent and announce the next top arrival in the big money cartels of Europe.

But with an increasing over-reliance on experience over ingenuity, the World Cup in South Africa has been robbed of talents like Mario Balotelli of Italy and Neymar of Brazil and has so far been saddled with games of great caution, interspersed with sporadic forays of the gurgling young blood. The luckier pups in the fray have at some level reposed their faith in the gambles of the wise men, the coaches, twisting, turning and at times tackling their way into this over-inhabited but never overcrowded space of future geniuses.

Germany's Lukas Podolski had walked off as the very first winner of the meet's best young player at home four years back, though Argentine Lionel Messi had fared with more élan in a limited space of time. Argentine coach Jose Pekerman, suddenly out of his wits, as if affected by some dark voodoo spell, chose to ignore his most potent of weapons in a nervy quarterfinals encounter with the host, ensuring a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss. Messi prematurely went home and Podolski reaped the benefits.

The tables can be turned this time round though.

Mesut Ozil of Werder Bremen was outstanding in Germany's first match mauling of the Socceroos in Durban and channelled the fancies of every once-in-four-years football fanatic. Ozil, operating along the flanks, was outstanding, assuming the role of the team's dynamo in the injury-enforced absence of Michael Ballack.

He funnelled out balls for the two advanced men in Podolski and Miroslav Klose, finding support in his European under-21 championship team-mate Thomas Mueller. Ozil was the commandant for almost every German sortie in Australia's half, terrorising them with his superior ball control, deft runs and an acute sense of positioning.

But in the fickle sphere of only-World Cup aficionados he was not worth a dime a few days later, after a humiliating 0-1 defeat to Serbia. In hindsight, and with a little more footballing fortitude saddled without the passion, one would find it hard to spot any deficiencies in Ozil's game that evening in Port Elizabeth. The failure was more to do with a sudden splash of rash aggressiveness from a usually composed Klose, handing Germany a numerical disadvantage than any sudden loss of footballing form on Ozil's part. A man down, he still orchestrated a number of scoring opportunities, his pinpoint through balls finding Podolski with space, but the forward had a miserable time without his strike partner Klose. It was Podolski who missed a spot-kick too, but Ozil suddenly was the no-hoper.

Argentina, on the other hand with two wins out of two, sees itself in a better position than its archrival, which had denied it a chance to win a third world title way back in 1990. After a narrow 1-0 victory over Nigeria where the team's bustling forwardline failed to find its mark, La Albiceleste was all business in its second game against South Korea. Gonzalo Higuain benefitted from Messi's vision, scoring his and also the tournament's first hat-trick, leapfrogging others in the race towards the top scorers' citadel.

Higuain, a Real Madrid player since 2006, was brought over from River Plate for 13 million pounds. He is seen as the long-term replacement for Madrid's leading goal-getter Raul Gonzalez. With age finally catching up with the Spanish star, Higuain found his spot, scoring 27 times in a record breaking 2009-10 season. Real earned 96 points in the La Liga race, but still failed to catch up with bitter rival Barcelona (99).

Despite his success in Spain, Higuain was largely ignored by Argentine coach Diego Maradona for the greater part of a troubled qualifying campaign. More as a last throw of the dice than out of any conviction, Maradona played him in a must win game against Peru. The 22-year-old thankfully scored to put Argentina's derailed train back on track and since then the ever superstitious Maradona has stuck with him, though there has been pressure on the manager to bring in Inter Milan's Champions League hero Diego Milito or his own, very talented son-in-law Sergio Kun Aguero from Atletico Madrid.

Another engrossing performance amongst the many first-timers in the tournament has been that of Andre Ayew, son of the great Abedi Pele. With an incessant demand for the ball, the Black Stars winger has run tirelessly into his opponents' heart, creating a number or scoring opportunities for the experienced Asamoah Gyan. Ayew has been instrumental in giving Ghana the best start in the competition among the six African sides.

Spain's clockwork roja, however, failed to translate possession into goals against Switzerland, and coach Vicente del Bosque had to turn for inspiration to Spain B's most promising star — Jesus Navas of Sevilla — who showed more urgency and composure in attack, coming off the bench, than the more established forces of Xavi, Iniesta, Torres or David Villa.

As individuals Javier Hernandez (Mexico), Gervinho (Cote d'Ivoire), Michael Bradley (USA), Keisuke Honda (Japan), Luis Suarez (Uruguay) and Jonathan Mensah (Cameroon) have played their part as the new big boys in town to the hilt, while their aging teammates at times have looked arthritic and a little slow off the blocks.

With pressure on them reaching unprecedented heights, youngsters of this generation should keep one thing in mind, that even Maradona or Ronaldo did not make the perfect first impression in the World Cup. While the current Argentina coach was sent off in a second round loss in Spain '82, Ronaldo, though a part of Brazil's 1994 Cup winning side, had no playing minutes in the tournament. But they were back and better four years later. So, as they say, there's always a second chance.