Flowing football courses through Brazil

The first 16 group games in the South Africa World Cup, four years ago, had produced just 25 strikes. Brazil 2014, mercifully, has enjoyed a marked departure, with goals coming in abundance at the end of the first weekend of the competition. By Ayon Sengupta.

Modern day cricket, heavily modelled on the limited-overs game, is all about hitting sixes and fours — the more the merrier. The world governing body’s (ICC), effort to make the sport more entertaining and batsman-friendly (though one might debate if the two go hand-in-hand) has certainly borne fruit.

However, in football, FIFA’s numerous rule changes (to protect and bring out the best from the strikers) had for quite some time failed to produce the same result as in cricket. The goal averages in the quadrennial World Cup have seen a steady downswing (as we wrote in the previous issue), with the last five tournaments having a measly percentage of 2.49.

The first 16 group games in South Africa, four years ago, had produced just 25 strikes, with 13 of the 32 teams failing to score in their opening matches. Germany recorded the biggest victory margin, a 4-0 drubbing of Australia in a Group D encounter. Brazil 2014, mercifully, has enjoyed a marked departure, with goals coming in abundance at the end of the first weekend of the competition.

Easily surmounting the poor returns from the earlier editions, teams have scored 37 goals in the first 11 games this time, with only Cameroon, Greece and Honduras failing to open the account. The host and record five-time winner Brazil started the goal glut in its come-from-behind 3-1 win over Croatia in the opening match of the big-ticket event — a better start to a World Cup compared to the drab 1-1 stalemate between South Africa and Mexico in the preceding version. However, the biggest boost to the health of the goal-chart was provided by Holland in its game against the defending champion, Spain.

The Dutch exacted the perfect revenge for losing in the 2010 final, humbling a Spanish squad, which had almost taken winning for granted. (Spain, retaining nearly the same team, has won three of its last five competitions.) The 5-1 flattening (despite Spain enjoying 64% possession) of a very good side was a surprise that very few could comprehend and even Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, anointed the next Manchester United manager, was left bemused by his side’s total domination. “That wasn’t what you expect from your first World Cup match. I had expected the manner of goals, but not that many,” the manager said after the morale-lifting win. The bookmakers, often the best judges of a sporting contest, too failed to predict such an outcome, pricing a 5-1 Holland win at an unlikely 500/1. Jacobe Rios-Capape perhaps was the sole lucky soothsayer, the Valencia architect’s imaginative forecast winning him Euro100000 in petrol coupons.

In a match, where both teams employed a high backline, Spain started brightly, as predicted, and was quick to trouble the Dutch defence, weaving its intricate passing game. In Van Gaal’s high pressing 3-5-2 formation, his centre-backs were often found in unusually higher positions, opening space behind, where Diego Costa slipped in effortlessly, latching on to balls from his midfield and having the opportunity to open the scoring twice in the first 15 minutes, before earning a penalty for a challenge from Stefan de Vrij. However, Holland’s strong pressing in the midfield made the through balls far and few as the match progressed and its long balls from deep positions found Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie in space, behind an equally high-tracking Spanish defence. And the duo, to their credit, kept running tirelessly throughout the night and showed exceptional class and composure whenever a goal-scoring opportunity arrived.

Ajax’s Daley Blind, playing as the left wing-back, provided the first two assists — a lofted pass for Van Persie’s exquisite diving header and another for Robben’s calm and controlled finish. From there on the Dutch controlled the tempo — pressing, winning possession and then countering at speed, hitting the perfect through balls to its two strikers, who were all too eager to take on the opposition. Robben, on his way to scoring his second goal, sprinted at an unbelievable 37kph (the best ever recorded by a footballer) to leave behind Sergio Ramos, who could only muster a speed of 30kph.

“You can’t play hard attacking football for the whole 90 minutes in those conditions, so we made sure we played compact football and used our centre-forwards. If you sprint forward on the counter, things can happen, you can get goals, as we saw,” Van Gaal said.

The heat and humidity in Brazil might also have affected the defenders, with 22 goals being let in the second half and five in the last 10 minutes of the first session.

Costa Rica, which overturned a 1-0 first half deficit against seventh-ranked Uruguay, scored thrice from the 54th to the 84 minutes, taking advantage of an aging and hence a quickly tiring backline. Arsenal striker Joel Campbell, on loan to Greek side Olympiacos, often looking quicker than an Olympic sprinter, was hardly affected by the searing Fortaleza heat, and covered 8774m (84 percent of it in the opposition half). He was rightly rewarded in the 54th minute, slotting the equaliser with power and precision, after a lob had found him unmarked inside the Uruguayan penalty box.

Unlike in South Africa, where teams generally sat deep, fielding lone strikers, and relied on opposition mistakes to grind out results, the play in Brazil has looked more open, with managers proving to be more adventurous. Strikers, thus finding more support in the opposition half, have excelled and Neymar, van Persie, Robben and Karim Benzema (two goals each) are now leading the goal-scorers’ pack. The lot, though, needs to find a way to maintain the momentum.