Is football going backwards?

The Dutch were to be blamed for the poor, dull, abrasive quality of the World Cup final. They set out to spoil, aware that technically and indeed tactically they were inferior to their Spanish opponents, says Brian Glanville.

Sad to relate, it was overall a poor World Cup. Another poor World Cup, one is tempted to say, for over the recent years, they have hardly been getting any better. Certainly the final was something of an abomination, for which the Dutch were surely to blame. For a third time, Holland were beaten in the final, but what a contrast their 2010 team was with the glorious Total Football team inspired by Johan Cruyff which so unluckily lost to West Germany in Munich in 1974. And Cruyff it was who excoriated the 2010 team, expressing his anger with the way they behaved themselves. A sharp contrast indeed with the flood of self-justification, self-pity and condemnation of the referee, which emanated from the Dutch players themselves.

To insist that they lost to a much superior Spanish team because of the refereeing of the English policeman Howard Webb was a travesty of the truth. Not least because, had Webb done what he should unquestionably have done, and sent off Nigel De Jong for his brute and distasteful flying foul on Spain's Xavi Alonso, it would have been no contest. Indeed, what would then have been a ten-man Holland team for the great majority of the game could and probably should have been a nine-man team since the other Dutch central midfielder, Mark van Bommel, undoubtedly deserved a couple of yellow cards — resulting in a red — when he didn't even get one. Just as he got away with two manifest yellow card offences, in the previous game against Uruguay.

It is easy enough I suppose to surmise what was going on in Webb's mind, when he so wrongly flourished a yellow card rather than a red at De Jong. Was he, he must have asked himself, to ruin a World Cup final, by sending off a player so very early in the game? But such considerations should have no part in a referee's calculation. It is not his job, even in a World Cup final, to do anything but strictly apply the laws of the game. Whether the match is in a public park or at what is supposed to be the very apex of the game, watched by hundreds of millions of people around the globe on television, as well as in the stadium itself.

Certainly the Dutch were to be blamed for the poor, dull, abrasive quality of the final. They set out to spoil, aware that technically and indeed tactically they were inferior to their Spanish opponents. Yet hadn't the combative Swiss shown in Spain's very first game, when they beat the Spaniards so surprisingly, 1-0, that Spain could be defeated by fair means, however defensively orientated, rather than foul?

By the same token, a year earlier, in the Confederations Cup, also played in South Africa, the unfancied United States team had had the temerity to beat the Spaniards 2-0 in the semifinals, blocking out their talented attack and twice scoring on the break. We should, I suppose, have been thankful for small mercies, since at least this final did not go to the horror of penalties; two World Cup finals have so disastrously done in the 1994 and 2006. Surely the ultimate travesty, when we are thinking of what should be the greatest tournament in the game.

But here, arguably, we come to the crux of the matter. Teams which contest the final and fail to finish it even in the extra-time have absolutely no desire to replay the match. They are simply too exhausted.

This because the World Cup has been appallingly, bloated and extended, first by the ineffable Joao Havelange, in his desire to ingratiate himself with African teams, then by his woeful successor, Sepp Blatter, of whom, as I have often recorded in the past, an acerbic German journalist once said, “Sepp Blatter has fifty new ideas a day, and fifty one of them are bad.” That ridiculous new ball being one of them.

To expand the tournament as Havelange did from a compact 16 teams to a mathematically clumsy 24 was bad enough. But then Blatter, who like Havelange gained the Presidency of FIFA in controversial manner, bumped up the number to a gigantic 32. So the final tournament drags on and on, the players who reach the latter stages becoming increasingly weary. One recalls particularly the 1994 final, in Pasadena, when the Italian team, admittedly lucky to have got so far, humiliated in Giants Stadium by modest Ireland in their first game, had to travel 3000 miles across the USA to play a Brazilian team which had been comfortably ensconced in California.

There were, it should be said, bright exceptions to the generally dull rule in South Africa. Spain, certainly, once they had got over that major initial hiccup against the Swiss, their splendidly inventive, inter-passing, midfield of Xavi, Alonso and Iniesta with Cesc Fabregas ready to step in, to such effective purpose, in the final, when he gave Iniesta the crucial through pass. And Germany, whom the Spaniards beat and who might have prevailed, had the precocious Thomas Muller only been eligible to play were a thoroughly attractive and adventurous team; far more so, let it be said, than the German team which plodded its way to the final of the 2002 tournament. Indeed, the “ideal” final would probably have been between these two teams, rather than having them pitted against one another in the semifinal.

But what, one might legitimately ask, was a team as moderate as Uruguay doing in the semifinal at all? Yes, they had one of this tournament's outstanding players in the blond, quick, two-footed, incisive Diego Forlan — son of a very tough and rugged, far less fluent, father, a member of the 1974 team? But Forlan stood out with his flair and his goals, while Luis Suarez was another talented attacker; only to disgrace himself with the goal-line handball which robbed an excellent Ghana team of what would have been a winning goal, in the quarterfinals. Third place would have mattered a great deal to such a little country, but a famous football one, had they only been able to beat a somewhat uninterested German team in the relevant match, but they didn't deserve it.

The major South American teams, Brazil and Argentina, were sadly disappointing. Diego Maradona was always a bizarre appointment as manager of the Argentines, yet he will continue in office after a World Cup in which Germany walked all over them. Brazil, with the essential Kaka never in full flight, were ultimately inferior to a Dutch side who virtually gave them the opening goal. Italy lacked any kind of flair, as was all too predictable. England, with Wayne Rooney pitifully out of focus and Fabio Capello tactically awry, bumbled through their group, then crashed to Germany; even if the goal so shockingly disallowed to Frank Lampard, by inept Uruguayan officials, was something of an alibi, but overall, they were outplayed.

The longer the World Cup went off, the more unimpressive was so much of the football. But we seem stuck with the 32 teams.