Bring on the dark horses

Only six different teams have reached the 10 World Cup finals since 1970: Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, (West) Germany, Argentina and France. Isn’t it about time someone smashed this cartel? Or at least emulate such great dark horses as Poland (1974), Croatia (1998) and Turkey (2002) by coming from nowhere to challenge the established order?

In search of just such a team that isn’t Spain, I watched Ghana beat Serbia 1-0. I fancied Serbia as dark horses on the strength of their qualifying record, all-round skill and camaraderie.

But until they went down to 10 men they disappointed. They had technical quality but lost shape as they ceded midfield, took too many touches and laboured over too many passes to trouble Ghana. But with Aleksandr Lukovic off, they switched to a more direct style and with Danko Lazovic (on for the industrious, underwhelming Nikola Zigic) marauding down the flank, finally created some clear chances.

A stupid handball and a cool penalty from Asamoah Gyan may have left Serbia with the proverbial ‘mountain to climb’ but if they can pass and move faster than they did against Ghana they could beat Germany and Australia.

And what of Ghana? England will not fancy meeting them in the last 16. They are quick, skilful, combative and fluent with Kwadwo Asamoah showing enough intelligence and passing range to suggest he could, as Jonathan Wilson says, be the best playmaker to emerge from West African football since Abedi Pele.

If Ghana have a flaw (apart from a keeper whose histrionics make Lady Gaga look like a wallflower), it is that they didn’t create the quality of chances their control of midfield deserved. If some attacking midfielders could heed Cruyff’s dictum that beauty in football is about doing the simple things brilliantly they would be a threat to anyone

"Gaga" Kingson: Never knowingly understated

I briefly considered Mexico as dark horses. Carlos Vela says they could win the tournament. On the evidence of the 1-1 draw with South Africa, I would suggest that Mexico’s greatest contribution to the history of this tournament will remain the moment striker Marcelino Bernal fell into the net and snapped the post in their knockout round tie against Bulgaria at USA 94, forcing the goals to be substituted.

Anguish, irony and revolutionGreat footballers are usually cast as driven by unshakeable self-belief. But as Philippe Auclair points out in his book on Cantona, “all but a very few professionals are inhabited by a sometimes overwhelming sense of anguish”. And greatness may often be borne out of a player’s ability to conquer deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy.

Auclair’s national team are gripped by anguish and feelings of inadequacy. Footballers are cocooned from many realities, but this squad must surely sense that they are the most despised national team in the history of French football.

The fact that Raymond Domenech has now amassed more games as French coach than the great Michel Hidalgo is a bitter irony many French fans would rather ignore. France’s most famous goalkeeper Albert Camus once observed: “If you have no character, you have to have a method.” Domenech has neither.

The squad is in disarray with rumours of racial tension, Franck Ribery at odds with the world (and especially, it seems, Yoann Gourcuff), everybody believing they are worth a place in the starting XI and even the placid Florent Malouda rowing with Domenech. Thierry Henry is, understandably, having difficulty adjusting to his new role as impact sub.

Although The Guardian’s David Hytner referred to Henry’s “eye-catching cameo as substitute” against Uruguay, for me the eye-catching aspect of it was the sight of Henry strutting around the pitch like a peacock – as if through sheer aura, air of command and some authoritative pointing (which always looks good on telly even if it annoys your teammates) he could convince himself, his teammates and us that he is still a great striker.

Henry makes a subtle point

As Luigi Riva said of Italy’s disastrous 1974 World Cup, the most important people in any finals are the substitutes: if they cannot accept their role, you are doomed. The best thing may be for France to slink out of the World Cup in the group stages before the damage to team spirit becomes utterly irrevocable – so Laurent Blanc can start the biggest overhaul in French football since Clarefontaine was envisaged in the 1970s.

The geography of chokingBasel, Leon, Cagliari, St Etienne, Shizuoka and Rustenburg. Six cities in four continents where, in the 13 World Cup finals England have played in, they have taken the lead and failed to do the business.

In Leon, St Etienne and Shizuoka, England’s lack of ruthlessness proved fatal. Against Belgium in Basle in 1954, with England 3-1 up halfway through the second half and eventually drawing 4-4 after extra-time, it was merely embarrassing – as it was against Ireland in Cagliari in 1990. The only World Cup finals in which England defended leads with Teutonic efficiency was 1966. In five games Sir Alf Ramsey’s England took the lead and, although they made heavy weather of the final, they won all five.

Four years later, in circumstances that remain mysterious and controversial to this day, England blew a 2-0 lead to West Germany, starting an inglorious tradition which – if you acknowledge similar false starts against Germany at Euro 96, Portugal at Euro 2000 and France and Portugal at Euro 2004 – suggests a history of choking worthy of Devon Loch, Tim Henman and the All-Blacks combined.

Obviously it’s easy to blame the Hand Of Clod (as the News Of The World has) for the draw with the USA but I was intrigued by Paul Wilson’s observation in The Guardian that, as under the late, unlamented Sven, England defended so deep they invited the likes of Clint Dempsey to shoot. Is there some deep, almost atavistic instinct that compels England’s footballers to seek sanctuary near their own penalty area?

"Retreat!"

The other dismal echo of the Eriksson era was the aimless hoofing that greeted Peter Crouch’s introduction. For a moment – I watched the late rerun on BBC3 – I felt as if I had fallen through a crack in the time/space continuum and landed in Shizuoka in 2002 just in time to watch Sol Campbell belt the ball in the very general direction of the Brazil goal.

One final thought: rarely, in the field of sporting conflict, have I seen so much pace on the flanks (from full-backs and wingers) produce so few decent crosses as against the USA. You can blame Heskey for his tame shot against Tim Howard but you can’t blame him or Crouch for failing to connect with crosses that were never struck.

Still, this is all thoroughly Englandish. In 13 opening games in the World Cup, the Three Lions have won five, drawn six and lost two. As the USA are arguably the strongest other team in the group, things can only get better for England, Capello and certainly for Wayne Rooney, an undisputed genius who seems (hopefully temporarily) to have lost his way.

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