Zeroes, heroes & hubris

Five thoughts prompted by this World Cup.

1 Uruguay and Year Zero
La Celeste fans must pray for the start of a decade. Here is Uruguay’s remarkable record in World Cups that fell in a year ending with a zero.

1930: Winners
1950: Winners
1970: Semi-finals
1990: Last 16
2010: Last eight at worst.

The most heartening aspect of Uruguay’s current campaign is that they have reclaimed their football history. Eduard Galeano – the famous Uruguayan author who wrote Football In Sun And Shadow, the most romantic book ever written about the World Cup – suggested that since 1950, Uruguayans, “betrayed by reality, have sought solace in memory”. (Which other great football nation does that remind you of?)

Galeano pointed out that, in the game that decided the 1950 World Cup, Uruguay committed half as many fouls as Brazil. Yet in the decades to come, defenders who “mistake fouling for courage” disfigured the Uruguayan game.

As Galeano noted despairingly: “We have reached the point where nothing is more Uruguayan than playing around the edge of a red card.” Since 1970, Uruguay’s most distinctive contribution to World Cups was to have Sergio Batista sent off after 56 seconds against Scotland in 1986, the fastest red card in the tournament’s history.

Luis Suarez’s frabjous strike against South Korea – surely the goal of the tournament – was a reminder that it was Uruguay, not England, who really taught the world to play football. Their Olympic-winning side of the 1920s was technically and tactically revolutionary, a vision of futuristic perfection that entranced Europe in the 1920s in much the same way Holland’s Total Football did in the 1970s.

2 Two knee-jerks don’t make a right
Watching the English media slink back from the precipice since Monday and conclude, with a remarkable degree of consensus, that sacking Fabio Capello is not the answer to England’s ills has been fascinating.

Sacking Capello may achieve nothing. But if retaining him is to achieve something, some things must change. And that’s not all down to the players. In private, Capello might want to reflect on how he came to be so comprehensively tactically outwitted by a manager whose only major honour as coach is the German Cup in 1997 with Stuttgart.

England’s players were abject. Kicker magazine rated Frank Lampard, England’s best performer in their eyes, as “satisfactory”.

But with England’s attack as narrow as a supermodel’s waist as we chased the game in the second half, did we really need to replace our one out-and-out winger with yet another player – Joe Cole – who would naturally drift inside from the right, just as Steven Gerrard was doing from the left in a desperate attempt to turn the game?

And why then bring on Emile Heskey (seven goals in 62 appearances) for Jermain Defoe (12 goals in 43) when, as Harry Redknapp noted, what we needed most was a goal? And why ignore Peter Crouch (21 goals in 40) to ask Heskey to meet crosses that were no longer being hit?

And why finally bring on Shaun Wright-Phillips? Answer: Because you have left two better options – Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott – at home and oddly prefer the out-of-form Phillips to the tricky, in-form, if occasionally infuriating Aaron Lennon.

"What's he doing NOW??!"

If the German plan was to tempt John Terry out of position and let Matthew Upson have the ball in the belief (largely proven) that he wouldn’t know what to do with it, why didn’t Capello use Michael Dawson who can, at least, pass? It is easy to scoff at Terry’s apparent inability to switch sides as a centre-back, but Alan Hansen argued persuasively that the move complicated matters unnecessarily – especially with the wayward Upson as his partner.

The players deserve their share of ignominy but their coach must accept culpability too. Capello’s saving grace might be that he is Italian. There is still enough of an aura around him to suggest this is an aberration. If Graham Taylor had presided over such a shambles, he would have been discarded faster than you could say turnip.

3 Let’s have a real debate about technology
On ITV, Marcel Desailly rejected the introduction of video technology to help referees on the grounds that this was a slippery slope and once we started down this route where would it all end?

In truth, life, society and sport are full of potential slippery slopes, many of which prove to have a suprising amount of friction. Three points for a win was introduced in 1981 in England, but I’ve not heard anyone say “Tell you what, why don’t we make it four?”

Just as patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, the slippery-slope argument is the final recourse of the reactionary. In England in 1832, as parliament laboured over the Great Reform Act which gave around 2.2 million Englishmen the right to vote, London clubs were full of Tory grandees, marinated in the finest port inherited wealth could buy, fulminating that once we let the upper middle classes vote, where would it all end?

The other contention – that we can’t eliminate human error – is almost as specious. We'll probably never eliminate child poverty either but that hasn’t stopped us trying.

Technology may not be the only answer. At last year’s Leaders In Football conference, Graeme Le Saux suggested creating a cadre of professional referees who trained with Premier League clubs. Le Saux said that in 1998, England had let Paul Durkin referee a training game before the World Cup. Afterwards, Durkin admitted he would have sent three players off if that had been a real match because he would have judged malicious intent in many of the challenges.

The thought that there was probably no malice involved at all set Durkin thinking about how officials judge intent. These are the kind of nuances referees find hard to call but if they trained with players regularly, they might get more of these calls right. Le Saux’s idea would not bring Frank Lampard’s goal back. But it would reduce other errors.

"Hang on lads, I've had an idea..."

If there's one truth to be taken from the bizarre decisions taken at this World Cup it is that a multi-billion pound sport could drastically improve its image by investing in refereeing. And the sums involved aren’t huge. We’re talking millions – not much given that FIFA’s admin costs rose by $1.1bn between 2003 and 2006.

In the Telegraph, plain-speaking Brian Moore argues that footballg’s consideration of technology has been skewed by its insularity and hubris – what he calls the “show us your medals” mentality. He asks: “If football people know so much, how come the sport is in such a mess?”

4 England’s debacle will not affect the 2018 bid
Because Russia will win it. And if you’re a betting man, get yourself to Paddy Power and put a fiver on Qatar for 2022.

5 Oddest World Cup statistic

The oddest figure in this World Cup isn’t eight (the average mark Arlene Phillips gave World Cup celebrations in her Strictly World Cup Dancing feature for the Daily Telegraph) but 80.4%. That is the percentage of points England won in competitive games with John Terry as skipper. Compared to 58.3% in the eight games since JT was stripped of the armband.

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