All-round improvement has made for a tighter World Cup
Africa’s inaugural World Cup has produced 123 goals in 56 matches, translating to an average of just over two goals per game.
It is a worrying statistic which threatens to rival the 1990 tournament which saw fewer than 2.21 goals per match.
Thus far, South Africa 2010 has proved a tournament in which organisation and defensive tactics have triumphed over individual and collective brilliance.
Stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney failed to make an impact while the supposed superpowers of France, England and Italy have all already departed from South Africa.
Is it a case of big names under-performing? Should we blame Adidas’ controversial Jabulani ball for the lack of goals?
Pehaps the lack of freedom for players of the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney is the direct result of tactical approaches in which individuality is sacrificed for a team ethic in order to breed an industrious and contained style of play.
Or might we suggest that the less-established teams have simply become more equipped for coping with top players?
In the past, teams at the pinnacle of the sport have consistently performed on football’s biggest stage with the minnows struggling to tread water.
This, however, has changed in recent tournaments and is exemplified at this year’s World Cup by Slovakia and New Zealand. The so-called lesser teams have narrowed the gap between themselves and the ‘big guns’.
Slovakia had previously never featured in a World Cup yet managed to piece a run together which eventually saw them edged out in the second round by the Netherlands.
Similarly New Zealand, ranked 78th in FIFA’s much-castigated rankings, managed to contain defending champions Italy to a 1-1 draw and remain unbeaten at the tournament.
South Africa and North Korea, ranked 83rd and 105th respectively, both performed admirably.
The hosts defeated 2006 finalists France while North Korea restricted Brazil to a narrow 2-1 victory in their opening game of the tournament. Admittedly, North Korea did lose their next match against Portugal 7-0.
In the 1954 World Cup Hungary and West Germany scored 11 goals in a single game -a feat which was narrowly beaten in the same tournament by Austria and Switzerland who managed 12 between them.
Portugal’s 7-0 demolition of North Korea aside, it is unlikely we will witness such a trouncing again at the World Cup finals.
Innovative coaching, increased reliance on analytical technology, thorough scouting systems and the strict diets of today’s modern athletes have all played their parts in reducing the margins between teams.
Of course Italy will always be a stronger unit than New Zealand, and the same can be said of Brazil and North Korea, but as proven by Greece at the 2004 European Championships, highly organised teams -even if devoid of natural flair -can still be victorious.