‘Minnows’ have shocked big fish of football

2010-06-22 00:00

IT WOULD be unfair before the final group matches to pass judgment on the bigger footballing nations who are struggling so much at this World Cup. That’s because most of them will go through in the end to the last-16 and probably improve as the tournament progresses.

And in the end one of the teams I have already criticised here might well go on to be be world champions.

The fact is that all are having difficulties, the Spanish, the English, the French, the Germans and, at the beginning, even the Brazilians.

It is an unusual tournament. There are many explanations and excuses for this, including spells of injury for players such as Brazil’s Kaka, Spain’s Fernando Torres and England’s Wayne Rooney, to name just a few world-class players.

But it’s not that alone. I have basically only one explanation: the small nations have caught up and the larger nations have got weaker.

Now I am sure there are people who will contradict me because in the end one of the footballing powers will come through. But look more closely at the Asians — North Korea, Japan and South Korea — who are playing good football and can compete with the best.

A few decades ago and certainly up to the end of the last century that was quite different. There was a very clear gap between the strong Europeans and South Americans and the rest of the world. Now everybody is competitive, the U.S., the Central Americans — everyone.

So again my response to this development is that I think the bigger footballing powers have taken a step backwards and the smaller nations a step forward.

Now there are no differences, and that’s something which is quite plain to see. The larger nations appear shocked and, as a result, we are seeing some dreadful football from them.

I will this time use the French as an example. Everyone must by now have realised following their second match, the 2-0 defeat to Mexico, that something is wrong with this team.

Everyone seems to be playing for himself. It’s lifeless. The alarm bells start ringing when footballers, who have played brilliantly in past tournaments, suddenly stop running when the ball is lost.

I am not near enough to the French but the expulsion from the squad of striker Nicolas Anelka for insulting comments in connection with coach Raymond Domenench is an unmistakable sign that something is wrong.

I am not going to criticise England this time, following their goalless draw with Algeria, because all the bigger teams have taken a step backwards. The so-called minnows, who had been ridiculed in the past, have now reached the same level.

Take the Dutch, also one of the pre-tournament favourites, who really had to struggle to beat Japan and needed a lot of luck. It’s also fortunate for this World Cup that there have been so many goalkeeping errors, otherwise there would be even fewer goals.

What I have outlined here is not a trend, but rather a progressive development. There was a time in the past when most nations allowed just two foreign players per club in their leagues. Once Europe opened up, an incredible number of Asian players joined European clubs and these players have learnt a lot.

The Japanese also have, with their J.League, a European-style professional league, which has attracted players and coaches from Europe and South America.

As a German it hurt of course to see Germany lose 1-0 to Serbia, a country which was a part of former Yugoslavia and which has always produced good footballers.

And far be it for me to criticise referees, but Alberto Undiano, the Spanish official of the game, had already drawn attention to himself after he showed 12 yellow cards at five Champions League games. When you start showing yellow cards for the simplest of tackles, you are shaking the spirit of football.

I’m all for punishing foul play, but this gentleman needs to answer some awkward questions for showing nine yellow cards in a game which was fair and not in the least bit heated.

Germany must now beat Ghana or face the possibility of going out. But even this once strong African team has lost something of its previous class. If Germany lose, it will be the first time in World Cup history that they have gone out at the group stage.

Despite this, Germany, following the accomplished 4-0 defeat of Australia, were still the strongest team against Serbia while playing with 10 men following the dismissal of Miroslav Klose. It looked like proper football.

I can certainly say that of Argentina, and at last I can dish out some praise. Argentina looked strong in both their games, the 1-0 win over Nigeria and the 4-1 defeat of South Korea, although the Koreans seemed to show too much respect for Diego Maradona’s side.

The Argentines look like a team that are together. They are stable and well structured. And of course they stand out because they have a player no other country has in Lionel Messi.

Thanks to Barcelona’s Messi, space opens up for other attacking players. Thanks to Messi, Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Huguain was able to score a hat-trick against South Korea. In the Spanish Primera League they are rivals; here they are playing together wonderfully.

It reminds me a bit of 1986, when I was in charge of the West Germany team, reaching the World Cup final in Mexico. We were all very focused on Maradona, and other players ended up scoring the goals. — Supplied by DPA.

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