Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Don't Call It A Comeback

I know a lot of facts about the World Cup. This because when I was eleven I started collecting the Orbis World Cup ’90 partwork/sticker album hybrid which probably none of you collected. (Certainly nobody at my school collected it – they were all doing Panini – so I had nobody to do swapsies with.) There were about 500 pages in this thing and I read them all. Tragically I think it was destroyed in a loft flood at my parents’, a catastrophe which also nearly took out 200 Transformers comics, but I can still remember loads of it. If you absorb something at that age, it sticks – so that’s why I have in my memory the result of every World Cup final, and the format of every World Cup, and the fact that Indonesia participated in 1938 when they were still called the Dutch East Indies.

At that time I had a vague idea of who the good teams were in international football, and so when I learned the identities of the six teams who had won the World Cup (France have since made it seven), Uruguay were quite clearly the odd man out. They’d gone the longest without a win and, at Italia ’90, were the only ones who hadn’t been seeded. (Guess who got the sixth place instead. Go on. Ah, you’ll never guess – it was Belgium.) At the time Uruguay had become known as a thuggish bunch, like Argentina but without the dazzling flair players who’d enabled their larger neighbours to equal their haul of World Cups. They were like a shambling pisshead in the corner of the pub who claims to have been a world-renowned concert pianist back in the day. Yeah, whatever, Granddad.

This is the year that the shambling pisshead wandered over to the piano and, to everyone’s surprise, knocked out a bloody good tune. Uruguay have had a slightly kind draw, but I can’t help feeling delighted that they’ve got to the semi-finals. They’re still playing quite physically, but their matches haven’t been dominated by niggly fouls as they have been in the past. Instead they’ve set about teams with confidence, put them under pressure and taken their chances well. Although they’re not as flashy as an Argentina side over-praised during this tournament, Uruguay have been at least as effective. (I did say from their first match that Argentina were prone to letting teams have spells of pressure and that they’d be found out by the first good team they played, and not to blow my own trumpet, but LOOK AT ME, I WAS RIGHT.)

Most people seem bitter that Ghana didn’t make the semis (those who’ve got terribly angry about the Suarez handball might like to note that Jack Charlton did the exact same thing against Portugal back in 1966, when it was considered a defender’s right to prevent a goal by giving away a penalty – it wasn’t even a yellow card offence). And yes, it would’ve been exciting to have an African team get there for the first time. But as a sucker for World Cup history, I find it at least as exciting to have Uruguay in the mix at this late stage – possibly more so, because I think it makes the semi-final itself a bit more unpredictable.

Jacob Steinberg rightly pointed out, in response to a comment I made on the Guardian’s daily liveblog, that there’s an unwritten rule that minor and middle-ranking teams can’t get to the World Cup final (the last team to do so was probably Czechoslovakia in 1962). Footballing superpowers in the doldrums sometimes make it – Germany in 2002 is the prime example – but when the likes of Poland, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Sweden, Turkey and South Korea get there, you think ‘Good work, but that’s as far as you go.’ This leads to predictable semi-finals – of the teams I just mentioned, only Croatia have really given their opponents a scare.

Teams often talk of being among ‘the best four teams in the world’ when they make the semi-finals, but this is patently untrue. It’s a knock-out competition, and although you’re entitled to call yourself the best if you win it because winning it is bastard hard, it’s perfectly possible to get a soft draw and a fairly easy route to the semis. I don’t think it makes you much more likely to win the thing than you were at the start. The only way I can see an African team winning the World Cup is by building a reputation as a world-class team before the tournament (as Holland did in 1974, having been utter no-hopers at previous World Cups).

Uruguay’s glorious history is a long, long way in the past, but I think those two stars on the shirt still count for something, even though most of the men who earned them are dead. Psychology counts for a lot in sport, especially when the matches get as big as this, and I’d give Uruguay a chance of making this World Cup final that I wouldn’t have given any other country outside FIFA’s current ten top-ranked teams. That’s what makes this the tastiest semi-final line-up since 1990, for my money – I really think any of the four could make it (Portugal were never going to get there in 2006, in my opinion) and any of them would be an exciting winner: Spain and Holland because they’re the best teams never to have won it, Germany because their young team has been such a revelation, Uruguay because they’d be the most out-of-the-blue winner since 1954. A World Cup which has largely been judged non-vintage could well pull off a last-minute coup.