It all starts in seven hours. I was eight when I saw my first World Cup final live on TV, in 1974, and I haven’t missed one since. Had a chance to experience it in person in Italy in 1990 with my best friend and fellow centre back. Once you’ve been to World Cup games (or any big European or South American game really) you really have to just let it go every time you hear North American commentators declare the latest NHL, NBA or NFL champions’ fans to be the best, the craziest, in the world. If you don’t you’ll blow a gasket every few days. I mean, really, the “Madhouse on Madison?” Black Hawks fans will now carry the title of world’s best fans, according to most North American news outlets, for the next week or so until the Lakers or Celtics get the torch passed to them but it’s not even worth getting into a discussion comparing World Cup fans and any other.
So what do we need to make this one more 1982 than 1994 (Gentile link below notwithstanding)?
Quality pitches for a start. The state of some of the fields used for tune up games in South Africa is cause for concern. The wet season is supposed to be done but several fields have been waterlogged. Others seem to be getting torn up like they’re Wembley.
We need the refs who do the games in the first three days to flash yellows every time a player dives in the attacking third. Every time a player pushes the ball by a defender, pulls close to initiate contact and then goes up on their tippy toes so that the slightest bump sends them tumbling should be punished with a card. Going up on your toes as you go by a defender has one purpose: to elicit a call that is not deserved and refs have to suss it out and card those who try it. Three games of consistent carding for this and it dies for the rest of the tournament.
Beyond that, it’s time to give the benefit of the doubt on offside to the attackers and to defenders on fouls in the box. And while we don’t need to go back to the standard applied for yellow cards in the 80’s, we need to get away from refs intent on thinking their route to be considered for the Final is based on their yellow card tally. Yes it contradicts what I’ve said above about covering the pitch in yellows but a quick flurry in the first few days to dissuade going to ground does two things: all but eliminate diving and having games decided by dodgy penalty kicks. I can live with early yellows if it means far fewer as we go forth from there.
Common sense needs to be what refs are told each time they head out onto the field. Should a late shot after the whistle cost a player a chance to play in the Final? It’s bad enough that virtually every hand ball in the defending third costs players a yellow and that officiating these days has completely killed off the full blooded challenge but the quantity of yellows that refs seem to be encouraged to hand out at major tournaments is going to cause some of the world’s best players who miss out on key later stage games.
Full stadiums. FIFA’s ticketing scheme reeks of too many middle aged men detached from the reality of hosting a tournament in South Africa.The implementation (ie. insisting on ticket purchases being via credit card in South Africa for the longest time) showed a lack of knowledge for what would work and has left them scrambling to sell a massive number of tickets in the last few weeks. Hopefully common sense prevails and tickets are put in the hands of vuluzela-armed South Africans so they can see the World Cup for what will be, for many, the only time in their lives. We took a train that felt more like a packed terrace on rails for many hours from Genoa to Milan to try to see a 1990 World Cup game at the San Siro. No luck. Sold out we were told and scalpers were looking for two arms and a leg to see the Germans take on UAE. We retired to a restaurant to watch the game to see crowd shots showing a half empty San Siro due to reams of tickets that were bundled into spsonsor packages going unused. FIFA’s sorted that out for the most part since then but this could be a return to unused tickets potentially.
We need Drogba to be healthy and we need him to be an emblem for great African soccer. We don’t need to see him explode in petulance again if things don’t go well for Ivory Coast.
We need Maradona to stay the course. The batshit crazy course. The anti-Mourinho, convention confounding, media-baiting road that he trundles down with deliberate abandon and a lorry full of some of the most exciting players in the world. It is my sincere hope that at some stage he starts a game 2-3-5 with Higuain, Tevez, Milito, Tevez and Aguero up front. Then subs Palermo in early for a midfielder… And it’s not beyond the pale for him to do this (maybe not the Palermo bit) but no one else would even joke about it. Only Maradona. He would even do if they got to the Final. The only thing that could top that would be for it to be against a team run by someone like Sven Goran Eriksson. Some ivory tower tactician whose head would explode ten minutes in if faced with such a lack of orthodoxy.
A large part of this World Cup’s legacy will revolve around the logistics of getting people to and from the games to some degree and the level of crime to a larger degree. The stories need to emanate from the stadiums and not the streets. Ironically the story of our Olympics did come from the streets of Vancouver but the worry is that the streets of many South African cities do not lend themselves to the carnival atmosphere of Granville and Robson last February. We need the headlines from the field to dominate media coverage rather than crime stats. We need the influence of Mandela to carry the day.
We need Spain to continue to show the world that teams like theirs are more likely to end up on top than swept aside like the 1982 Brazil team. The stunning ball movement in midfield, the deadly finishers up front and the passionate defending at the back could lead the world to a new golden era of positive, smart, skillful football that succeeds. As Ajax’s methodology informs the Dutch national team, the spirit of Barca carries the day for this generation of Spanish national team players and that’s a very, very good thing.
Lastly, in keeping with the Stone Roses reference in the title, how about a surprise reformation that sees them at the stadium on Saturday leading England onto the field with “This is the One.” Too much to ask for? Probably but really every World Cup in and of itself is too much to ask for and yet we are treated to its awesomeness every four years.