We enter the fifth day of the World Cup and few would disagree that the tournament, or at least the football being played, is yet to set the world alight. The hosts may have captured the imagination with their fervent passion and enthusiasm but the action on the pitch, however, has left most of the expectant football fans somewhat disappointed. Despite the pessimistic moans of many fans and pundits all that is required is a bit of patience as better football is guaranteed.
Mark Lawrenson, while commentating for the BBC, has sounded so bored and miserable that you would assume he was being forced to watch a Songs of Praise marathon and not the greatest sporting competition in the world. The quality of the matches thus far may not have hit the dizzying heights that had been billed but criticism will prove to be premature. Perhaps the hype around this summer's tournament was too great, anything short of a Messi hat-trick, a convincing England win and a few wonder goals n th opening week was going to dismissed as an 'anti-climax'.
There has been finger-pointing at the new ball or the vuvuzelas as reasons why teams are not playing at their best but that is little more than scape goat seeking. In my opinion, the level of play can be understood through the combination of three factors. Firstly, teams are obviously still settling into the tournament. They are acclimatising to the conditions, the opposition and to their team-mates. It would be unrealistic to expect flowing football from the first whistle but it should come with time.
Secondly, and probably most importantly, there has been a nerve induced conservatism in the opening group games. No team with dreams of progressing beyond the group stages can afford to lose their first game. The pressures and expectations upon each team, especially the larger footballing nations, has resulted in the majority of the teams favouring the safety of a draw through a defensive approach over expansive attacking play in their opening games.
Thirdly, the nations competing are, I believe, more evenly matched than in past tournaments. The general level of football may appear to be lower because people are assuming certain teams will have no trouble in dismissing their opposition. Their failure to do so may well be because many of the weaker opposition are slowly but surely bridging the gulf in quality between themselves and the bigger nations. Countries such as the USA, Japan and Paraguay are all improving sides who have proved that they are not in South Africa merely to make up the numbers. These underdogs now have more members of their squad playing in the big European leagues which has helped them as individuals and thus as teams, both mentally and technically. Although it is easy to direct criticism and blame at the bigger teams for dropping points, it is these World Cup minnows that deserve credit for making themselves extremely difficult to beat, even if it is at the sacrifice of more entertaining and open football.
Needless to say, despite some uninspiring performances in the opening 11 games, there can be little doubt that more exciting football is at hand. The two hot favourites to lift the trophy on the 11th July, Brazil and Spain, are yet to appear and both will be expected to play an attractive brand of football. The Ivory Coast play Portugal in a few hours and that too should hopefully deliver a more enjoyable 90 minutes of football.
As the tournament progresses settling for a draw will no longer be an option which will inevitably lead to fewer cagey performances and more memorable matches and moments. As the group stages unfold and we enter the knock-out phase of the competition the tense and nervy opening games will be replaced with far more exhilarating encounters. There should be no doubt that the football will match the tremendous atmosphere in the stadiums and on the streets of South Africa. Frustration will quickly be forgotten and perhaps even Mark Lawrenson will appreciate that getting paid to watch the World Cup is not all that bad.
Thoughts, comments and opinions please...