At this stage of the game, it’s all about de­sire

Weekend Witness - - Sport -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG — One of the most ar­ro­gant pro­nounce­ments so far of the World Cup came from Steven Ger­rard. Try­ing to ex­plain how lowly Al­ge­ria man­aged to re­strict Eng­land’s more com­pe­tent foot­ballers to a goal­less tie, the English cap­tain said the North Africans played as though they were com­pet­ing in the World Cup fi­nal.

In other words, the Al­ge­ri­ans re­ally put their hearts into it. For Eng­land it was just an­other game.

De­sire. It is prov­ing a de­ci­sive fac­tor at the World Cup and will be even more so in the knock-out matches that be­gin to­day.

France and Italy bla­tantly lacked it in the group stages, were gob­bled up by teams hun­grier than them and were sent home in hu­mil­i­a­tion.

The United States, Slo­vakia, Ja­pan and oth­ers have it by the buck­et­load, and so fully de­serve their spots in the round of 16, the point from which the World Cup re­ally gets se­ri­ous.

Of the 13 Euro­pean sides that started this World Cup, only six ad­vanced to the last 16, fewer than at the last three World Cups stretch­ing back to 1998, when the tour­na­ment ex­panded to 32 teams.

But the rea­son why Euro­pean foot­balling pow­ers like Ger­many, Spain, Eng­land, France and Italy strug­gled at times here or, worse, made fools of them­selves is not be­cause their play­ers are ex­hausted from long sea­sons with their clubs. If that were the cause, then Brazil and Ar­gentina, both made up mainly of Europe-based play­ers, would have looked jaded, too. They haven’t.

Al­ti­tude isn’t re­ally an ex­pla­na­tion, ei­ther. Nor is heat, be­cause it’s been a cold South African June.

Ital­ian foot­ball fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Gian­carlo Abete trot­ted out an­other old scape­goat — for­eign play­ers — as the painful post-mortem of Italy’s fail­ure got un­der­way. That’s an ar­gu­ment Eng­land have used to ex­plain past dis­ap­point­ments, too. The premise: In hir­ing for­eign play­ers, Euro­pean clubs are ne­glect­ing young home­grown tal­ent, hurt­ing their na­tional sides.

“These prob­lems don’t in­volve just Ital­ian foot­ball, it’s a Europe-wide prob­lem,” Abete said. “We don’t have enough play­ers with in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Where that ar­gu­ment falls down and is clearly un­true, how­ever, is that it as­sumes that Italy has fewer de­cent play­ers to choose from than, say, Ja­pan, South Korea, Paraguay or Por­tu­gal, who all reached the last 16. Also, im­ports of top play­ers makeEuro­pean leagues stronger, forc­ing Euro­pean play­ers to raise their game, too.

The English Premier League is now the tough­est in the world pre­cisely be­cause of the more than 300 play­ers from around the world who com­pete in it. That in turn makes the likes of Ger­rard, John Terry or Frank Lam­pard bet­ter foot­ballers, not worse. And France churns out young, tal­ented play­ers who pop­u­late Europe’s leagues and yet they fared poorly here.

Which leaves mental at­ti­tude. The im­pres­sion given at times by some “big” foot­ball na­tions at this World Cup is that they sim­ply cared less than some “small” ones — teams like New Zealand, Paraguay, Switzer­land or Ser­bia that played above them­selves and pulled off sur­prise re­sults in the group games.

Only in the last 20 min­utes of their fi­nal Group F match against Slo­vakia, when they were al­ready two goals down, did Italy start to play with any real ur­gency. By then it was too late.

“We’re not here for a hol­i­day,” Slo­vakia for­ward Erik Jen­drisek said — a com­ment that would have been laugh­able com­ing from some­one like France’s Nicolas Anelka, who played with no pas­sion.

Only in the last 35 min­utes against South Africa, when they were al­ready two goals be­hind and one man down, did France make a be­lated stab at res­cu­ing a shred of hon­our. Far too late.

Only in their last Group C match against Slove­nia, with the dis­as­trous prospect of an early flight out loom­ing, did Eng­land’s play­ers look like they gen­uinely cared. They did just enough to stay in South Africa … for now.

Lan­don Dono­van of the United States, on the other hand, has been one of the stand-out play­ers of the tour­na­ment so far be­cause he is treat­ing it with the re­spect it de­serves. His am­bi­tion and that of his team has been im­pres­sive. In com­ing back from goal deficits against Eng­land and Slove­nia and in Dono­van’s in­jury-time goal against Al­ge­ria that got it to the last 16, the U.S. team showed how badly they want to suc­ceed. That never-say­die teamwork could carry them past Ghana to­day.

Like the U.S., Ja­pan also have showed the en­dur­ing value of teamwork. Hav­ing beaten his marker, Keisuke Honda could have scored in the 87th minute against Den­mark on Thurs­day. In­stead, Honda passed to the even bet­ter placed Shinji Okazaki, who got the team’s third goal.

Eng­land proved in the group stages that a team can still squeak through even when their minds are not fully fo­cused and when the play­ers aren’t click­ing.

But that will not hap­pen in the knock-out stages. Be­ing lack­adaisi­cal now will be fa­tal. — Sapa-AP.

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