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