Well, we’re at the halfway point of Germany 2006. Half of the teams have gone now, and the other half all know that elimination could be just one game away. Four years ago, the end of the group stage meant the end of the fun. Mindful that they were particularly close to being knocked out at any stage, too many teams shut up shop and played out dreary, drab matches. The world’s perception of the tournament wasn’t helped by the persistent belief that referees were favouring South Korea – looking back at their matches against Italy and Spain (and their performance this time around), it’s easy to see how the conspiracies came about.
We will certainly miss some of the teams that have failed to miss the second phase. The Koreans and Croatians took wonderful support to Germany, but their teams fell just short. By and large, though, everybody got what they deserved. Trinidad’s achievement in drawing with Sweden was extraordinary, but they did it in the worst possible way: by packing their defence and playing for the 0-0 draw. They tried the same against England, but England wore them down. Angola tried the same tactic, only with less success. Much as it’s nice wo wax lyrical about the “underdog”, and it’s pleasurable to see the bigger countries (hello England, hello Portugal) squirm, nobody wants to see matches ruined by teams playing blanket defences. It’s a strange tactic in any case – do they think they’re likely to get through with three draws and no goals scored?
The Asian and African performance was disappointing, if predictable. The “bigger” African nations had taken qualification for granted, and had paid the according price. Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa weren’t there, and it was asking too much to expect a great deal from Angola, Togo and Tunisia. Ghana were the exceptions here, and the World Cup is richer for their presence in the second round, but they were always the most likely of the African teams to progress. It was still surprising that they did so at the expense of the Czechs, though, who started excellently against the USA but then inexplicably imploded. Perhaps Jan Koller, the Lurch-like striker who was injured for the tournament in their opening match was even more talismanic than we had at first thought. The Asians fared far worse: Iran & Saudi Arabia were probably the two worst teams in the the tournament, and Japan, whilst in a tough group, never really launched a serious challenge.
And the broadcasters…? Largely poor, I’m afraid. ITV seemed to have hired the worst studio in each stadium for the tournament, and their theme tune is atrocious. Having said that, they are fortunate to have the best of the commentators in Jon Champion and Peter Drury. They also committed the cardinal sin of cutting to adverts during national anthems for a couple of matches. This practice seems to have stopped now, but it gives a good indication of just how much imortance ITV places on making money than it does on broadcasting. The BBC have been better (not that we’d expect anything less), but are still wasting their best commentators (Steve Wilson and Simon Brotherton) on smaller matches, whilst the continuing promotion of Jonathan Pearce as some sort of credible alternative to John Motson frankly makes my stomach turn. Elsewhere, we had the unedifying sight of Martin O’Neill being shouted down by the “Old Boys Club”, and then there’s Ian Wright. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I wanted to hear the opinion of “the man in the street”, I’d go and stand at a bus stop. I expect better from the BBC.
Right: four hours until the second round starts, and I’m hoping to get back on here to proffer my thoughts on the second round. Toodles!