Professional sport is all about handling pressure—and it doesn’t get much tougher than soccer’s World Cup. Not only are the eyes of your respective nation on you, but you’re in a camp with your colleagues for perhaps up to 6 or 7 weeks (if you make the latter stages of the cup), with nothing much to do but eat, train, and sleep. Even if it’s going well, the tedium is mixed with extreme stress on game days. So far the English and French are doing an appalling job of handling this mix. Neither team has registered a win and both will exit the tournament this week if they don’t markedly improve. As of Sunday night the French team is refusing to train and their lead striker has been sent home for insulting the coach. The English look like a pub team; despite having 3 or 4 players who can be considered in the top 50 in the world, they are unable to control the ball.
Europe’s top teams expect to dispatch New Zealand, Algeria, and Honduras, but by and large they haven’t been able to do so. Even Spain and Italy can’t win. Some of this may be due to arrogance, but it’s also due to improvements of the worst teams. Although it’s not good for entertainment, the easiest thing a team can do, and be coached to do, is to improve defense. Even North Korea almost held out against Brazil! Mind you, surprise packages Paraguay and Chile are making it look easy.
As of this stage in the World Cup, fewer goals have been scored than at any World Cup before, and fewer than half the goals scored even 20 years ago. It’s still fascinating for the cognoscenti but it means the rarest currency in sport—the soccer goal—is becoming even more precious, and bad refereeing decisions become even more glaring. Team USA would have beaten Slovenia had there been a TV referral system and sooner or later, TV reviews will have to be brought in, since it’s possible that more than a sizable minority of the matches will be decided by refereeing failures.
Meanwhile, the excitement for all African nations is palpable. Although I’ve been over one thousand miles from South Africa, in a country not represented in the cup, interest is intense. I’ve foolishly gotten sucked in to the excitement and made a series of bets and stand to win a tidy packet if Ghana become the first African champions.