Matthew Monk


 
Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The Luckiest Team in the World?



    Sometimes at the World Cup you need a bit of luck. Skill alone may well be good enough to get you quite a long way, but to find that little bit extra and to get a little bit further you need some luck. It could be a foul the referee does not see, or a dive he is fooled by. How about the ball bouncing off another attacker rather than smashing into your open goal with the keeper stranded? Or how would you like one of your opponents to miss a header in the very last minute, two metres out with your goalie stranded, and the goal gaping? Add on that it will push you into the second round, and knock your opponents out. Now that would be a nice piece of luck wouldn't it?

    But let's not stop there. Let's go forward a game, and move right to the end of the match. It's Golden Goal this time around and you are in big trouble. One of your opponents breaks free in your box, twirls round beautifully and unleashes an unstoppable drive. Your goalie is nowhere - he can only watch as the ball cuts through the air. It is an amazing shot, but the post intervenes to keep it out of the net. You go up field just a couple of minutes later and score a great goal yourself, but it only goes in because your goalscorer scuffs his shot, and it trickles over the goal line. Of course it puts you into the quarter finals of the World Cup...

    Senegal have become the second African team to reach the last eight of the World Cup and have demolished my prediction that no African team would reach that stage this year. I have to say that I am delighted that it is this African team who have disproved me rather than Cameroon who have been as disappointing as Senegal have been exhilarating. Senegal have played excellent attacking football - scoring the best goal of the championships so far in Diao's equaliser against Denmark - and have also proved that they can defend well enough when they have to.

    From the very first moment they ran at France in the opening game, Senegal have set out their stall to play uncomplicated attacking football. There has been no shambolic defending like Poland, or any over elaborate web weaving like the Italians have tried - Senegal have played professional, expansive football that has been rewarded with progression to the final stages. And while there is no doubt that Senegal have been as lucky as any team in recent memory their attacking verve has made much of this luck, and they do deserve to progress.

    Of the truly exciting players we have seen so far El Hadji Diouf has risen above them all. What Diouf does is very simple - he runs at defenders, utilising his pace and skill to terrify them. In the first game he ran Franck Leboeuf ragged, then continued to do the same against Martin Laursen and Paolo Montero in Group A. This morning he did exactly the same to Mellberg and Mjallby, and while he has not scored yet, his busy performances have created a welter of chances for Papa Bouba Diop and Henri Camara. I have lost count of the number of players he has nutmegged and I cannot wait to see him doing that for Liverpool next season. He might not really be a serial killer, but he has murdered enough defences this summer to make all Reds very confident of continuing success.

    No one can argue that Senegal have been an African success story, but if you are African I would stop reading here - you will probably not like what you read from here on out.

    This has been almost as bad a World Cup for Africa as even the biggest pessimist could have predicted. Apart from Senegal, African teams have - for the want of a better word - stunk. The most was expected of Cameroon, Africa's proud champions. But apart from a dominant first forty-five minutes in the blinding heat of Niigata in their opening game against Ireland, the Indomitable Lions have been as toothless as I thought they would be. Yes, you have to give a lot of credit to the never-say-die Irish, and to a Saudi team determined to comeback from an 8:0 hammering, but the truth is Cameroon were not good enough to qualify from a group containing two good to middling European sides. Germany were allowed to play the exact game they wanted to in Shizuoka, and as Peter Goldstein has so eloquently narrated to us, they were never once troubled by a Cameroon team over confident and ignorant to their deficiencies.

    There was nothing wrong with their organisation or defending, so no one can really criticise old Winni Schäfer - although what new tactical genius he brought to the championships is very hard to pinpoint. No Cameroon lost because they did not have enough top quality players, and did not play as a team. In the final match against Germany they lost their discipline - though Germany more than matched them here - and deservedly went out. When they arrived at the tournament, all the players could do was moan about the convoluted route they had to 'endure' when travelling to Japan. Never once did we see or hear them acting like a team. I will confess to not following Cameroon as closely as Peter did, but I got the idea that they believed their own hype, believed all they had to do was turn up to win, and believed Germany, Ireland and especially Saudi Arabia would lie down and die before them. It did not work out that way did it? Cameroon have still only won one World Cup Finals game since 1990.

    The other African teams? Well, Tunisia were not quite as poor as they looked as the African Cup of Nations. They performed creditably against Belgium, and did not give up against Japan until the last 20 minutes. Perhaps this will once and for all prove that African coaches can do as well as the dodgy, European journeymen. I cannot imagine for a minute this team playing half as good with Henri Michel still in charge.

    The same could-do-better report must go to Nigeria. Although they did not disgrace themselves as looked likely at one point this spring, Nigeria have the best individual talent in Africa and should be up their with Senegal instead of going out after two games. Some of the young players they introduced against England looked very capable, and this is a definite plus. However the point remains that apart from age-group tournaments like the Olympics or Under-20 championships, Nigeria look like being a long way from making the breakthrough.

    And of course there was South Africa - on paper the worst of the African teams, but who almost made the last 16. Their game against Spain was full of uncomplicated attacking, but poor defending that cost them in the end. The way they chased down Paraguay from 2:0 down was excellent, but failing to score more than one goal against imploding Slovenija ended the dream even before they met Spain. It was a positive performance, again masterminded by a local coach. When they host the World Cup in 2010 they will have to better this performance at least, but they do have another eight years to get it right.

    My original prediction was that no African team would make the quarter finals, and I later augmented it by saying that no African team may reach Round Two. Even though I changed my mind a bit nearer to the tournament, I was very close to being proved right - only Richard Morales knows how he missed that header in the last minute. And there is no doubt that Senegal were lucky to beat Sweden today to get to the last eight. But as I have written in the forums, and indeed wrote at the end of my second article about Africa ages ago, it is good for football that I was wrong.

    This has not been the dominant World Cup for Europe that I thought it would be - at least not yet. And it has been a better World Cup for it. It is still possible that six of the eight quarter finalists will be European, which will keep up the record since 1986, but it is far more likely that we will be looking at four or five Europeans, Mexico, Brasil, Senegal and maybe even an Asian team. Who knows, maybe only Germany, Spain and England will be flying the UEFA flag next week?

    Now that would make for an unusual World Cup, wouldn't it?


 

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