Football's boundaries are vanishing

opinion June 28, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

A revolution is taking place in Brazil as world superpowers suffer the rise of the underdogs

The past two weeks have been packed with incident for the millions of us watching the World Cup. We have seen the first use of goal-line technology – a lukewarm bid by governing body Fifa to improve “fairness” on the pitch – and another “biting” episode involving Uruguay player Luis Suarez. But the global audience has also witnessed a genuine transformation: A game once monopolised by a few countries has become a genuine “anyone-can-have-a-shot” sport. The traditional giants of world football might still hold sway when the curtain falls, but we have seen enough to know that the boundaries are disappearing in the globe’s most popular game.
One upset could be a fluke, two a bigger fluke, but three or more signal that something is on. With the tournament not even halfway through, we have already seen Chile send reigning champions Spain packing, lowly Costa Rica conquer the “Group of Death”, Mexico hold Brazil and the United States only seconds away from beating Portugal. And the expectation is of more shock results to come.
We have seen minor-league players beat world superstars who earn 50-100 times as much. You could argue that the underdogs have a “nothing to lose” mentality and can thus be expected to do well, but this World Cup has not featured gritty, physical performances by the outsiders. Big teams have simply been outfought and even outclassed.
There have still been moments of magic conjured by the mega-stars. Lionel Messi’s curling left-foot strike broke Iranian hearts just before the final whistle and denied the Middle Easterners a historic draw against Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo’s pinpoint cross rescued Portugal from the jaws of embarrassing defeat at the hands of USA. And though Brazil have under-performed in the group stage, their star striker Neymar has shone.
But fans have learned that good coaching, good strategy and the right attitude can produce a team capable of triumph. Again and again we have been offered stark illustration of the old adage that football is a team game. Teams who rely on one or two stars do so at their peril. And we have learned that there are a lot more great footballers out there than the news media or “market prices” would have us believe.
This World Cup has brought unmistakable signs that the global “talent gap” is narrowing. There are also plenty of positives in the sportsmanship department. However, Fifa deserves no credit for its efforts to bring more justice to the way the game is played. The benefits of its goal-line technology pale beside the game-changing controversies that it has permitted to persist. The penalty mistakenly awarded to Brazil in the match against Croatia was just one glaring illustration of the need to include video replays as an aid for referees.
Last but not least, we have witnessed the reigning champions bow out early for the third successive World Cup. Can it be entirely coincidence that France, Italy and Spain exited in the group stage after winning the previous tournament? Some say they were victims of their own success: crowned kings of the football world, the players were immune from changes that would have improved their teams.
This could be the biggest lesson of all. Nothing lasts forever, especially a country’s grip on the World Cup. And with football’s old boundaries fast vanishing, this wisdom is ringing truer than ever.