Monday, July 12, 2010

"Now Let's Go Out There and Play Like We Want to Finish Third!"

It's so predictable it's a cliche: the third place games in World Cup tournaments are exciting, open matches; the title games are conservative, chippy, and at times downright dirty.

The supposed justification for the interesting "consolation" matches is that there's nothing to play for. Both teams are disappointed to to have lost in the semi-finals, don't really care all that much whether they finish third or fourth, and as a result play open, attacking soccer.

The Final, on the other hand, is usually a tight, low scoring, hard-tackling affair as teams draw back and defend rather than risk making the one mistake that can cost them the World title.

That's exactly how it played out in the 2010 World Cup. Germany and Uruguay engaged in an entertaining third-place match that Germany won 3-2, scoring the winning goal with just eight minutes remaining. The next day in the Final, Spain slogged to a 1-0 win over ill-tempered Holland.

The lack of scoring in the Final was disappointing, but not surprising. Spain dominated possession in all of its matches, even the opening loss to Switzerland. But it scored only eight goals total in its seven matches and won all of its knock-out matches by the same 1-0 margin.

Instead of attempting to match Spain's possession, the Netherlands seemed content to try to knock Xavi, Iniesta, et al. out of their socks and hope for a counter attack goal or a penalty shootout. While the Dutch had not exactly reflected the great "Total Football" teams of the 1970's up to the Finals (surprisingly, the usually dour Germans were likely heirs to the throne of "most exciting team not to win" this World Cup), they had not previously displayed the cynical slash-and-burn style with which they approached the Final.

While the reputation of the Dutch teams of the '70's as being obsessed with style over substance may have contributed to the decision to play negatively in the 2010 Final, one has to wonder if they would have shed the title of "best country never to have won a World Cup" before Spain if they had played truer to their abilities and reputation as an innovative, attacking soccer nation.

Conventional wisdom has its price. It's easier, or at least safer, if you're the coach or manager or boss, to take the approach that's tried and true. It certainly leaves you a cushion for any criticism you may receive. But sometimes true greatness comes when we throw caution to the wind. Occasionally playing like you're playing for third is the right, or at least the brave, thing to do.

And as for third place not being important? Ask Diego Forlan what he thinks.

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