RIO DE JANIERO – Might as well call it Arena Futbol.
The first 16 matches of this World Cup featured a historic amount of scoring and more dazzling moves than a Samba dancer on Copacabana beach. This tournament averaged 3.06 goals per match through the first circuit of group play, compared to 1.56 in 2010. The only World Cup that averaged more than 2.5 goals in the first 16 matches over the past 16 years was in 2002, with 2.88. There were even 13 matches before the first draw of this tournament.
It’s not just the numbers, either. There has been an astounding array of highlight-reel goals here in Brazil. Robin van Persie’s header for Holland and Tim Cahill’s mid-air redirection kick for Australia were all-time displays. Clint Dempsey’s drive and score in the first minute against Ghana was also quite pretty. And this has happened without many of the anticipated superstar performances. Brazil and Neymar have been unspectacular, battling Mexico to a scoreless draw on Tuesday. Cristiano Ronaldo is hurt and may not be effective against the U.S. on Sunday. Lionel Messi came up with an astounding strike against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but was bottled up otherwise.
[Related: Dempsey's record-setting World Cup goal]
So what’s going on here? Why the fireworks from unexpected places?
There are a few fringe theories. For example, the fields may be quicker – at least according to one report from the Brazil newspaper O Globo. South Africa had four types of grass in 10 stadiums, while the 12 Brazil stadiums have only two. And the grass here is cut short, according to the newspaper, at two to two-and-a-half inches in length. There’s also the ball, the “Brazuca,” which is made with five layers of polyurethane. The South African ball, the “Jabulani,” was not popular with players in 2010.
A more likely explanation can be seen in just one game: Chile’s massive upset of defending champion Spain on Wednesday. Spain has held the soccer standard for years, playing defense and keep-away with its superb passing and ball control. That’s how it won the 2010 World Cup, becoming only the second national team to win the tournament outside its own continent. Yet on Wednesday, Spain was overpowered by a Chile team full of youth, speed, and daring. Spain went into the game knowing that Chile lived and died on “risk,” and anticipated being able to take advantage of that. Chile did risk, and everything worked. Spain went down 2-0 in the first half and the Chileans just kept coming. They are now a dark horse to win the entire tournament, which is surprising in itself considering South American soccer has always been known mostly for Brazil and Argentina. Spain, meanwhile, is going home after two losses.
Stifling soccer seems to be yielding to a counterattacking brand, in which defense is still protective but teams are forcing the ball down the field with more vigor and success than before. This could explain an uptick in scoring in the Champions League as well. Clamp-down teams in Europe have also struggled of late.
That may be an advantage for the Americans. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann favors a counterattacking brand, which is both conservative and exciting. The loss of Jozy Altidore to an injury will slow the Americans, but it seems for now they have the right strategy at the right time. Dempsey’s opening goal against Ghana, although not created out of a defensive turnover, shows how the quick-strike has worked here in Brazil.
[Video: Altidore out for USA-Portugal]
Indeed, many of the goals have not come from scrums in front of the net. Rather, there has been a surfeit of momentum-based goals, like a fast break in basketball – rapid and a delight to watch. Chile and Holland, the two teams that thrashed the Spaniards, have been the leading authors of that kind of play.
Of course the downside to that is ineffective defense. The back-line play has been sloppy in a lot of cases. And although some goalies, like Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and Chile’s Claudio Bravo, have been magnificent, the goalkeeping has not been otherworldly. Poor Ike Casillas of Spain had to ask his nation for forgiveness after allowing seven goals in two games.
So will this continue? It may not. The group stage lends itself to gambling, as goal differential matters and underdogs need to go for the throat to get through to the knockout round. The elimination stage might look more like past tournaments, since one error can end a nation’s dreams. In addition, there are still plenty of teams that can play more than one way. Germany, for example, is known for its oppressive defense but it also has Thomas Muller, who scored a hat trick in his opening match. Teams like that don’t need to take many risks to win.
Offense has won the week and the headlines, but we all know what defense wins.
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