Day six: Don’t blame it on the sunshine …

Yesterday, minutes after I published my glowing report on the World Cup so far, we were subjected to the tournament’s first goalless draw, between Iran and Nigeria. However, anyone familiar with either side or who had bothered to do some research would have been able to tell you the match was never likely to be entertaining.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has often spoke about the limitations of his squad, while Nigeria is a side set up to cause problems on the counterattack and exploit spaces that Iran were never going to give them. The Super Eagles tried to change their approach by bringing on a pure centre-forward in Shola Ameobi, but it was jarring, they did not appear to be used to the different approach.

It is likely that both sides will prefer playing against Argentina and Bosnia, where they are not expected to control the match and will try to frustrate technically superior opposition while posing a counterattacking threat.

The match was played in Curitiba, the last of Brazil’s host cities to debut in this tournament. The stadium looked great, but there were problems: those present complained of a faulty speaker system while the playing surface did not look ideal. The grass was clumpy and could cause problems to possession-based teams such as Spain, who will play Australia there next week.

It may be interesting to see how results pan out in matches played in Curitiba and Porto Alegre, the two southernmost venues. The region of the country is noticably cooler, especially with a cold front set to arrive this week. It is unlikely to be uncomfortable for any teams, considering “cold” by Brazilian standards is something approaching a central European spring, but the conditions are conducive to defensive football. Players are not inhibited by the heat and can close down for the full 90 minutes, reducing the space available on the pitch.

Although some reporting of Brazil’s climate has been blown out of proportion at this World Cup, it will certainly make some sort of impact. Players were visibly exhausted in the second halves of Chile v Australia, Italy v England and Switzerland v Ecuador. In warm and/or humid conditions, players either become tired quicker or make conscious efforts to economise their energy, which leads to matches with more spaces, allowing for more opportunities to be created and the chance of more goals. Germany, playing their group matches in Salvador, Fortaleza and Recife, made an excellent choice and have been training in Bahia since their arrival in the country, helping them to become accustomed to the conditions of Brazil’s north-east.

In 1977, Pelé predicted that an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000. Although he is rarely correct with these things (as shown by a Colombian television appeal for the King not to pick their country as his World Cup favourites), this did not seem like Pelé’s worst piece of forecasting. Some of the African sides in the 1990s showed superb individual talent and flair, seeming so close to mounting a genuine title challenge.

So, what happened? The quality would appear to have regressed, and what we have seen so far from the African countries in this year’s World Cup has been disappointing.

African football, much like in South America lives only to produce players for sale to Europe. Modern football requires athleticism, so young African players are lifting weights and running sprints before they learn to pass a ball.

Cameroon and Nigeria were particularly unimpressive, and while Ivory Coast, Ghana and Algeria showed some promising flashes, they are still some way away from the expectations placed upon them. The Ivorians have a clear attacking approach, pushing their wing-backs forward (against Japan, Serge Aurier played particularly well) and bombarding the opposition with crosses, they also have more quality that their peers with Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony and Drogba coming off the bench. They are likely to qualify alongside Colombia. Ghana, however, look to be heading home after losing to the USA.

Algeria played an excellent first half against Belgium, happy to invite pressure from the opposition while looking efficient and dangerous on the counterattack. They were eventually outdone in the second half, but on this evidence they could still get out of their group.

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