Days nine and ten: Hypothetically speaking

Once again, I wasn’t able to put up a diary yesterday, so here’s an extended thought for today to make up for it.

When Portugal eliminated Sweden in the playoff stage of World Cup qualifying, football fans around the globe realised the tournament in Brazil would be missing one of the world’s most talented stars. Cristiano Ronaldo, voted the best player in the world that season, would be there; Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not.

With Diego Costa’s decision to snub the Seleção still fresh in the memory, some Brazilian columnists asked sarcastically: “Can’t we get Zlatan to play up front for us?”

The sentiment, of course, is purely comical, but you feel that the only piece missing from the Brazilian national team puzzle is a technically gifted centre-forward. Fred, despite his physical presence and natural eye for goal, is an extremely limited striker. He is static, sloppy and sluggish. He does not have the skill to link up play and bring in others around him and he is only there for his positioning in the penalty area.

Fred had a great Confederations Cup, but mainly because the rest of the team was functioning well around him. He wasn’t needed to create play, drag defenders out of position, make intelligent runs or work back to defend. The rest of the team did all of that for him and successfully gave him the ball in and around the penalty area, where Fred flourishes.

In Brazil’s opening games, the rest of the side has not been functioning properly. Not enough chances are being created, not enough space is being made for forward runs of Neymar, Hulk, Oscar or Paulinho. Against Croatia and Mexico, Fred was a passenger, his presence notable only for the laughable penalty he won in the opener in São Paulo.

Imagine Zlatan Ibrahimovic was playing in that central attacking role. His tremendous technique and intelligence could make the Brazilian offensive unit unstoppable. But, of course, that’s ridiculous. International football does not work that way and neither should it. In club football we can see teams formed by players from different countries, with different backgrounds, educations, styles. Barcelona can build a marvellous side using only homegrown players, but if they lack firepower up front they can always splash out on a foreign No 9.

At international level, nations have a defined pool from which to choose. If country X have not produced any talented goalkeepers, there is no amount of money or bargaining tool that can get them one, they have to field the best goalkeeper they have, no matter how terrible he is in comparison with the rest of the team.

I was reminded of this Zlatan hypothetical on Thursday while watching another excellent day of World Cup football. England lost to Uruguay in dramatic circumstances in São Paulo, waving goodbye to their chances of progressing. Later that evening, Japan failed to score against 10-man Greece in one of the competition’s most frustrating games. If each national team were permitted to swap one player with another country, England and Japan could have been more successful.

Against Uruguay, England were narrowly beaten on the scoreboard, but comprehensively beaten in the midfield battle. This was understandable considering their shape: Hodgson went with his familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with the midfield line of three (Sterling, Rooney and Wellbeck) playing very high up the pitch. Their defensive line, worried about Uruguay’s pace in attack, were hesitant to step up, leaving a vast space between defence and attack with England’s central midfield pair, Gerrard and Henderson, the only ones to occupy it.

Uruguay changed their system (a feature of Oscar Tabárez’s Uruguay sides is their tactical versatility) and played a midfield diamond with Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in attack. Egídio Arévalo Rios, their stocky, ankle-biting defensive midfielder, kept Rooney quiet for most of the match while their other midfielders, Álvaro González, Cristián Rodríguez and Nicolás Lodeiro swamped the middle of the pitch with their constant energy and pressing. Cavani, always willing to work back, also played a crucial role in closing down Gerrard.

The result was England’s two central midfielders, those responsible for creating attacking moves, were watched by four tireless Uruguayans. Gerrard, the closest thing England had to a playmaker, spent most of his time passing the ball to Glen Johnson, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill – the England back four.

Ideally, England need someone to drop off the front four and provide a creative source in the attacking third of the pitch. They have the objective and dangerous attackers – Raheem Sterling in particular was a breath of fresh air against Italy, taking on defenders and getting shots on goal – but they have no one to feed them, no one to knit their side together.

Imagine if England had Shinji Kagawa of Japan in their team, the nimble playmaker that dazzled at Borussia Dortmund but has never really been given a chance at Manchester United. He would sit in the No 10 position, providing a link between Gerrard and Henderson and the three deadly forwards. Rooney could play closer to goal, perhaps coming in from the left as Benzema did yesterday against Switzerland, with Daniel Sturridge at centre-forward and Sterling as the deep winger on the right.

England get a lot of stick, even from their own fans, but their matches against Italy and Uruguay have been among the most entertaining in the group stage so far. They have the talent and the threat in attack, but in both games I have been left with the sensation that they are missing one player in attacking midfield.

If Japan were to cede Kagawa to England, they would be well served by bringing in any one of England’s front four to replace him. Japan have played twice, winning only one point and scoring one goal. In their opener against Ivory Coast, they started well and took the lead, but quickly lost control of the game and their goal was subjected to an Ivorian onslaught for the remainder of the match. They were perhaps taken by surprise at the manner in which Ivory Coast turned the game around, with two goals in two minutes, but in truth Japan never looked like winning.

Their match against Greece on Thursday evening was particularly frustrating: Greek midfielder Konstantinos Katsouranis was sent off after only 38 minutes, leaving Japan against ten men for over 50 minutes of play. They passed the ball around well, with around 75% of possession and 90% pass completion, but they failed to test the Greek goalkeeper more than four times, all shots from outside the penalty area.

Their creativity was not the problem, they were finding their attacking players in good positions and spreading the ball around when they needed to, probing and looking for gaps, but their forwards were hesitant upon receiving possession. Instead of being objective and going for goal, they would take an extra half second to survey the situation, seeing if there was a better pass available before they took the shot themselves. This delay allowed the Greece defence to close them down, and it is hardly a surprise so many of Japan’s shots on goal were blocked in and around the penalty area.

I was once told a Japanese proverb that would go some way to explaining this flaw in their playing style, it was translated to me as: “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”. I do not know how poignant this is to Japanese culture, but if this idea was to prevail during the formation of young Japanese athletes then it would result in what we see from the national side today. They are a mechanical team, skilful and technically gifted, but also very creative. In Keisuke Honda, Kagawa and Yasuhito Endo, they have at least three playmakers with excellent vision and intelligence. However, when they reach the final third of the pitch, no one seems hungry enough to take responsibility and have a shot on goal without overthinking.

If Japan could add just one player to their squad, perhaps Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, or Daniel Sturridge, someone to take up good positions and be objective and hungry for goals, they could have six points instead of one.

Day three: Chocolate orange

The Netherlands plays an important part in the history of the north-east of Brazil. During the 17th century, the modern-day states of Pernambuco, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte and Alagoas were all under Dutch rule, as well as parts of Ceará, Maranhão and Piauí. The area was known as New Holland, and was an official Dutch territory for around 20 years, with its capital city in Recife, then known as Mauritsstad.

They struggled to expand their sovereignty further south into Bahia, a traditional Portuguese stronghold. They managed to invade and conquer the city of Salvador in 1624, but it was recaptured less than a year later by the Spanish empire, led by King Felipe IV and his Spanish and Portuguese forces.

Now, this is the part where I link the historic event to the game of football that happened yesterday. I’m saving my energy for today’s four-game marathon, so if you could fill in the blanks yourselves, that would be much appreciated.

Many have jumped to the conclusion that Holland have knocked off Spain’s crown, and that the era of tiki-taka domination is at an end. They may be correct: I was quick to brush off the “end of an era” discourse after Brazil battered the world champions in the final of last year’s Confederations Cup, but now the sample size has doubled.

The result was momentous, and certainly does justice to Holland’s complete dominance in the second half, but the first half was controlled by Spain. They kept possession well, grinding down their opponents before taking the lead and threatening to score more. If David Silva had scored his one-on-one chance against Cillessen, Spain would have taken a 2-0 lead into the interval, closed the game out in the second half and we would be talking about business as usual. The idea that “tiki-taka is finished” is silly. The style and ethos of both teams were not the deciding factors in yesterday’s game.

Spain did not approach the game correctly, drawing attention to their own weaknesses in defence, lacking a deep option in attack to stretch play and not studying their opposition well enough. Anyone who saw Holland’s pre-tournament friendlies could tell you that Van Gaal’s team like to play long, sweeping passes behind the defence to feed their forwards. Van Persie’s goal against Ecuador was an excellent example.

Holland, on the other hand, were incredibly well prepared for the match and from Robin Van Persie’s post-match comments, it appears Van Gaal predicted the outcome of the match with startling accuracy.

In Brazil, a comprehensive victory such as this (usually one with five goals scored by the winning team) is called a chocolate. Yesterday’s result, chocolate com laranja.

In the late game, Chile were everything we expected them to be. Vibrant going forward, vulnerable in defence. They made hard work of an Australia side who were, although better than I had expected, fairly unimpressive. My impression was that the Cuiabá heat played a part (it remained above 30C throughout the match, at 7-9pm local time), with some of Chile’s midfield not pressing and overlapping with the same intensity as they usually do.

They cannot afford to do that in their remaining group games, especially not against Van Persie and Robben. Playing such a high defensive line requires constant pressing of the ball, so as not to give time for the opponent to exploit the space behind the defence. If Chile play as they did last night, Spain and Holland should win comfortably.

To finish, Diego Costa. The debate about naturalisation has been reopened today since Costa made the Spain starting XI and was roundly booed by thousands in the Arena Fonte Nova. The question of “should he have been booed?” is a silly one. I wouldn’t jeer him myself, but it is perfectly understandable why some Brazilian fans would, as it is perfectly understandable (in my opinion) why Diego Costa preferred to represent Spain instead of his country of birth.

The serious issue, almost completely ignored, were the chants directed at him. “Diego, viado” – I hear it on the stands every week in Brazil, directed at any opposing player worthy of ire. The word viado is not, as The Guardian published in Sid Lowe’s article on Costa, “slang for gay”. Viado is a very strong homophobic slur; if I had to find an equivalent in English, my opinion is that it is closest to the word “faggot”. Imagine thousands of English fans chanting similar at Costa on his debut at Chelsea and you have a hate crime on your hands. It is part of a huge homophobia problem in Brazil, one which needs to be addressed and understood.

Ethics and egos

With Diego Costa’s choice to represent the Spanish national team and the non-story in England regarding the potential naturalisation of Adnan Januzaj, the subject of footballers’ nationality has been heavily discussed over the past month.

By the letter of the law, Diego Costa is eligible to be selected for Spain, having gained Spanish citizenship earlier this year. As a human being and a professional, he is free to choose which national team he would like to represent, and the only valid debate is over the Spanish football federation’s ethics in deciding to call up the player.

Diego Costa was not born in Spain, he has no Spanish parentage and did not arrive in the country as a refugee. He was first brought to Spain in 2007 by Atlético Madrid, who signed him from SC Braga in Portugal for a fee of €1.5 million.

His situation is different to that of ex-Stuttgart forward Cacau, who was born in São Paulo and famously represented the German national team over twenty times. Cacau migrated to Germany when he was 18 years old (of his own volition) and managed to earn a living playing for a fifth division German club before working his way up the ladder.

Furthermore, Diego Costa has already played twice for Brazil. He was part of the squad that played friendly matches against Italy and Russia in March, and he made substitute appearances in both games. The reasons behind his switch to Spain are based on his disappointment at only getting 35 minutes over those two friendlies and subsequently not being selected for the Confederations Cup.

The entire purpose of international football is to stage matches and tournaments between groups of players who identify themselves with the country they are representing. Diego is well within his rights to be angry with the CBF and change his allegiance, but that doesn’t mean Spain is right to select him. It would be akin to England calling up Januzaj, an athlete paid for and brought to the country for his talent.

If players are going to continue chopping and changing allegiances and crucially, if national associations are going to continue enabling this behaviour by selecting these players, then perhaps we should scrap international football altogether.

Ethics aside, I have been somewhat confused at the CBF’s handling of the situation. Since the appointments of Felipão and Carlos Alberto Parreira, the party line has been about patriotism and nationalism – the famous Brazilian amor à patria – yet they have persistently pursued Diego Costa, someone who was very outspoken about the Seleção. Felipão’s statement yesterday about Diego being cut from the squad sounded like a manager attempting to heal his bruised ego. Diego Costa can’t quit, because he’s fired. At this stage, the CBF is looking silly.