The Winning Strategy

There is a rare international consensus among coaches, players and fans that attacking football is the most attractive game. But in recent years and World Cups, there's never been anything approaching a consensus that attacking football translates into winning football--especially on the game's biggest stage. Still, this 2006 World Cup seemed like it might be different--that the cautious defensive tactics, the 10 men behind the ball whenever a team gains a one-goal advantage, the relentless fouling that halts flow, all might be relegated to that historical place where you can find the 2-3-5 formation, "total football" and the hand of God. And perhaps as a result, something more akin to the beautiful game would emerge instead

So what exactly has emerged in Germany? Well quite a bit, actually, and for once the trends have combined to produce a string of dynamic and dramatic games.

Attacking football: When Germany, Brazil and Italy all sign on, then a trend is in good hands (or, at least, on good feet.) Germany's rookie manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, was the first to commit unequivocally to attack. This was hardly surprising, given his passion for charging forward as a star player. He clearly sensed that Germany's ingrained caution and sometimes predictable, even robotic formulas had become passé in an era of increasing athleticism. Years living in America may have made it easier for Klinsmann to dismiss the ultimate German defense--"We've always done it that way."

Brazilian manager Carlos Alberto Parreira didn't need to make any formal pronouncements. Months ahead of the Cup opener, he showed his hand by announcing a starting lineup with four offensive-minded superstars--Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka and Adriano--all together on top. (Who knew that Ronaldo, shades of the mysterious France '98 final, would appear virtually inert?) Italy's Marcello Lippi was coy about his intentions. Still, he hinted that the Azzurri, blessed with a plethora of scoring talent, were ready to come out of their decades-long defensive shell. More likely that was the only reasonable response to the vagaries of overtime and shootouts that have produced a dramatic succession of unhappy endings for the Azzurri.

All three managers delivered on the promise to varying degrees. Germany set the tone in the Cup's kickoff match, going full bore from the opening whistle. Costa Rica was able to capitalize on some back-line weaknesses exposed by the forward-thinking approach. Still, when the Ticos climbed within a goal with less than 10 minutes to go, Germany didn't retreat--and, instead, scored a clincher in a 4-2 victory. The game proved a portent of things to come. Most remarkable was how many teams mimicked that approach, refusing to sit on one- or even two-goal leads. The tactic assured some of the most exciting and esthetically pleasing World Cup games in recent memory. Who could have imagined that Saudi Arabia-Tunisia would produce a classic?

Yet attacking football couldn't guarantee a plentitude of goals. After the Germany-Costa Rica contest, the next five European teams to take the field scored fewer goals combined than Germany alone. By the time all 32 teams had debuted--16 total games--there had been 38 goals, or eight fewer than over the same stretch of the 2002 World Cup. But the count was more than offset by the fact that a ridiculously high percentage of the goals came in games' final stages. Over just two days last week, four games--Tunisia-Saudi Arabia, Germany-Poland, England-Trinidad and Tobago, and Sweden-Paraguay--were all decided by last-minute heroics.

Tackles and Tugs: The improved flow of the games was not simply a product of inspired coaching or greater athleticism. FIFA, the sport's governing body, deserves its fair share of the credit. (And believe me, no reporter takes pleasure in crediting that often myopic bureaucracy.) Clutch-and-grab defenses coupled with reckless tackling have done far more than any timid coach to stall the game and transform the beautiful into something ugly. FIFA's insistence that referees greet certain fouls--cleats-up assaults, tackles from behind, even tugs on the shirt--with a yellow card has freed up players to run.

Some who resisted this change feared an epidemic of red cards coloring the matches. But by the second Sunday, there were only a few dubious reds--and just three penalty kicks had been awarded. There was certainly a spate of yellow cards that may ultimately favor traditional powers with their deeper benches. But eliminating discretion on dirty play has made the officiating more evenhanded. Indeed, after a world of officiating scandals over the past year, the refereeing has, so far, provoked comment, but no major controversy.

Bending it better than Beckham: More notable than how many goals have been scored is how many of them have been highlight-reel material. Other than an Iranian goalkeeper error against Mexico and a Ghanaian giveaway that led to an Italian goal, the majority of the goals have been, at the very least, pretty and, quite often, dazzling. And some have been better than that, the kind of runs that coaches draw up in their dreams--breaking out from the back line with three or four touches before the ball winds up in the back of the net. Saudi legend Sami al-Jaber finished one of those which, along with his extraordinary solo charge way back in 1994, gives him a pair of Cup goals that would do Maradona proud. (So too would the clinic put on by Argentina.) David Beckham may have appeared slow and out of sync much of the time, but his uncanny touch set up both of England's winning goals.

Precision service wasn't always required from the midfield. A host of snipers unloaded from outside the box and magically curled shots past the outstretched arms of keepers and into various corners of the nets. Credit, or, as German keeper Jens Lehmann did, blame the new Adidas ball ("a plastic beach ball," he groused). The lighter-weight ball seemed to do for a lot of midfielders what Beckham has always been able to do naturally. Defenders are now on notice that they must challenge midfielders on the outside, thus opening up the middle to deft passes.

Europe is overrated (Africa too?): European soccer provincials have long complained that their teams are being shorted on rightful spots in the World Cup. They insist that the Turkeys, Belgiums, Greeces, Denmarks and Romanias that didn't qualify for Germany are better and more deserving teams than the extra qualifiers that have been added from Africa, Asia and North and Central America.

Perhaps. But the European teams that actually did qualify hardly make a compelling case. While the five European seeds were still undefeated going into Sunday's matches, the nine other qualifiers sported a mediocre record of six wins, seven losses and two ties. Fully half of Europe's entries failed to score in their openers. Poland, one of the highest-scoring teams in European qualifying, couldn't net a goal through two losing matches against Ecuador and Germany. Two teams that won their qualifying groups, Ukraine and Serbia and Montenegro, were routed--4-0 by Spain and 6-0 by Argentina, respectively. And Sweden, another team touted as an offensive juggernaut, was held to a scoreless tie by tiny Trinidad and Tobago, then required almost the entire 90 minutes before finally netting a goal to beat Paraguay. And France, demonstrating why it was booed in Paris, appeared capable of not scoring against anybody.

Still, the most disappointing continental start was Africa's, as its five entries debuted 0-4-1. You have to go back to 1986 before a round of openers didn't include an African upset. This poor showing may have been ordained once African nations with recent World Cup success--Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal--didn't survive qualifying. Instead, four World Cup rookies did (along with Tunisia), and all four--Ivory Coast, Ghana, Angola, Togo--struggled in opening losses. But once the early nerves subsided, some success ensued. First, Angola held Mexico to a scoreless tie. Then Ghana pulled of the tournament's stunner, whipping the Czech Republic, 2-0. There is demonstrably more first-class talent in Africa than ever. When World Cup 2010 is held in South Africa, its impact should arrive full force.

Russia in 2010: Former U.S. national team manager Bora Milutinovic set the standard, guiding a record five different national teams--Mexico and Costa Rica before the U.S. stint, Nigeria and China after--in consecutive World Cups with considerable success. Guus Hiddink is his very worthy successor. The Dutchman steered the brilliant run of host South Korea to the 2002 semifinals. This time around he guided Australia to its first World Cup in 32 years. His team showed remarkable composure; after falling behind Japan as a result of an officiating error, the 'Roos rallied for three goals in the final 10 minutes and victory. It may be premature, but here's betting on Russia to reach South Africa in 2010. Hiddink is already signed as Russian team manager

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