World Cup goal-fest

Vitoria, Brazil: With 37 goals in its first 11 matches, the Brazil World Cup is confounding expectations – and making the dreamers smile.

Brazil is, of course, known as the home of the Jogo Bonito – the beautiful game – and anyone who watches soccer will tell you there is nothing more beautiful and emotional than a goal.

Long range screamers, powerful headers, intricate passing movements. Goals created by moments of individual brilliance, or brought about by catastrophic defending.

Even those generated by horrific refereeing errors or the awarding of soft penalties.
This tournament, in its first few days, has, in relative terms, been awash with them. Only one game, Mexico’s 1-0 win over Cameroon, has had less than three goals – and there were three disallowed goals in that game.

The standout, of course, was the six goals in the most surprising result of the tournament so far, the Netherlands’ 5-1 demolition of reigning world champion Spain. Had Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie (the two Robbies, one assumes) been even more ruthless or fortunate in the dying minutes of the Dutch team’s relentless attack on the hapless Spaniards they could have scored even more.

It’s almost axiomatic in tournaments such as this that teams set their stall out not to lose the first game, as it makes qualification far harder. Yet in all these fixtures teams were going for it, looking to impose themselves from the start.

That has been one of the features of the early games – how the big players in the big teams have largely stood up and been counted.

Robben and van Persie bagged two apiece for the Dutch in their humiliation of Spain. Neymar’s brace gives him a platform to challenge for the Golden Boot. When evergreen veteran Didier Drogba came off the bench Ivory Coast was trailing Japan: shortly after it was 2-1 up, and although Drogba didn’t score himself, his presence was surely inspirational.

Chile’s Alexis Sanchez was electrifying as he scored one and set up another in his side’s 3-1 win over Australia, while the Socceroos’ talisman, Tim Cahill, once more rose to the occasion, literally and metaphorically, when he climbed higher than Gary Medel to head Australia back into the game.

And Mario – ‘‘why always me’’ Balotelli, frustrating and endearing in equal measure, stepped up the plate for the Azzuri and reinforced his status as Italy’s major striker when he headed home the winner against England. In fact, just about the only highly touted player not to deliver so far has been England’s Wayne Rooney.

That then, is one factor in the early goal glut. The top men buying in right from the start and delivering. The other, it could be argued, is the way soccer works. It is far easier to set up to defend than to attack and over the course of a league campaign we can see the benefits for club teams who practice what the professionals call defensive ‘‘shape’’. They train and prepare for all sorts of eventualities through drills and repetition so that when they are under attack, their defensive structure and patterns are activated as a reflexive action.

In World Cups, though, preparation time is at a minimum. Australia went into its match against Chile, for example, having used four different centre-back combinations in its last four games.

When defences have weeks and months to work on shape, the likelihood is they will know these players better and have more practice at closing down space and shutting their avenues to goal. The last World Cup returned an average of 2.27 goals per game, and the trend has been for low-scoring games since the 1990 edition in Italy.

The start in Brazil has been auspicious, so let’s hope that these opening matches have not simply been anomalies but the shape of the rest of the tournament.

The story World Cup goal-fest first appeared on WA Today.

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