Archie Bland on World Cup 2014: You don’t get 'plucky' teams where the pundits have heard of all the players

Algeria were not ‘plucky’ losers in Brazil only to be patronised by the likes of Adrian Chiles – that extra-time defeat would have hurt

They are perennial World Cup underdogs. When it comes down to it, in the final rounds you’d rather watch the truly world-class performers than them. But there’s no doubt that the persistent efforts of this valiant bunch illuminate the tournament. Short though they are on talent, destined though they are to defeat, you have to admire their bloody-mindedness: even though their efforts rarely meet with success, they show up every four years and take another crack. There’s only one word for them, really: plucky.

I am referring, of course, to ITV Sport. They’re bound to lose out to the BBC in the ratings war when we get to the semis and the final, but it’s always entertaining to watch their efforts in the meantime. This status, though, does sometimes make you wonder if they ought to desist from pushing their luck when labelling others as no-hopers. So it was on Monday night, when they broadcast Algeria’s epic clash with Germany, a match which finished 2-1 to the Europeans after extra time.

In a pretty even contest, the Algerians demonstrated that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider them one of the 16 best teams in the world, and certainly in better form than the likes of Italy, Portugal, Spain and England, all of whom they have outlasted in the tournament.

Sadly, Adrian Chiles and Andy  Townsend, those footballing seers of our age, couldn’t quite shake off their overwhelming sense that these guys, being African and not very famous, couldn’t actually be good. Instead, any achievement they managed would be defined as a matter not of technique or talent or tactics, but of heart and guts and balls.

Andre Schurrle scores for Germany against Algeria Andre Schurrle scores for Germany against Algeria  

A bit earlier, Glenn Hoddle had referred to Algeria as Al Jazeera. As the match reached its climax, Townsend, not to be outdone, kept betraying his ignorance of the underdogs’ qualities by congratulating them on their trouble-free completion of fairly straightforward bits of play. “Well done,” he said, as they passed the ball across the midfield. He was using the idly marvelling tone that you might direct at a tortoise doing star jumps: not indifferent to the achievement, but confident that it will ultimately prove inconsequential.

The game ended. Chiles, a man who may feel he knows a stout-hearted underdog when he sees one, fell back on the only cliché that anyone is ever interested in under the circumstances. “‘Plucky’ is the word that we’re going to have to use to describe the Algerians,” he said regretfully. “You only ever use the word ‘plucky’ when you’ve just narrowly lost, don’t you? You don’t get plucky winners.”

Algeria's soccer fans celebrate a victoryearlier in the tournament Algeria's soccer fans celebrate a victoryearlier in the tournament  

This is nearly right. Except: you don’t actually have to use it, Adrian: you can say anything you want. Also, you don’t get “plucky” teams where the pundits have heard of all the players. And you don’t get “plucky” teams where those watching acknowledge that they have a right to believe they can win.

One wonders what they would have made of England’s performances had they been in Algeria’s lime green colours. Something like: They’ll be sorry not to have got the rewards their whole-hearted efforts deserved in the first two games, Clive. But a point against Costa Rica, that’s a very creditable performance. They’ll be heading home with their heads held high.

 

This is what’s so annoying about this whole approach – which is, to be fair, not exclusively deployed by ITV Sport, though Townsend is a particularly adept practitioner: it ignores the endless evidence that, actually, teams like Algeria often do have a shot. Winners like Denmark in Euro 92, Greece in Euro 2004; World Cup semi-finalists like South Korea and Turkey in 2002, and Bulgaria and Croatia in 1994 and 1998; and any number of unfancied teams who have escaped the group stage at the expensive of grander rivals. In this tournament alone, we’ve had Costa Rica and the US, Greece and Nigeria. Would Townsend have made the Costa Rican starting XI in his heyday? I doubt it. And I’m pretty sure Adrian Chiles would have struggled as well.

Joel Campbell, battling Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, has caused headaches for many defences at this World Cup AP Joel Campbell, battling Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, has caused headaches for many defences at this World Cup AP  

None of this is to say that it’s wrong to enjoy the achievement of an underdog. If anyone in the punditry business is looking for a way to do this, let me offer one basic rule of thumb: don’t suggest that they won’t be devastated when they lose. No one is ever just there to make up the numbers.

Perhaps, too, the punditocracy might discover a slightly less patronising tone if they could reconsider what, in a tournament like this, constitutes an underdog. In club football, when every outfit is so well-oiled, the effervescence of an individual talent might make all the difference; in the international game, where players get so much less time together, the basic prerequisite of an efficient team unit is far less likely to be guaranteed. If we keep this in mind, we might reach the disappointing conclusion that, by any meaningful criterion, England simply aren’t as good as Algeria, or the US, or Costa Rica. Plucky those other teams may be, but that’s not all they are. And, as the Algerians know, even if Andy Townsend doesn’t: in the end, you make your own pluck.

Brazil has seen world-class ability at blaming referees

There are always novel ways of impugning a referee’s integrity, and so it has proved at this World Cup, where at least two managers have resorted to an unlikely last resort: varieties of continental and linguistic xenophobia. First it was the Mexico coach Miguel Herrera, who attributed the controversial penalty decision won by the Netherlands in added time at the end of their second-round match to the fact that the referee, Portugal’s Pedro Proenca, was “from the same confederation as Holland”. And then we had Jürgen Klinsmann, who, ahead of last night’s tie between the US and Belgium, expressed his concern that the referee, Algeria’s Djamel Haimoudi, might be partial because “Algeria came from the same group as Belgium and he speaks French like their players”.

Generously, Klinsmann promised to give him the “benefit of the doubt”. Whether Haimoudi is a good referee or not, Klinsmann’s objection, like Herrera’s, is an obvious attempt at deflection. In the Premier League, both men would be in hot water; at the World Cup, no penalty seems likely to apply. And so managers will carry on deflecting blame for their own failings with impunity. Where will this end, you wonder? And if Howard Webb ever takes charge of a US game in the future and gives them a dodgy penalty, will Jürgen be quite so morally censorious?

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