No, you can't have your game back

The power shift: No team will ever be able to approach a World Cup again living on reputation and presuming easy scalps
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The Independent Online

One of the joys of this dotty World Cup has been that, for three blessed weeks, no one has mentioned the Champions' League or the Premiership. That is until, emerging into the rain after Japan's defeat by Turkey last week, I encountered a well-respected and highly knowledgeable English television commentator. Now, admittedly, a long queue and the absence of taxis did not help my mood, but his suggestion that the standard of the match was worse than the Champions' League hit a raw nerve.

One of the joys of this dotty World Cup has been that, for three blessed weeks, no one has mentioned the Champions' League or the Premiership. That is until, emerging into the rain after Japan's defeat by Turkey last week, I encountered a well-respected and highly knowledgeable English television commentator. Now, admittedly, a long queue and the absence of taxis did not help my mood, but his suggestion that the standard of the match was worse than the Champions' League hit a raw nerve.

What I saw from Japan was a young team giving absolutely everything in a vain attempt to fulfil the rising and largely unrealistic expectations of its people. This was only Japan's second World Cup and the first time they have progressed to the second stage, but because the opposition were Turkey and not Brazil or Germany, the absurd belief had grown that Japan could reach the quarter-final.

They might have done had a few things gone their way, but you could see the tension on their faces. Amid such pressure, their performance was not far short of heroic. It certainly did not deserve unfavourable comparison with a bloated and overhyped competition like the Champions' League. The emotional commitment of Japan in those 90 minutes was worth three months of the "decaffeinated" football served up for television consumption on midweek winter evenings.

Most Champions' League games are played to a set formula, even down to collusive refereeing. I fall over, you whistle. Most of the players play within themselves. Roberto Carlos admitted as much when he talked of pacing himself through a season. The Italians approached the World Cup as if it was just another Champions' League match. By the time they found that the opposition would not go quietly to their fate, they were on the plane home, blaming everyone from the Ecuadorian referee to the South Korean goalscorer, who was immediately dismissed from his employment at Perugia. Nothing exposed Italy's isolation more completely than that futile gesture. But then the Italians spent the month before the World Cup arguing about whether or not the players should sing the national anthem.

Arsène Wenger's view that international football would eventually be submerged by the relentless demands of clubs has been exposed over the past three weeks. Fifa, worried by the number of injuries to big-name players – and the potential loss of sponsorship revenue – have commissioned a study to determine the exact correlation between fatigue and injury. It is an impossible task. Clubs from Germany, Spain and England featured most heavily in the latter stages of the Champions' League, but those countries all reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup. No Italian club qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions' League. Raul missed only two games for Real Madrid last season yet has been one of the most effective European players in the tournament. The difference is not physical, it is mental, a matter of good coaching and motivation.

Senegal have certainly benefited from the relative freshness of their players. The goalkeeper, Tony Sylva, had played two league games for Monaco in seven seasons, many of the others had not been regularly involved in league action. But that does not fully explain their riotous progress to the last eight. Ronaldo's zest for the game, such a contrast from four years before, was rekindled during his long lay-off through injury, through the realisation that playing football was not such a bad way to earn a living after all.

The South Koreans have been in training camp for the past three months, the US players are almost exclusively recruited from the sub-par MSL. All those teams are well organised, fit and ready to expose the pretensions of teams who are living on reputation. No team will ever be able to come into a World Cup again presuming some easy scalps.

The claim of the US coach, Bruce Arena, that the football world has shrunk needs more conclusive proof than the uprising of some lesser nations in a tournament held a long way from the strongholds of the game. Conditions have favoured the new democracy. But the concern for European teams is that South Korea's brand of all-action football has been far more technically and tactically advanced than anything produced by any European side. Dettmar Cramer, the veteran German coach acknowledged as the godfather of Japanese football, summed up thus: "The football is good, the matches have been exciting, but technically and tactically, I have learnt nothing new."

Guus Hiddink, the only Dutchman involved in the tournament, has taken his free-form tactics from his Holland side in 1998 and grafted them on to the tenacious and super-fit South Koreans. Ironically enough, Hiddink's ambitions, a fluid brand of attacking football which relied on rotation, reached their peak in Marseilles when Holland beat South Korea 5-0 and five different players scored the goals. The Koreans were mesmerised and appointed Hiddink as their coach.

Only the South Koreans themselves, under the guidance of Hiddink, have approached that level of sophistication in this tournament, which says something about the tactical sterility of the major nations. Some serious thinking needs to be done in the corridors of the Italian, French and English federations. Even the Germans are not exempt from the criticism, though their desperately ordinary side have reached the semi-finals.

In announcing his departure as the national coach, Philippe Troussier spoke of the need for the Japanese Football Federation to build on the foundations laid down over the last four years, a theme taken up by the president of the JFA. "We are fighting a war against baseball," said Shun-Ichiro Okano. "The people can now see that we compete at international level but, most of all, they realise that football is a world game, and that Japan can be a part of it." Football is changing, the centre of power is shifting and the sooner we in Europe realise it and emerge from the comfortable cocoon of the Champions' League the better.

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