James Lawton: Intercontinental mix nurtures hopes of vintage tournament

The first three days have hinted that a new generation is ready to refresh the global game
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The Independent Online

World Cups have been known to dwindle on the vine faster than grapes hit by a freak frost but this 18th celebration of the world game may be one of the sturdier and, just possibly, more brilliant vintages.

Indeed, already two teams have produced football as crisp and as satisfying as the very best Riesling. With perfect geographic balance, Argentina and the Netherlands have raised the flags of South America and Europe with moments of breathtaking pace and accomplishment.

Ivory Coast, going down to the second favourites Argentina while displaying wonderful athleticism and skill, have said the African revolution is still alive and, by way of the most unexpected bonus, from the Caribbean, of all allegedly happy-go-lucky places, there has been the steel of ambition from Trinidad & Tobago to do more than make up the numbers, even when reduced to 10 men against Sweden.

These are the makings of, at the very least, a memorable World Cup, if not a rival to some of the greatest of them, and already a formidable cast list of stars is taking shape.

There were times when Chelsea's enigmatic Arjen Robben was unplayable against the traditionally stern fighters of Serbia & Montenegro yesterday.

Released by the Netherlands' iconic young coach Marco van Basten from the leash imposed by Jose Mourinho, and given the chance to display all his gifts as an authentic and devastating wide player, Robben scored a goal of cutting brilliance, apart from providing a constant, threatening outlet to some wonderfully fluent teamwork. Again it is too early to be emphatic, to speak, for example, of the "total football" of Johan Cruyff; at this pointit would be an act of both impertinence and romantic optimism, but here is the kernel of a truly arresting team.

England? At the moment they are still at the bus stop, despite the 1-0 win over Paraguay. As the bracing action flowed before and after their laboured performance, there was surely a huge challenge laid down to the world-beating aspirations of such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Beckham and the still healing Wayne Rooney.

Some stars, even before Ronaldinho's Brazil launch their campaign tomorrow against Croatia, have already announced themselves.

Didier Drogba continues to fall down at frequent intervals, but in between he was a constant source of harassment to an Argentina brilliantly served by playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and goalscorers Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola.

For England's stuttering midfield there have already been striking examples of how young, nominally withdrawn players can be integrated into the flow of the best attacking play. Argentina's Javier Mascherano, Wesley Sneijder, of the Netherlands, and Kolo Touré's kid brother, Yaya, of Ivory Coast, have all shown that the functional work of binding together a team, something England's celebrated quartet, so signally failed to do for most of Saturday's game, is not necessarily a restraint on attacking initiative.

The point was, of course, made long ago by the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Franco Baresi and Bobby Moore, but here were practitioners of the art as fresh as a spring breeze, and with an average age of 22.

For the moment, though, the man who has extended his profile most excitingly is Robben. A likely force in the European Championship two years ago before becoming frustrated by the erratic decisions of coach Dick Advocaat, Robben seemed to be enjoying something of a rebirth in Leipzig when he performed so mesmerisingly in the 1-0 triumph over Serbia & Montenegro.

Robben may have deeply compromised his reputation with that shocking dive after being pushed by the Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina, but this was a dramatic redressing of the balance.

A thrilling force in his first emergence at Stamford Bridge, Robben at times has made no secret of his frustration at the restraints placed upon him by Mourinho.

For Chelsea he is obliged to tuck inside as they grind down opposition with their tight and relentless formation. For the Netherlands he is allowed to run as free as the most capricious wind, sometimes where his instinct takes him, but mostly on that terrain where his skills bring maximum dividend, which is wide, where teams can be stretched to their limits while you are also providing the vital gift of pace and shape to your own side.

Amazingly, Robben was able to do this without a whimper about the heat of Germany in early June. Why was this? Maybe because Van Basten, a player of imperious beauty and force when the Dutch claimed the European Championship so brilliantly in 1988 and Milan marched to two European Cups, has had the courage to challenge and in some cases discard the old guard of the dressing-room. He has invested in the invigorating force of youth, and he has liberated it.

The result is the kind of football that has sent great gusts of hope through these finals - even from the unlikely source of Ecuador, a team who are sneered at in South America for being merely capable of springing occasional ambushes in the high altitude and thin air of Quito.

There are doubts about the German hosts running as deeply as those provoked by England. But even if Jürgen Klinsmann's team revealed worrying fissures in defence - here at least England continue to pass a vital test - they did play with a passion and an aggressive instinct that has become the first, thrilling emblem of a World Cup that has cost the German taxpayer around €5bn (£3.55bn).

After the disappointments of recent tournaments, and the fear that big-time club football had drained the World Cup will of superstars like Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, there is thus a thrilling and decently founded hope. It is that the Germans may be in danger of getting value for money.

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